Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Separation of Economic Powers

The U.S. Constitution's separation of powers schema has been the topic of a considerable degree of discussion in hygiecratic circles. Not only does its tri-partite design perfectly mirror the structure of the Greek Fates (the three daughters of Necessity who, as one unified entity, represent force and power - contra Hygieia), even if it did manage to separate power - rather than merely stabilizing and preserving it - historical developments would have soon rendered such a separation impotent. For while the three branches of government ostensibly separate political power, they do nothing whatsoever to separate economic power; and while there has been a virtual plutocracy from the beginning of the U.S. republic, as the U.S. economy industrialized the economic powers of its wealthy classes grew by unprecedented bounds. Indeed, the United States' system of representational democracy, historically exclusive, in many respects represents the interests of the wealthy today to a degree that surpasses the concentration of power that the founders fought against in the 18th century.

In addition to the fact that a mere handful of conglomerates control virtually all of the newspapers, magazines, publishing houses, radio stations, television stations, movie studios, internet providers, and other mass media outlets on the planet - thereby possessing the power to determine the form and content of public opinion to an unprecedented degree - concentrated economic powers maintain their hegemonic position by tyrannical extensions of concentrated and diffused violence.

Beyond the concentrated violence of wars which are being fought for economic gain throughout the world, and the forces that are being extended domestically through the increasing militarization of police and their continuing abuses, the proliferation of prisons and historic levels of incarceration, this tyranny is responsible for an economic system that, among other things, is committing systematic ecocide. In addition to the general environmental destruction caused by endless production (unnecessary for human needs, but altogether vital for capitalism to function) and its attendant toxins, of those people "lucky" enough to have jobs at all, most ultimately succumb to altogether preventable occupational and stress-related diseases. Moreover, most of the money people manage to earn from these jobs is nearly instantly returned to the wealthy to service rents and other debts. To be sure, it is presently a widely known economic fact that in the United States the Top 400 people possess more wealth than the bottom 150,000,000 people combined, reflecting a disproportion of economic power that is hardly less than tyrannical.

Separating this concentration of economic powers is a matter of the most basic economic, social, and political justice. Not simply an issue of distributive justice, it is a matter of restorative justice as well since the resources gathered into such extreme concentrations of wealth were largely done so by way of systematic conquest, plunder, exploitation and wrongs requiring correction.

Because concentrations of economic power are inseparable from unjust conditions of poverty and disease, the health of the people of the world - which according to the maxim is the supreme law - requires a separation of economic powers no less than it requires a separation of political powers. To the degree that political arrangements reproduce conditions of political and economic inequality, they actively undermine conditions of health, harm the health of the people of the world, and demonstrate their own lack of legitimacy. As such, concentrations of power must be diffused so as to allow, among other things, all to possess conditions of health.

(conditions of health include, but are not limited to, collectively owned/free health care, housing, nutrition, education, communications, transportation, and unobstructed access to all other conditions necessary for health.)

Monday, July 23, 2012

Mortgages, Eminent Domain, the Police Power, and the Right to Housing

Since its appearance several weeks ago in early July, more and more attention is being focused on the perfectly legal plan of the people of the City of San Bernardino, California, to use their eminent domain power to bail themselves out of their disproportionate debt to their mortgagees (the banks).

As more and more people in San Bernardino are unable to make their mortgage payments - paying far more to the banks, it should be noted, than their homes are even worth - more and more mortgages are being foreclosed upon. As more and more people are being evicted from their homes following foreclosure sales, the increase in the vacant houses entering the housing market is further decreasing the value of those people's homes who aren't facing such crises. In addition to this consequence, one sees the further effect of the vacant homes falling into disrepair, further lowering not only their value but the value of the homes in the community in general. As such, there is an exponential downward spiral of diminishing home values, as well as of living conditions in San Bernardino.

Absent some type of intervention into this devaluation spiral, conditions for nearly all of the people of San Bernardino will only grow worse. Faced with few options, the City of San Bernardino has been considering using its eminent domain power to seize the devalued homes, paying just compensation to the owners of the mortgages. Because just compensation is the market value, rather than the housing-bubble-inflated value, the banks would lose a great deal of their (largely fraudulently derived) money should this plan come to pass. The city would then remortgage these homes at fairer, market values, allowing people to remain in their homes and correcting the exponential spiral of home devaluation.

One large question looms. How would the City of San Bernardino obtain the money to pay just compensation/market value to the banks for all of those homes? The answer is that the City of San Bernardino would borrow the money from a firm called Mortgage Resolution Partners. As a for-profit business, MRP are involved out of an interest in making a profit off of the whole affair. To be sure, using eminent domain to remortgage the homes was MRP's idea in the first place. It was they who approached the City of San Bernardino with the plan, selling it to them as a way to help the city out of its housing problem. Of course, the City of San Bernardino will have to pay MRP for their help, but in the long run they will wind up paying far less to MRP than to the banks.

While banks and their allies are howling that this is a horrible idea, that it will be destructive to the mortgage market and will damage contracts, raising constitutional issues involving the latter, among other things, those on the other side seem to think the plan to use eminent domain makes a considerable deal of sense and has few downsides. For example, Cornell University Law Professor Robert Hockett, one of MRP's advisers, argues that rather than harming markets, the eminent domain plan is actually a market-friendly way of responding to the issue since it will allow the market to correct itself. "This is actually a pro-market solution," he is quoted as saying in the Los Angeles Times article from July 6.

What appears to be overlooked in this story is the fact that the City of San Bernardino has an even stronger option than the utilization of their power of eminent domain. In some respects more powerful than the state's power of eminent domain is the state's police power. Unlike the power of eminent domain, though, which requires that the city pay just compensation to those whose properties have been seized, under its police power a city may regulate properties if doing so is necessary to protect the public health; and property regulations under the police power require no compensation at all if they are designed to prevent an "injury upon the community."

Because housing is a basic necessity, one which is necessary for people's health, it does not seem to be much of a stretch to argue that preventing deprivations of housing is necessary to protect the public health. And, so, because housing is fundamental to protecting public health, and the manner in which the banks have used their property is injurious to the community, and depriving people of homes is also injurious to the community, a popular government may use its police power to satisfy this public health need, regulating housing in a manner that prohibits evictions. While this could be construed to be a regulatory taking, limiting the banks' "right to exclude" which is a central right of property-holders, because it advances a compelling public interest in providing housing, and because the banks' property is burdened but no actual person's property or health is at all burdened, and because this type of regulation is necessary to prevent further injuries upon the community, it ought to fall within the city's police power to enact such a regulation. While those in possession of a property will be able to remain in possession, however, title will return to the banks. And though evictions from the property will be suspended, the occupants will be in adverse possession of the homes. As such, should the occupants satisfy the full statutory period for adverse possession, clean title can then be reconveyed to the occupants.

Because the public health requires housing, the City of San Bernardino (and not only the City of San Bernardino) ought to assert its police power - rather than its power of eminent domain - and so regulate those properties within its jurisdiction to prevent further injuries to the public health, allowing homes to be available to all. Of course, pursuit of such a path would require a revolutionary posture committed to a radical break from existing social relations.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Concentrated and Diffused Violence: Holmes, Drones, and Mass Murder

Version published on Counterpunch

In the aftermath of the most recent mass murder in the United States, the killing of twelve and the wounding of dozens of innocent moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado, one hears repeated expressions of bewilderment.

Beyond the calls for the execution of the perpetrator, and the pronouncements of his apparent insanity, beyond the stories of grieving families, the calls for stricter gun control laws, and pronouncements of sympathy for those suffering in Colorado, one sees above all the search for some type of explanation. People want this tragedy to make sense somehow, to understand it, and to thereby regain some measure of control over the situation and return to normalcy. The norm, of course, is the problem in the first place. 

One unfolding story recounts the efforts of police to enter the killer James Holmes' apartment. Believed to be booby-trapped, police hope to find clues among his effects that point to Holmes' motive. Once revealed, his motive can be regarded to some degree as the cause of the event. If such is the case, the cause can then be dismantled and order can be restored. But such is not the case. James Holmes is not the sole cause, or effect, of this violence, for this violence is not confined to Aurora, Colorado.

Once regarded as extremely anomalous, these mass killings now seem to occur somewhere in the U.S. every few years. And while these mass killings are notable for their concentrations of violence, to understand them it must not be overlooked that they arise from a social context in which violence, while often diffused and less dramatic, is nevertheless normal in this country. Beyond the mere representations of violence that one encounters in art and pop culture, which often are treated as scapegoats, daily life in the U.S. is organized according to degrees of pressure that amount to systematic, physical and psychological violence.

Among the calls for heightened gun control laws, it should be pointed out that far more lethal things than guns permeate our society. While it is widely recognized that these things cause vastly more harm than guns, for some reason the violence and death they wreak is considered somehow legitimate and acceptable. As such, even though car accidents, to focus on one quotidian example, daily produce on average numbers of fatalities that are the equivalent of the fatalities of six or seven Aurora-sized mass murders - and these occur every single day of every year - very few talk about initiating any type of 'car control.' Such a suggestion would most likely be met with ridicule and dismissed as unrealistic.

Traffic deaths, it will be pointed out, are distinct from gun deaths in several key respects. Among other things, the former are considered to be mere accidents while the latter are seen as intentional and, are therefore thought to be more egregious. A closer look, however, reveals that the relationship concerning intent is to some degree the reverse. On the level of policy making, for example, traffic deaths are, if not intentional, at least foreseeable, and could be prevented by specific policies, e.g. maximum speed limits of something like 10 miles per hour. Mass killings, on the other hand, though they may be committed intentionally by murderers, are, on the level of policy, less foreseeable and, as such, less preventable.

When one adds to the number of traffic fatalities the thousands who die annually of heart disease and cancers caused by traffic pollution - not to mention those who are injured in the oil extraction and production industry, including its military dimensions - the number grows substantially. These deaths, however, arise from violence that is even more diffused and, so, elicit minimal outcry, if any. But the fact of the matter is that these deaths occur not by accident so much as by a latent, de facto policy that sees such levels of violence as acceptable side effects of our economy's normal functioning. 

A profoundly significant aspect to the distinction between concentrated and diffused violence is the role the mass media plays in presenting information. Indeed, we largely see the world through this mediation. And the violence involved in a given story may be concentrated further or diffused further depending on the manner in which the story is framed. For example, the United States carries out regular drone attacks on targets in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen, among other places throughout the world. That many of these drone attacks kill civilians, causing just as much destruction and death as James Holmes' recent mass murder, are well-documented. Indeed, photographs of the shocked and traumatized people grieving in the immediate aftermath of these respective atrocities are remarkably similar. And it leads one to wonder whether it is not merely coincidental that the same culture that produces unthinking, unfeeling killing machines like drones, also produces unfeeling killers like Holmes. However, while the news industry concentrates a great deal of attention on the killings in Aurora, further (psychologically) concentrating the (physically) concentrated violence there, there is no comparable psychological concentration of the physically concentrated violence inherent in drone strikes. Rather, the relatively meager attention devoted to drone strikes serves to diffuse the physically concentrated violence involved, and rationalizations for their deployment diffuse the violence even further.

None of the above should be construed as providing any sort of justification for the gross horror of James Holmes' acts. Indeed, if there is anything to be learned at all from these murders it is perhaps that in general people are disgusted by violence in all of its manifestations. To be sure, in many respects it is only by way of complex ideological socialization and disinformation processes - further forms of diffusion - that this disgust of violence becomes disfigured from a rejection to an acceptance of violence. Those pronouncing their eagerness for a return to normalcy must recognize that this violence, both concentrated and diffused, is the norm. 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

On Bloomberg's Micro-Units and the Vacancy Tax

On Monday, July 9th, Mayor Michael Bloomberg (whose personal fortune has ballooned over the years of his mayoralty from 5 to 22 billion dollars) announced a new architectural design contest. Contestants are encouraged to submit plans for new, tiny residential apartments. These 'efficiencies', it is remarked, are being designed for single people who live alone. This demographic, Bloomberg explained, is making up an increasingly large percentage of the city's tenants; most apartments, meanwhile, are built for multiple tenants. Ostensibly designed to meet this growing need, these 'micro-units' will be between 275 and 300 square feet. That this size violates the housing law stipulating that residential units shall not fall below 400 square feet is not important to Bloomberg. Implemented in the reform era following the publication of Jacob Riis' epochal How the Other Half Lives, which exposed the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions of the millions living in the city's tenements, these housing laws were tailored to eliminate some of the most serious harms, and diseases, endemic to life in densely populated urban areas. That they are very often unenforced even today ought to be addressed. Instead, like other regulations protecting public health, they are being rolled back.

Bloomberg's statement that the housing laws requiring minimum sizes were implemented in a different era - one which saw more people living together as families, compared to today's world of atomized, single people - and are therefore anachronistic overlooks a nexus of important historical, economic and demographic facts. Rather than moving out of the city to fulfill some sort of middle-class dream of suburban lawns and large automobiles, families have largely been forced out of New York City over the past few decades by economic policies such as these - policies that favor real estate developers, and the rich, over everyone else.

More than a policy designed to create new housing, this is foremost a redistribution of resources that will allow for far more rent to be collected by the landlords of this city. in other words, it is primarily a profit-making enterprise. That it meets housing needs at all is in many respects incidental. That the result will be to further decrease living standards, and the general health, is overlooked as well.

Among the many issues raised by this contest, there are far simpler ways to create housing for people than building these micro-units. It is well documented by the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development that, beyond apartments that are undergoing repairs or are otherwise uninhabitable, there are tens of thousands of vacant apartment units throughout the city that are available to meet the housing demand. These apartments, however, just sit vacantly, largely because their owners do not want to see the price of rent decline.

Instituting a vacancy tax of 100% of the going market rate on these vacant units would not only immediately open up housing, the increase in supply would lower the overall rent of apartments as well - contributing further to the creation of affordable housing. While such a policy would be very good for tenants, it would eat into the wealth of the owners. As such, this reasonable and easily implemented policy is being ignored in favor of this micro-unit plan which benefits the welfare of the rich, to the detriment of the 'general welfare.'

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Melancholia: The End of a World, Not the World

While his latest film, Melancholia, appears to deal with the end of the world, Lars von Trier has expressly stated in an interview that it is not about the end of the world; rather, he said, it is about a state of mind.

With its lush effects and languid pacing, the movie has struck many as being decidedly dreamlike. As such, it does not seem to be much of a stretch to see the film as expressing the subconscious -- or unconscious -- anxieties of the rich, as a class, who fear not the end of the world so much, but the end of their world.

It is immaterial whether this anxiety is intentionally expressed, or not. We will examine it as a symptom, or set of symptoms. Indeed, in the year 2012 it is hard not to see this type of anxiety in the wide array of symbols that are employed throughout Melancholia.
The movie begins with a prologue which shows, among other things, the planet being destroyed in a collision with the larger planet Melancholia. Before this occurs, however, we are submitted to, among other images, several shots of dead birds falling to the ground in slow motion -- reminding one of the mysterious mass bird deaths that occur from time to time in the present age of global warming. Additionally, the part of the Earth that directly collides with Melancholia is Africa -- the part of the world that is arguably experiencing the worst ravages of the capitalist-bourgeois economic order.

After the prologue, Part One, Justine, begins. Justine and her new husband are heading to their wedding reception in a limousine. There is something allegorical in the limousine's inability to navigate its way. The car is too big to negotiate the narrow roads, frustrating its own raison d'etre. At any event, the couple arrive at the castle -- Sweden's Tjoloholm Castle, surrounded by a golf course -- and Justine is greeted by her sister and brother-in-law who are angry at the newlywed's tardiness. Justine has hardly finished apologizing when she is distracted by a star in the night sky. What is that red star? she asks. Her brother-in-law, John, replies that it is merely Antares.

What appears to be a red star, however, is in fact the looming planet Melancholia. It is hard not to be reminded, in the year of Occupy Wall Street, among other uprisings, that the Red Star is an almost cliched symbol of popular revolution -- i.e., something decidedly hostile to the rich, and to the castle.

Justine at first seems to be enjoying the lavish wedding party, but it is not long before she begins to withdraw into a deep depression. In one striking scene Justine is alone in a study, looking at art books opened to images by the Russian painter Kazimir Malevich. She suddenly tears down these images deeply associated with the Russian Revolution and the Red Star and quickly replaces them with ones by the very non-revolutionary Klimt, the counter-reformation painter Caravaggio, and Pieter Breughel, the elder. This is hardly the only allusion to the bourgeoisie.

One scene toward the end of Part One involves a wedding tradition in which guests are asked to guess the number of beans collected in a bottle -- literally becoming bean counters. Bean counters, of course, have long been associated with accounting and economics. Interestingly, there are only two people in the entire wedding who seem at all concerned about honoring this tradition: the wedding organizer (who directly profits from these rituals) and the one character in the film who does not appear to be wealthy: the servant, a butler named Little Father. Given that Melancholia, one of the four humors of medieval physiology, is associated with the skills of counting, numbering, and measuring (particularly the activities of counting money and measuring land), this scene functions, albeit obliquely, irrespective of von Trier's intentions, as a critique of consumerist ideology. Aside from the butler (the only character who is a member of the working/serving class) and the wedding planner, no one is interested in participating in the game, yet the game proceeds nonetheless. Indeed, by the end of Part One, Justine has detonated her just launched marriage and destroyed her hitherto valued career.

Part two, named for Justine's sister Claire, begins with Justine returning to the castle after what seems to have been a relatively brief absence. Unlike the first part, which featured a wide variety of characters, Part Two has only five: Justine, Claire, Claire's husband John, their child Leo, and the butler.

While Justine spends most of Part Two in various stages of withdrawal and depression, Claire worries about what is now known to be the advancing planet Melancholia. Invoking the authority of mainstream science, John insists that her anxiety (which led her to buy a bottle of lethal pills) is simply paranoia and that, on the contrary, the passing of Melancholia will be a glorious, once in a lifetime experience -- meanwhile, we see John stashing emergency supplies in the garage.

In one scene Claire, seeking to comfort her increasingly depressed sister, decides to prepare Justine's favorite meal for dinner, meatloaf. After Justine takes her first bite, however, she begins to weep, exclaiming that the meatloaf tastes like ashes.

That is, this quintessential Middle Class dish has become fused with a symbol of death in general and one of the bourgeoisie's most unforgettable crimes -- Nazism's crematoria -- in particular. Less hypothetically, the colossal wastefulness of beef production, of which Justine is likely aware, involves large-scale deforestation deforming sensitive eco-systems into millions of tons of ashes annually.

When he finally realizes that the Earth is in fact doomed, John wastes little time purloining his wife's pills and killing himself. In a scene that evokes Caravaggio's Conversion of Saint Paul on the Road to Damascus, Claire finds John's corpse in the stable. Meanwhile, the butler has disappeared, presumably having left the castle for the village, which we are notably never shown.

In a scene toward the end of the film, a panicking Claire attempts to flee with her son to the village. Although the family's cars won't start, she gets their electric golf cart running and leaves. Due to natural forces, however, they cannot make it and are forced to return to the castle on foot. Upon their return they find Justine calmly waiting for them. Admonishing Claire for attempting to leave, Justine says: "This has nothing to do with the village."

This ambiguous statement may be interpreted to mean that the world's destruction has nothing to do with the village. Not only did the village not cause the destruction of the world -- something that the the citadel, and cities, are responsible for -- but the village is in some respects another world entirely, and one that Justine and Claire are restricted from entering. To be sure, while the capitalist class may have originated in the village, they have long since taken over the world and now rule from the castle (indeed, the film's castle is surrounded by the typically bourgeois golf course). The village, according to this construction, is not simply a place, it is also a relatively innocent time. Perhaps this is why the viewer is repeatedly shown the medieval village in Pieter Breughel's painting The Hunters in the Snow.

The film concludes with Justine and Leo collecting sticks with which to construct a magic cave that (so Leo thinks) will protect them from the arriving planet. Having collected these sticks, they arrange them into a sort of teepee (a too-late neo-primitivism?) and the three of them sit inside of it as their world is devoured by Melancholia.

While it is unlikely that Lars von Trier intended that his film should express a certain type of anxiety attending capitalist destructiveness -- a certain "state of mind" -- it is uncanny that all of these symbols (Red Star, Malevich, Melancholia, Meatloaf as ashes, Bean counters, etc.) not only appear in Melancholia, but are also ordered into a narrative so amenable to such an interpretation. Of course, destructiveness is not strictly the purview of the capitalists. At this point in time, however, it does seem that the capitalist world is, indeed, consuming itself into oblivion.

Elliot Sperber is a writer, lawyer, and teacher. He lives in New York City.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The U.S. as Seen through Stone's Savages

While the natural world and the political world are seething and bubbling in turmoil, you wouldn't know it if you lived in the Republican paradise of Laguna Beach, Orange County, California. Oliver Stone's latest film, Savages, begins in this setting of multi-million dollar mansions rising from the hills and cliffs. There, looking down onto the Pacific, the narrator, a young woman named Ophelia, begins to inform us of her story. But while her name is the same as Shakespeare's Ophelia, the similarities don't go much farther. Shakespeare's Ophelia, it should be noted, was notoriously rejected by Hamlet. This Ophelia, however, is not rejected at all. In addition to being the paramour of two young men, much of the film revolves on not rejecting, but rescuing her.

While there appear to be two men in Ophelia's life, in many respects each is really half of a person. Only together do they they create a whole one. As she puts it at the film's beginning, one is hot and one is cold. She could have also said that one is red, and the other is blue. Indeed, it is not difficult to see the two young men - Ben and Chon - as the two faces of US power. Chon is an Afghanistan and Iraq war vet who, among other scars of war, seems to be suffering from PTSD. A war vet, he represents the Republicans. Ben, on the other hand, having double-majored in botany and business at that hotbed of elitist, liberal thought, UC Berkeley, represents the Democrats. He is both a scientist and a businessperson. Well, actually, Chon is a businessman, too. The two are partners. And like the Democrats and the Republicans, the two young men see the world through the lens of business. In their military, science, and business specializations, they are to some degree a microcosm of the military-industrial complex as well. Partners, hot and cold, dark and light - because the two are one, they can share the love of one young woman with no visible conflict, able to afford to live in this stupendously affluent beach-side paradise is because of the fact that the two young men enjoy a stupendously successful marijuana business.

Each possesses specific talents. But while Ben is an intelligent botanist, able to cultivate exceptionally sought-after marijuana, he suffers from certain liberal delusions. At one point he even expresses his conviction that the world can be changed simply by supplying people with ten-dollar solar panels and fourteen dollar laptops. The ex-soldier Chon merely scoffs at this notion that the world can be saved through liberal business ventures. Recognizing that business and war are very much the same thing, and that successful business is always subtended by violence, he advocates the use of force and violence to achieve the partners' business aims. And as is the case with American politics, when push comes to shove Chon's violent measures prevail over Ben's limited objections - in the end, Chon's (the republicans) plans are the ones taken with Ben's (the democrats) full support. Still, Chon would be nowhere without the idealistic, technically competent, bourgeois businessperson of Ben.

While its meaning is not entirely clear, it is difficult to miss the recurrence of this motif of the double in Savages. Beyond the double lovers of O, and the double-major of Ben, there are double kidnappings, double-crossings, and even a surprise double toward the end of the film which I will not divulge. Moreover, there is the double war of Afghanistan and Iraq, which is of particular interest considering Stone's oeuvre. To be sure, it is not difficult to see why Stone would be attracted to this story - adapted from Don Winslow's novel. In many ways the story links the themes pervading Stone's work as a whole: war (Platoon, etc.) and business (Wall Street). Until Savages, war vets and businesspeople have occupied different roles in Stone's work and have been relegated to different films. In Savages they are blended. And perhaps this shows a more sophisticated, cynical, and subtle political critique on Stone's part.

For example, unlike the vets of Stone's Born on the Fourth of July, the vets in Savages do not return to a country embroiled in an anti-war and civil rights movement. They do not tune in, turn on, and drop out to join a "counter-culture," and/or demonstrate against the patriarchal state. Rather, they return to a country that seems oblivious to the fact that there are (aside from the war on drugs) wars raging around the world at all - or, perhaps, there is awareness of this, but it is entirely normal - the new obvious normal that doesn't surprise. As such, rather than fighting against the state, these vets take the far more simple (business) tack of simply paying it off - bribing the DEA agent, played by Travolta, to leave them alone to grow rich dealing in the shadow economy. So, though they might appear to be living in and promoting the "counter-culture" in their own way, unlike their Vietnam-era analogues they are ultimately not bucking the status quo at all. For Chon and Ben, marijuana represents a commodity - they are not giving it away. As businessmen, they are out to make a buck, and are more or less at peace with the state - or have at least reached a type of detente - through their agreement with Travolta's Dennis. So, they are businessmen, not visionaries. Indeed, in these respects they are much like Steve Jobs - businessman-confused-for-visionary par excellence. And like Steve Jobs, they engage with the "counter-culture" as businessmen, to make money. Sure, Ben may feel as though he is doing something good for the world through his business pursuits. But at the end of the day both he and Chon are worried about the bottom-line, employing a large staff of employees and bankers, and doing nothing to rock the bourgeois boat. As "enlightened entrepreneurs" like Jobs, they are also adherents of the type of hedonistic Buddhism that, as Slavoj Zizek argues, is the prevailing ideology of the day. In fact, by the middle of the film Chon is quoting the Dalai Lama (that proponent of aristocracy) to bolster support for his argument for a more violent approach to solving their problem.

To some degree, their problem stems from the fact that they are just such good businessmen. Because their product is so outstanding, the fictitious Baja Cartel - headed by Elena (Salma Hayek) - decides that it just must absorb their business. In an acquisition not too distant from Gordon Gecko's hostile takeovers, the cartel begins to exert pressure. Analogies are drawn again and again to WalMart and other corporate practices, which ought to be enough to demonstrate that these two - and those they represent in the real world - are by no means revolutionaries. When our heroes, the two that are one, don't go along with the plan, their lover, O, is kidnapped. The rest of the film involves their attempt to get her back. Enlisting Dennis's reluctant help, the two that are one embark upon a plan to rescue O. As I don't want to ruin the film, I will divulge no more of the story.

In the end, Savages is entertaining but suffers from a variety of buffoonishness. While there are interesting parallels between Chon and Ben and American political-economy, and between the Vietnam War vets of Stone's earlier films and the mostly (intentionally?) anonymous vets of Savages, there is little else to chew on. Perhaps the most interesting thing to see is the Afghanistan and Iraq War vets employment of guerilla tactics picked up in the wars - notably the use of IEDs - to further the rescue of O. Among other things, this may lead one to consider whether today's vets - who possess these martial skills - will ever use them in the U.S., as is done in the film. And, if they do, will they be used to further the interests of warlords and businesspeople, like some 21st century sort of Freikorps? Or will they become political in a meaningful way, furthering a politics of liberation - as opposed to its mere semblance in the hedonism business - like the vets in Stone's other movies? I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

John Quincy Adams and the Conditions of Health

People don't discuss John Quincy Adams' presidency much these days. The sixth president sat in the Oval Office from 1825 until Andrew Jackson replaced him in 1829. And while Adams was by no means a saint, and many things have changed in the nearly two hundred years since his administration, there is one thing that John Quincy Adams advocated that makes a great deal of sense today. He advocated the development of a national university system. If such a system were built today it would not only ameliorate the problem of unemployment, it could significantly contribute to the production and reproduction of conditions of health - including that which is a constitutive aspect of such conditions, the development of self-government and autonomy.

One wouldn't even have to raise new funds to construct such a national university system. It would only require reallocating existing energies and resources. To be sure, the energy and resources it takes to finance the wars alone could be shifted into this national university project. Such a public works program - constructing campuses in every moderately large city, as well as in rural areas across the continent - would not only create much needed jobs, it would infuse a great deal of money into communities and local economies, and repair the country's infrastructure in a manner that would strengthen conditions of health, creating conditions of actual justice. Moreover, once up and running, the various campuses' departments would continue to employ countless instructors, technicians, administrators, librarians, and others, providing vital services to communities. In fact, all of a community's requirements could be taken care of, for free, through collective participation in these colleges.

Because it would be a public university system, owned by everyone, no tuition would be charged. Additionally, the national university system's medical schools, clinics, agricultural departments, engineering departments, and other facilities, like art departments and cinema departments, among others, would provide world-class resources and services for all to use as each community saw fit - provided they comport with conditions of health. Indeed, such a network of campuses could do a great deal to produce and reproduce the conditions of health, and eliminate the conditions of disease, that - according to the maxim - it is a society's duty to accomplish.

Friday, July 6, 2012

June Jobs and a Basic Income Law

The labor department released its jobs report this morning. About 80,000 jobs were created in the month of June. A very weak showing, 80,000 isn't even sufficient to employ the approximately 120,000 new high school and college graduates entering the labor force each month, let alone the millions of long-term unemployed. As such, the response to this 'news' tends to mostly be one of glum surprise. And while it's in some senses understandable that people should find it depressing, it is hard to understand how people could be at all surprised. Indeed, for decades jobs have been disappearing. Even while Reagan was still sitting in the oval office, Bruce Springsteen sung - in "My Hometown" - that the "foreman says these jobs are going, boy, and they ain't coming back." This observation of Springsteen's was not particularly insightful. He was merely recording what was obvious then, and is obvious still. Jobs are still going, and they're still not coming back. Some are being outsourced, others are being replaced by automation. Just the other day I visited a CVS drug store. The only employee was a security guard. He stood by the door as the customers all dutifully checked out their products with the help of the automated cashiers. CVS is no doubt reducing their labor costs, but this doesn't at all show up in a reduction of their products' prices. At any rate, jobs are getting fewer and fewer. The long-term unemployed are growing more and more numerous. And the status quo's plan seems to be pithily summed up by the slogan employed during Obama's first presidential campaign: Hope.

Mainstream economists were hoping for, and predicting that there would be, a significant upsurge in jobs. And it is difficult to tell whether they really expected there to be such an increase, or those pros of the confidence game were simply feigning expectation - and its shadow, surprise - to keep people hopeful. It may well be that since they do, after all, seem to live in a fantasy world, they really were surprised. They were surprised and now they're glum.

But just as there is really little reason to be surprised, there is little reason to be glum. Those champions of the capitalist system ought to be happy. See, they should say, capitalism is so efficient, we can do so much without even needing to employ people! Indeed, irrespective of the actual exploitation and mutilation involved, industrialization was always sold as a liberating thing - machines would liberate the mass of people from drudgery - or at least liberate them from the drudgery of not having the latest gadget. With this in mind, doesn't it seem to be the case that a profound reversal, or confusion, of cause and effect, or ends and means is taking place in mainstream economic thinking vis-a-vis jobs? For the point of an actual economy is not really to make jobs. In many respects it is to get rid of jobs. Jobs are supposed to be finished at some point. They are the means to an end, not the end in itself. To be sure, meaningful work may be an end in itself, but that is not the same thing as a job. The point of a job is to take care of a task. These days, of course, this is not the case at all. In a capitalist economy, jobs are not ends but means. Consequently, people need to make money - so they come up with all sorts of schemes - jobs - irrespective of whether any good is truly created, or any harm is caused. Why supply people with one well-made fork and ruin the fork market, the thinking goes, when you can sell disposable forks eternally and ruin the world?

Back to jobs. If more and more computers and robots are taking care of more and more of our tasks, well, maybe most people just don't really even need jobs at all. Maybe most people can just be full-time students - whether students of astrophysics or students of tennis, or literature, or music, is immaterial - and they can perform certain, necessary jobs related to their fields of study. We already know that it's far less costly for people to go to university than it is to lock them up in prisons, right? But the point is, it's a good thing if there is less work to do. The only problem that arises is that people need to pay their bills. How will they do that?

As the hygiecratic argument goes, if the health of the people of the world is the supreme law, then that which is counter to the health of the people of the world is against the law. Therefore, society has a positive duty to provide the conditions of health - for it must negate the absence of these conditions. As such, there must be a right to housing, and food, among other things, since these are the most basic conditions of health. That's all fine and good, some may reply, but what should we pursue right away so that people can pay their bills?

As many countries throughout the world are beginning to discuss, one simple way to alleviate just this problem is through the implementation of a guaranteed basic income law. That is, irrespective of whether or not one has a job, one is guaranteed a basic income sufficient to live a healthy life. Implementation of such a law would alleviate the entire problem of there being no jobs. Of course, there are still many things to be done - there are many problems to correct, and transforming the conditions of disease to conditions of health will not happen overnight. But maybe we would have an easier time of creating these conditions of health if people weren't being paid, and compelled, to do them. Indeed, providing a basic income would lessen the likelihood of unethical practices. Mitigating any conflict of interest, the person doing the job would be doing it out of an interest in completing the task itself, rather than out of an interest in making money. The rich, of course, won't like this one bit; it'll deprive them of the rent they extract from every transaction. Fortunately, however, it's not their decision to make.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Wildfires, Fireworks, and Independence Day

It is Independence Day, and the most destructive wildfires in Colorado's history continue to rage - what's more, more are on their way. Indeed, in Russia, where epic fires caused unprecedented damage two years ago, fires continue to burn. In the U.S., conditions are so dry and volatile this year that fireworks are being banned across the country; the risk of fire is just too high on this Fourth of July. And while it is not surprising that people are supportive of such measures to ban fireworks, the denial of such bans would not be altogether out of character. In a country where measures to slow global warming, and the harms it brings, are generally met with passionate resistance, it is at least a little inconsistent to support the ban of fireworks displays. Why the reasonableness when it comes to banning fireworks, but the complete lack of it when discussing banning, or phasing out, automobiles? After all, automobiles and fossil fuels cause these dry and hot conditions in the first place. It must have to do with causality. While the link between fireworks and wildfires is obvious and uncontested, the link between fossil fuels and global warming is vehemently denied by a veritable denial industry. This denial industry is said to be protected by free speech. However, many types of speech are criminal: defamatory speech is criminal, as is fraudulent speech, false-advertising, and hate speech, among others. For engaging in a type of fraud, which causes these wildfires, toxic air quality, and other harms, the global warming denial industry should be quieted.

It is ironical that, while spreading these harms, the global warming industry paints itself as a freedom-loving creature, enjoying its right to free speech - in truth it represents something closer to the tyranny that the revolutionary colonists sought to overthrow. Indeed, not only does the poison being spewed by these industries comprise an all-pervading harm, the amount of work that is required to pay rent to the owners of the world is excessive and results in a tyranny that rules over everyone's daily life. The dependence of most people on their jobs, and on the caprice of the rich, is in conflict with the notion of independence that we celebrate this day. What was fought for was the ability to practice self-government, to be independent both politically as well as economically.

Some contend that the conflict between dependence and independence is illusory. This position reframes the question, making it about the "pursuit of happiness" and individualism. According to this argument, people are all pretty much greedy individuals, seeking their own best position, and the present political and economic situation reflects all these people pursuing their happiness. In addition to the shallowness of this argument, it gets one important thing wrong. "The pursuit of happiness" does not mean what these people tell us. It was only well after Jefferson's use of the term that the concept of happiness became conflated with mere pleasure. In Jefferson's time the term meant something closer to Aristotle's notion of eudaimonia. Eudaimonia, which literally means good spirit, is a notoriously difficult term to translate. While around Jefferson's time it was translated as happiness, these days it is translated as flourishing. So, the right to the pursuit of happiness meant more than the right to pursue pleasures; it meant something much more like the right to pursue the highest human goods - of which education and health, among other things, are constitutive parts. The conditions that interfere with this pursuit of the highest human good, of human flourishing, represent a type of tyranny that must be overthrown. As more of the world burns, it is becoming more and more clear that, among the forms of tyranny we struggle against, we need to be independent of the tyranny that is not only destroying our ecosystem, but disseminating lies about these practices as well. If the health of the people is the supreme law, all of these trespasses to the health of the biosphere, which we are a part of, are criminal and illegitimate abuses of power.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Austerity and Health

The austerity measures being imposed these days on national economies throughout the world aim at a very stilted type of austerity. The rich demand austerity from everyone else, in order to aggrandize their wealth. These wealthy people, though, are by no means practicing any type of austerity. On the contrary, they are spending more than ever on opulent luxuries. However, when they say that we are living beyond our means they are in a very important sense correct. Our economic practices exceed the carrying capacity of the planet.

Among other things, our collective levels of consumption and waste create amounts of pollution and harms that overwhelm the planet's ability to maintain homeostasis. Consequently, we are seeing not only extreme weather phenomena but the depletion of natural resources that we cannot live without. For example, fresh water is running out. While the earth's surface is covered in water, very little of this is potable or suitable for agricultural uses. Indeed, the United Nations estimates that by 2025 nearly 2 billion people "will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity."

Present economic and political practices are doing nothing to ameliorate the situation. On the contrary, they are exacerbating it. It is not simply the destructiveness wreaked by fossil fuels that are poisoning our water, and our air, and our soil, and all of our bodies, but an economy that sees the satisfaction of peoples' needs as secondary to generating profits for the wealthy. Faced with global ecological holocaust, the notion of austerity ought to be reappropriated and reconceptualized.

Rather than privatizing schools, water supply systems, and other publicly owned enterprises, a radical austerity will preserve those things but halt the practices that are causing the destruction of the planet. Unless it is necessary for peoples' health, and no healthier means of accomplishing its function is available, industry must be shut down entirely. Industries that contribute great harms with negligible benefits must be phased out. Among the most obvious of these is the paper industry. Paper napkins, paper plates, paper bags, and cardboard boxes, to name a few, are in most cases completely wasteful. And aside from their production, their distribution reproduces great harms. Additionally, the production of plastic materials that are designed to be immediately discarded must, for the most part, cease. The energy industry, too, must be transformed. People, of course, still need electricity and heat; but excessive uses must be eliminated, and fossil fuels and nuclear energy must give way to solar, wind, tidal power, and other renewable energy forms. Another industry that must be phased out is the military industry. The fast food industry, as well, must be shuttered. Commercial air travel should be rationed - this is, after all, an austerity program. Moreover, the work week must be cut in half at least. Because the production and distribution of unessential goods causes a great deal of harm, these must be stopped.

People may ask how they are supposed to pay for things if their jobs are eliminated. An easy answer is by the adoption of a basic income law. Indeed, the entire purpose of such an austerity program is to mitigate harms. So it would be absurd to propose that people incur harms to their health in effectuating such austerity. As such, a basic income must be available to all people to pay for rent, nutritious food, transportation, communications, and other necessities. Maybe people will not be able to eat all of the meat that they want to eat - as meat production is harmful - and maybe they will not be able to eat large amounts of sugar, but as a trade-off they will not have to work very much. People will be able to spend more time with their families and friends in cities, towns, and natural environments that will be more and more livable - and, after a short time, self-sustaining as well. In addition to creating healthier communities and a healthier society, a model of austerity such as this may be the only way to avoid a total ecological holocaust. The health of the people is the supreme law, and the health of the people demands this.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Duty to Mitigate Harm and Nuremberg Principle IV

It is a fact of contemporary life that our economic system creates and recreates tremendous and unprecedented harms. To be sure, it keeps us alive and supplies the world with countless mind-bogglingly sophisticated gadgets and machines, but this does not at all mitigate the fact that just as much as it is doing the former, it is also sickening and killing us all. Indeed, nearly every single good and service it produces - or reproduces - have attached to them multiple collateral and completely unnecessary harms.

If food, for example, does not itself contain poison (e.g. excessive amounts of salt, or fat, or sugar, or carcinogenic sweeteners, or coloring, or preservatives, etc.), its packaging does. Moreover, beyond the harms in the food and/or in the packaging, there are manifold harms in the manner in which the product is produced. In addition to harms attending the production of a given commodity (e.g. pollution) there are harms wrapped up in the product's distribution. All of these pollutants are poisoning our world. But that is only one level of harm.

On another level, the people that work for these companies are exposed to all manners of occupational harms. From the more mild forms of harms such as poor lighting, there are harms resulting also from repetitive movements, or caused from staring at computer screens, not to mention stress, sleep-deprivation, and the occupational hazards accompanying industrial work in even the best of industrial conditions.

As in the harms attending the distributions of products, there are harms attending the transportation of people. Automobile accidents, for example, annually claim far more lives than the so-called war on drugs - yet for some reason no one seems outraged. It is for some reason considered acceptable, as are the levels of pollution caused by cars, and the production of their fuels.

The harms that were unleashed at Fukushima are nearly unfathomable. But Fukushima is only one of thousands of vulnerable nuclear power plants dotting the planet. If the Indian Point nuclear power plant 30 miles north of New York City were to meltdown, for example, the severity would be unimaginable. When one considers the fact that the energy produced by this enormously dangerous technology is used for such unnecessary things as powering the excessive lights of Times Square, among other things, it really ought to lead one to ask if the risk is worth it. Not only could energy consumption be drastically cut with very little intrusion to peoples' lives, the intrusion is predominantly caused by this consumption in the first place. Consider how people are coerced into working longer hours as a result of electricity, for example.

It goes without saying that harms attend war. And this society has been at war for so long now it hardly even thinks about it. And every other aspect of this society - its health care system, its justice system, its educational system - all of these carry significant harms as well.

To be sure, it is possible to mitigate these harms. We can eliminate those things that are harmful. If people are stressed-out and sleep-deprived, we can - theoretically - design these things out of our way of life. But such a redesign would threaten the profitability of these industries. And, as all adults are aware, these industries are designed, above all, to generate a profit. Producing/reproducing the commodity in question is pretty much secondary in this culture. The point of this economy is to make money. So, there is a trade-off here - harms for profitability. Of course, the harms are distributed among most of the world, and the profitability goes to very few.

Among the many things that produce harms is the city itself. Indeed, until the 20th century cities were so inherently harmful that their populations always died out because of their hazards; their populations never naturally replenished themselves, but were only refreshed by waves of new immigrants. Compared to those days, our cities seem greatly improved. We have far better sanitation systems, and water systems, and public health systems, among other things. But is this really the case? When looked at broadly, across the whole world, we have to admit that we are not at all living within our means, and are drastically exceeding the carrying capacity of the planet. This is not a problem of population so much as a problem of wasteful and destructive economic practices.

Among other things (like the destruction of vast amounts of food each year, which is necessary to maintain profitable prices) the environment can no longer absorb our pollutants. Our most valuable resource, water is being wasted - through pollution, as well as by other wasteful practices - at alarming rates; so much so that the great aquifers, and other water sources that the world relies on for life, are rapidly vanishing. Indeed, our infrastructure is so strained and vulnerable that it is not too difficult to imagine a scenario wherein, over a couple of days, the water supporting a densely populated area could just run out. Over the course of a few days one could witness mass deaths that took the political genocides of the twentieth century months, or even years, to achieve.

Until an economic system is devised that actually values the elimination of the harms that our current economic system reproduces - over the profits and concentrations of wealth that the current models (re)produce - we will continue to destroy ourselves, along with the rest of the world. There is no more serious need today than addressing this question.

Among other things, we must prioritize that which we all can not live without - the conditions of health - and accept the ancient maxim salus populi suprema lex esto, that the health of the people is the supreme law. According to this, all of these harms constitute criminal acts which must be corrected.

Perhaps it is time that we begin to apply Principle IV of the Nuremberg Trials, or something comparable, to the economic and environmental acts that more and more are beginning to look like crimes against humanity. Some may object to the use of this rule, reminding us that it applied to acts of war, and to soldiers. But, certainly, if soldiers can be held responsible for acts committed in wartime, people who are not under military order must all the more so be held responsible for the consequences of their actions.

Principle IV states that "the fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him". We hear so much about the choices we have in this culture. Perhaps we must begin to hold all of ourselves accountable for the damage to the planet with which we are all, more and more, complicit.

An Allegory

One time, while sailing across the ocean, a ship full of people ran into a storm. Thrown severely off course, they ran aground near an island. All of the ship's passengers and crew removed what they could from the sinking ship and brought it ashore.

It was unclear at first whether there were other people on the island, but it was pretty quickly discovered that there were no other people. There were birds, and other animals; there was a good supply of fresh water from a spring; but there were no people. Because the people from the ship didn't have any idea as to how long it would be before they would be found by search and rescue parties, they decided to build shelters.

There was a rich supply of wood on the island, and there were also many brick-sized stones about that people began to use in their shelters. These gray stones, it turned out, had many uses. In addition to being good for carving, they could also be clacked together to generate sparks for fire-making.

One day a couple of men were sitting about, discussing the many uses of these gray stones and decided that they would take it upon themselves to scour the island and collect all of these stones and hide them in a cave. Then, they reasoned, since people seem to need them to make fires, a good price could be extracted for the stones. After drinking some of the last of the ship's coffee, they started collecting.

At first people didn't pay much attention to the work of the collectors, except perhaps to inquire as to what type of project required so many stones. But most of the work was done at a distance from the village, and people could not see what was happening. Soon the collectors were only working at night. And after a few weeks nearly all of the island's stones had been removed to a hidden cave in the interior of the island.

It did not take long for people to notice that the formerly plentiful gray stones were no longer so plentiful. Whenever anyone needed one, however, one of the collectors would be able to accommodate their needs - for a price of course. Soon people were trading various things, or even performing labor for the collectors, in order to secure some of the necessary gray stones.

It was not long before someone inquired as to how it came to be that what was formerly plentiful and shared by everyone had now come to be the monopoly of the collectors.

When another reminded people that the collectors had been collecting the gray stones for a few weeks, and that this was most likely the project they had in mind all along, the people of the island grew angry and demanded that the gray stones be returned. As the peoples' anger at the collectors grew, the collectors grew more and more insistent that they did not have to share the gray stones with anyone. The gray stones, they argued, had become their personal property.

As everyone needed the gray stones, all on the island were affected by the collectors' actions. And finally the people and the collectors decided that they would hold a sort of trial. They would agree on a few judges to settle the matter once and for all.

The selection of the judges was itself a trying process, with many openly wondering why the people were deferring their judgment to judges in the first place. This was no difficult question. The gray stones were there and everyone used them. Then these collectors pretty much stole them. While many agreed that the collectors had stolen the gray stones from the community, they now needed to get these gray stones returned. And, it was thought, having a trial was the best way to accomplish this.

The day of the trial arrived. A representative of the collectors explained that the collectors wanted to provide a service to people; that the collectors were concerned about the gray stones being exposed to the elements. Since they are so valuable, they wanted to put them in a safe place. And putting them into the safe place, and taking them out again, takes a lot of effort, which should be compensated.

The people had a representative who explained to the judges what the judges already knew - that the collectors had pretty much stolen the gray stones and now were trying to sell back to the people what should have never been taken in the first place.

It did not take long for each side to make their arguments. And when the judges had heard everything, they retired to a hut to discuss the matter. Their thoughts were the subject of endless speculation. And then one morning the judges announced that they had reached a decision. They had considered all of the arguments. And because everyone needs gray stones, in the interest of fairness and justice, everyone ought to have gray stones. In fact, they continued, it is so important to have gray stones that we are making it a law that you have to have gray stones. And if you don't have gray stones you will be fined.

And how will we get the gray stones? someone asked. Do the collectors have to return the stones to us? asked another. No, spoke the judges, you will have to buy the stones from the collectors. If you don't buy the gray stones from the collectors, you will be punished with a fine.

Many began to cheer the decision. What is wrong with you? asked some of the others. This is not what we wanted. We wanted our stones returned to us. Now these collectors not only keep the stones, but we have to buy stones from them whether we want to or not. Why are you cheering? We are in a worse position than before. No, you don't understand, came the reply from those cheering. See, before if you gave something to the collectors for a gray stone, they might never give you the gray stone. Or, they might give it to you, but then at night they might take it back. But, don't you see, now they are no longer allowed to do that.