A Roomful of Elephants
What’s really wrong with America:
Ten Elephants in the Living Room
Last week I wrote about the “scandal overload” experience that I think is partly why our eyes tend to glaze over with every new major banking scandal. They’re hugely expensive, and raise crucial legal and political issues; and yet, I challenge any of my readers to find 20 people in Livingston County who can talk about the problem with any degree of clarity. And as I said in my later update, in both our daily lives and in current national- and state-level political campaigns, they’re the largely invisible elephant in the living room.
There are actually a number of elephants in the living room, though: issues of massive importance and consequence for every one of us, and for our children’s children, that might as well be invisible, judging from the national political agenda. So I’ve started a personal list of 10 Elephants. Think of this as a kind of manifesto. These are vitally important issues that we need desperately to be addressing now, nationally and locally, and demanding comprehensive action on. They are largely interrelated, often in complicated ways. They seem national or international, but they have significant local aspects. They will have massive local consequences in the next decade or two, major impact on our way of life and even life on the planet. They’re full-grown elephants, hanging around in our living rooms right now, largely ignored. Right now, we’re living in a roomful of elephants.
The list is below, and below that, I expand on them all. I’ve already written about some of them, and I’ll be writing about the others leading up to November, and I’ll dig in deeper. And lest readers get the idea that I do nothing but complain: In future weeks I’ll also be working on a list of “elephant guns,” actions that are urgently needed. Meanwhile, don’t take any wooden nickels, and don’t let them change the subject.
- Global Warming and Climate Change
- Drone Warfare – Causing the Next 9/11 (Wake Up Call: May 28, 2012)
- The Executioner President
- The National Surveillance State
- Military Spending – the “defense” myth
- Banking and Wall Street reform (Wake Up Call: July 21, 2012 and July 26, 2012)
- Two-tiered Justice
- Democracy RIP: Voter Suppression, Election Rigging, and Campaign Finance
- Unemployment (Wake Up Call: July 9, 2012)
- Media Consolidation, and the so-called “liberal media”
1. Global Warming and Climate Change
This is the mother of all elephants. Scientists are essentially unanimous. The basic data hasn’t changed for 10 years, although the detail has improved steadily. And the most recent evidence is, or should be, extremely alarming. (1) The amount of carbon we thought we could dump into the atmosphere safely was way high, and (2) it’s affecting the climate, and life on earth, much, much faster than even the pessimists thought it would. The window of opportunity for meaningful change is closing very fast, and may have already closed. The looming, irreversible consequences, coming soon: weather and conditions at home and across the globe that will be like science fiction.
By itself, this elephant trumps all the others below combined. If we don’t deal with this one, very quickly, we’re all screwed. I’ll be writing more about this one in coming weeks. Meanwhile, see Bill McKibben’s must-read article in Rolling Stone, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.”
2. Drone Warfare – Causing the Next 9/11 (Wake Up Call: May 28, 2012)
We have rained remote-control violence and indiscriminate killing on the Muslim world for 10 years, daily and weekly, increasingly via heavy reliance on drone warfare. This onslaught of drone violence will not prevent the next major terrorist attack. It will guarantee it. If the shoe was on the other foot, if we were treated that way by a foreign power, is there any doubt about how we would we react? Everyone on the ground, certainly, knows that this war enrages popular sentiment against the U.S., polarizes the region drastically, and strengthens the will, and the recruiting, of those aligned against us. It’s harder every day to believe, and to convince them, that we ourselves are not the bigger terrorists. See Glen Greenwald, “What might cause another 9/11?” and “U.S. again bombs mourners.”
3. The Executioner President
Fact: the leader of “the most transparent administration ever” has secret weekly White House meetings with a secret group who maintain a secret kill list of people to be targeted for killing. I am not making this up. People, including U.S. citizens, sometimes teenagers, are now targeted and executed at the whim of the president, far from any battlefield. This abuse of power is far more shocking than those of George W. Bush, and yet hardly anyone, of any political stripe, blinks an eye. It seems we only care about the Constitution when it says what we want to hear about our pet issue of the moment. The rest of the time, it doesn’t matter.
See the NY Times, “Secret ‘Kill List’…”; LA Times op-ed, “When the government kills”; The New Yorker this week, “Kill or Capture”; and Glenn Greenwald in Salon.com, “Excuses for assassination secrecy,”
It shouldn’t be necessary to ask this question, but if the president now has this kind of absolute power, then where will we be in 10 or 20 years? By then we may be seriously destabilized internally, given the likely climate and economic devastation, and the government will be under major challenge. We should be thinking very carefully about what kind of power we allow the government to take.
…and a related issue fits somewhere between #3 and #4, and perhaps in a future version will be elephant #11: Secret prisons, indefinite detention, and torture are now the established policies and practices of the U.S. government (Wake Up Call June 8, 2012). That, and kill lists, is who we have become. If this doesn’t produce a moral and political crisis, then we don’t deserve to utter the word “liberty” ever again.
4. The National Surveillance State
Since 9/11 there has been a massive expansion of the government’s surveillance powers, implemented in the name of the war on terror. It would be easy to turn this machinery on the U.S. population itself, and in fact, that’s already happening. Today, you can assume that absolutely none of your communications are private. Most people brush this off, thinking it won’t impact us if we’re not actually guilty of something. However, it is already being used heavily for political purposes, for example in the administration’s war on whistleblowers, aka anyone who challenges what the administration and its surrogates do, in any area whatsoever.
See Glen Greenwald, Salon.com, “The Obama administration’s war on privacy”; The New York Times, “U.S. Tries to Make It Easier to Wiretap the Internet”; Josh Lederman, Salon.com, “Surveillance requests to cellphone carriers surge.”
5. Military Spending – the “Defense” myth
“Defense” spending is a resource-sucking sacred cow conspicuously absent from virtually all the ranting about runaway government spending. Here are some facts about modern levels of U.S. military and non-DOD military spending that will be left out of any presidential debate or political discussion. For an excellent graphic, see Reuters.
- 2012 Total U.S. military and related spending = $1.030–$1.415 trillion (source)
- U.S. military budget = approximately 40% of global arms spending (source)
- 2012 military budget = 6 x (China + North Korea + and Iran) (source)
- 2012 military budget is 88 times larger than the “dangerous” Iran’s. (source)
- The U.S. and its close allies and proxies (Israel, etc) are responsible for two-thirds to three-quarters of the world’s military spending. Most of that is from U.S. tax dollars. (source)
It’s no disrespect to men and women in uniform to question our priorities and motives. It’s actually our responsibility to do so. Let’s at least stop lying to ourselves and each other, when we say this river of money is for defense. It’s not. It’s for offense. It’s so that we can have the best shot at making the rest of the world do what we say and give us what we want.
There are two aspects to the nest of financial and banking issues that threaten to drive the national and the global economies off the cliff – AGAIN. This elephant (#6) faces forward; the other (#7) faces back. Like everything else on this list, they are both vitally important and interrelated.
We got into the 2008 mess in large part through outright criminal fraud and corruption in the banking industry. It was the predicted result of systematic de-regulation over the last decade, an organized campaign to undo regulations that protected investors and stabilized banking and Wall Street since the Great Depression.
The High Priests of the Free Market want you to believe that government regulation is inherently evil. News Flash: there are a whole lot of good, important things that the free market simply will not do. It won’t prevent corporations from polluting, for example, and it won’t do a thing about global warming, and it won’t stop “too big to fail” bankers and Wall Street from coming up with the next insanely complicated way of blowing money and ripping us off. And a “free market” won’t give us a fair, stable banking system.
Dodd–Frank, the “sweeping banking reform” bill signed into law in 2010, was an empty, insider’s joke. The bill was weak to begin with; since it was passed, and as we speak, it’s being stalled to death and gutted piece by piece. This is because large corporate interests, in this case Wall Street and the banking industry, own Congress.
We urgently need real banking reform – regulations with real teeth, and real (not token) enforcement. Banks behave today pretty much in the same way they did in 2007 – like the world is their magic casino, where profits are privatized but losses are handed off to the public. If this elephant gets a pass, which it seems is happening, we’re all going to get screwed, big, again.
7. Two-tiered Justice
America was founded on the concept of the rule of law, the core value that the law applies equally to all. There are now two different sets of rules – or rather, laws that apply with more and more aggressive force to most of us, while the elites in business and government, up to the level of the President (see #3), can ignore them with impunity. This has everything to do with every elephant on this list.
Examples are everywhere. Here’s one: retroactive immunity for massive, flagrant illegal surveillance felonies committed by the U.S. telecom industry (EFF, here), who later went to congress, requested, and got, a world-class “get-out-of-jail-free” card: blanket retroactive immunity. Try asking your congressman for that, next time you get in trouble. And since they got retroactive immunity, btw, the surveillance program has exploded. Go figure.
Here’s another: not one responsible person from Wall Street and finance has ever been charged with, let alone convicted of, crimes related to the massive, well-documented criminal fraud that led up to and followed the financial collapse of 2008, which cost trillions of taxpayer dollars and millions of American jobs, and which you and I and our neighbors and our children are paying for, and will pay for, for decades.
Meanwhile, ordinary people who dare to complain about anything are treated with swat teams and paramilitary style violence (how come they look and act so much like soldiers? and where did they get all that cool soldier gear, anyway?) or given draconian jail terms for the most trivial crimes. Welcome to the third world. Still doubtful? This year, and not an isolated case: a black mother, homeless at the time of her “crime,” was convicted of a felony and sentenced to 5 years in prison (12, 5 with probation) for the offense of registering her child in a better school district. Let me say that again: Five years in prison.
8. Democracy RIP: Voter Suppression, Election Rigging, and Campaign Finance
Democracy itself is under attack, which threatens to eliminate what has historically been the single most useful tool available to ordinary people for demanding change. Add this up:
- The onerous Voter ID movement, a fake solution to a fake problem, gathering steam at the state level, which will intentionally disenfranchise large numbers of minorities and women, mostly in swing states. Women, by the way, will be disproportionately impacted because 90 percent of women change their names following divorce or marriage. Only 66 percent of women have an issued photo ID with their current name.
- Rigged and stolen elections, historically most notable in Florida 2000 and Ohio 2004.
- Citizens United. As if two years ago the amount of money in politics wasn’t bad enough, the 2010 U.S. Supreme court decision effectively removed all barriers to ownership of politicians by wealthy individuals and corporations, who are now free to spend vast sums to buy whoever they want with no constraints whatsoever.
The idea that we are in any meaningful sense a large-scale democracy, and can spread this gift to other countries, is just laughable. The truth is, “Democracy” is going the way of the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny.
9. Unemployment (Wake Up Call: July 9, 2012)
Since the economic crisis erupted in 2008, government response has been a continuing story of too little, too late. Most of the inadequate “investment” in recovery has gone into the wrong hands anyway. Welcome to the jobless recovery, and the beginning of the end of the middle class. This has been possible partly as a result of a deft maneuver in the media and the culture, high and wide, to convince us that the problem is that government is too big, that it spends too much. Wrong. In this environment, in these conditions, it spends too little.
Practically the lone sane voice in mainstream U.S. media is economist and NY Times columnist Paul Krugman (e.g., Keynes Was Right), who argues what should be obvious: “Slashing government spending in a depressed economy depresses the economy further; austerity should wait until a strong recovery is well under way.” Krugman’s voice, however, falls on the largely deaf ears of policymakers. After all, he’s one of those liberals.
And by the way: it’s ok to spend mountains of government (i.e. taxpayer) money on bank bailouts, endless war, and corporate welfare, but not on an effective, New Deal style jobs program, or a Manhattan Project for renewable energy.
10. Media Consolidation, and the so-called “liberal media”
This seems like an unlikely item for this list, but it’s a crucial structural problem that makes all the other elephants possible. The vast majority of U.S. media is now owned, ultimately, by six giant media conglomerates.
In 1983, fifty corporations dominated most of every mass medium and the biggest media merger in history was a $340 million deal. … In 1987, the fifty companies had shrunk to twenty-nine. … In 1990, the twenty-nine had shrunk to twenty three. … In 1997, the biggest firms numbered ten and involved the $19 billion Disney-ABC deal, at the time the biggest media merger ever. … In 2000 AOL Time Warner’s $350 billion merged corporation was more than 1,000 times larger than the biggest deal of 1983. (Ben Bagdikian, here)
In part, their primary purpose is to make money. On a larger scale, though, the media is a sophisticated propaganda machine. It controls and manages public opinion, and shapes what we focus our attention on and what we see as important. Who decided that Chinese badminton, and Chick‑Fil‑A’s anti-gay owners, were last week’s most important issues?
How many of us know that Mitt Romney’s renowned investment company, Bain Capital, owns and controls Clear Channel Communications? “The $26 billion merger, which was launched simultaneously with Romney’s first presidential candidacy in late 2006 … placed [Rush] Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and much of the talk-show right under Bain/Lee control” (here and here). Clear Channel owns over 850 radio stations, including most of the conservative talk radio in the country, and hosts such opinion leaders as Rush Limbaugh. Do we really need to explain how important that is?
Previous columns by Mike Williams
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