The Crumbling of America

Crumbling America

Directed by Henry Schipper (2009)

Film Review

This is a compelling, though somewhat melodramatic, documentary about crumbling US infrastructure – especially its bridges, roads, levees, dams, water delivery systems, sewage systems, and power grid. The US presently spends less on infrastructure (2% of GDP) than the developing countries China (9%) and India (8%). The percentage of GDP Americans spend on infrastructure has declined from 12% in 1960.

Most bridges, superhighways and water and sewage pipes are designed to last 50 years, and many are approaching or have exceeded their expected lifespan. There are no programs to repair vital levees along the Mississippi River and in California. A 6.9 earthquake would totally destroy San Francisco’s earthwork levees, contaminating all southern California’s drinking water, as well as destroying acres of prime agricultural land.

Shoddy maintenance of urban water and sewage systems leads to hundreds of thousands of leaks per year, especially in eastern rust belt cities. While parts of the national electrical grid are subject to ever more frequent and lengthy power failures due to poor maintenance and obsolete switches, sensors, data systems and transformers and rotting utility poles.

Reaching the Wrong Conclusion

Despite the wealth of data they present, I strongly disagree with the filmmakers’ conclusion: that taxpayers need to front up with trillions of dollars to repair America’s crumbling infrastructure. I strongly believe this massive decay presents a unique opportunity to replace 100-year-old technologies with cheaper, more efficient, people-friendly 21st century technology.

For example, I totally disagree with their assertion that the electrical grid was “the greatest infrastructure achievement of the 20th century.”  Besides being one of the most inefficient infrastructure projects ever invented (according to the EPA the US power system loses approximately 67% of the power it creates), the grid was never intended to serve the public – it was intended to increase the sale of electricity and electrical products, as well as consolidating the control of production and distribution in the hands of Wall Street corporations (see Reclain the Commons: Take Back the Grid). The renewable energy revolution, which enables households and neighborhood to produce their own solar energy, also allows ordinary people to control its destruction.

Likewise our totally gridlocked super highways don’t need to be rebuilt – they need to be replaced with cheaper and more efficient and climate-friendly high speed and computer trains and buses.

While inefficient and unhealthy (adding chlorine to our water creates a variety of dangerous chlorinated organic compounds) water delivery and sewage systems need to be replaced with more modern technologies that allow us to recycle our water instead of pouring it down the drain.

Homeless in Hawaii

Homeless in Hawaii

First Documentary (2017)

Film Review

Despite recent publicity about the high level of homelessness in Los Angeles, it turns out that Hawaii is the state with the highest rate of homelessness.

This documentary begins by exploring local efforts to criminalize homelessness via their “sit and lie” laws (which make it illegal to sit or lie on the sidewalk). Hawaii Kai, the second richest post code in the US, has a residents vigilante group patrolling the streets for homeless people to report to the police.

A quote by one of their wealthier members is absolutely priceless: “You can’t have a society where one factor just takes and takes and takes.” Ironically she is referring to homeless people – even though her comment is far more pertinent to the wealthy elite she belongs to.

The film goes on to profile a campaign by Hawaii state senator Josh Green to use state Medicaid funds to enable doctors to prescribe “housing” for homeless patients. At present Hawaii spends more than a billion a year on emergency medical care for the homeless (for hepatitis, chronic infections and other conditions linked to homelessness). Green argues that millions could be saved by preventing these patients from becoming homeless in the first place.

In the last segment filmmakers visit an extremely well-organized, self-governing homeless tent city one hour from Honolulu.

Paradise Papers Expose Trump Administration Tax Cheats

10 Minutes: the Paradise Papers

Press TV (2018)

This short video provides a capsule summary of the Paradise Papers, 13.4 million electronic files leaked in November 2017 about the wealthy tax dodgers who use offshore tax havens to avoid taxes and conceal illegal financial dealings.

Although the Paradise Papers scandal has received less publicity than the Panama Papers did in 2015, its list of culprits is far more comprehensive. At the top are the Queen of England, Madonna, Bono, Apple, Nike, the Queen of Jordan, the ministers of finance of Canada and Brazil, US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross (who used tax havens to conceal illegal dealings with sanctioned Russian businessmen) and Gary Cohen, who wrote Trump’s new tax law. The EU has slapped a $13 billion fine on Apple for tax evasion, which they refuse to pay.

Analysts who have studied both the Paradise and the Panama Papers estimate that approximately $7.8 trillion is held in offshore tax havens or 10% of global GDP.

The best known tax havens are Ireland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and British-controlled Cayman Islands, Bahama, Jersey and the Isle of Mann. There is growing pressure on the British government to crack down on tax and banking policies in their tax haven colonies.

How Neoliberalism Gave Us Brexit and Trump

Revenge of the Rich: The Neoliberal Revolution in Britain and New Zealand

by Austin Mitchell

Canterbury University Press (2017)

Book Review

Revenge of the Rich, by British economist Austin Mitchell, describes how the neoliberal revolutions of Margaret Thatcher and New Zealand finance minister Roger Douglas virtually gutted the economies of the UK and New Zealand. The result has been years of declining or negative growth rates, virtual destruction of manufacturing, massive job loss, wage stagnation and higher deficits and overseas borrowing.*

As an article of faith, neoliberals maintain that mass layoffs of public service workers will reduce government deficits. The reality, as Mitchell ably demonstrates, is the exact opposite. When you lay off 400,000 public servants (as David Cameron did between 2010 and 2016), they quit paying taxes and increase government costs by claiming unemployment and other benefits.

Britain’s EU Membership: Setting the Stage

According to Mitchell, Britain’s decision to join the EU in 1973 set the stage for the neoliberal revolution that subsequently occurred in both countries. EU membership forced Britain to end their special trading relationship with New Zealand (an other Commonwealth countries), resulting in significant economic decline in both countries. Neoliberal trade liberalization was meant to stem these losses. Instead the loss of tariff and other import protections quickly destroyed manufacturing in both countries.

New Zealand, which was fortunate in having agricultural exports to fall back on, succeeded in developing alternative trade relationships with Australia, China and other Asian countries. Nonetheless, thanks to their 1980s neoliberal experiment, New Zealand has one of the highest levels of foreign ownership (of land, homes and companies) in the developed world. It also has the highest house prices, the second highest prison population and extremely high child poverty levels (1/3 of Kiwi children grow up in poverty). Meanwhile it’s failure to provide jobs for young adults means a sizeable proportion leave New Zealand permanently for other developed countries.

Brexit and Trump: The People Rebel

Mitchell describes the rise of left and right wing extremist groups in Europe, the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump as a direct popular reaction to the immense human misery caused by neoliberal policies. In New Zealand the 1996 citizens referendum adopting proportional representation was a direct reaction against both major parties (Labour and National) advancing neoliberal policies.

At this point, the traditionally pro-corporate International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) have both come out against austerity and similar “deflationary” neoliberal policies. Instead they argue strongly for increased stimulus (public) spending to stabilize the world’s developed economies.


*Similar effects under American neoliberals Reagan, Bush Sr and Jr, Clinton and Obama inflicted similar damage on the US.

Demise of the American Empire: Pinpointing the Timeline

 

In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of US Global Power

by Alfred W McCoy

Haymarket Books (2016)

Book Review

Prior to 2001 and the launch of the War on Terror, the US political elite adamantly denied (despite massive evidence to the contrary), that the United States was an empire rather than a republic. Because their sudden about face (ie acknowledgement and promotion of US imperialism) was so recent, there has been little opportunity for scholarly analysis of America’s effectiveness as an empire. It’s this void Alfred McCoy seeks to fill with In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of US Global Power.

Competition for Control of the Eurasian Landmass

McCoy traces America’s serious global empire building to their defeat of Spain in the Spanish-American War in 1898, which won them Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Panama Canal Zone and the Philippines.* He maintains that us strategies for empire-building, like those of the former British empire, have mainly relied on seeking and maintaining control of the “World-Island.” This is a term coined by London School of Economics director Halford Mackinder’s World Island in 1904. Under this concept, the World Island consists of the vast European-Asian landmass that is home to 70% of the world’s population, 75% of its global energy resources and 60% of its current productivity.

How the US Maintains Military Control

After the US became the world’s preeminent superpower after World War II, they have used nine basic strategies to maintain military control of the Eurasian landmass: mass surveillance (based on a system of extensive personal data collection that began during their “pacification”** of the Philippines (1898-1907); CIA covert operations (involving electoral interference, military coups, installation of compliant puppet dictators, targeted assassinations, torture, advanced technological weaponry (electronic senors, satellite imagery, drones, etc) and, increasingly cyperwarfare and space-based weaponry (most information about the latter two is classified).

America Falling Behind China Economically and Militarily

For me the most interesting section of the book examines ways in which the US is rapidly falling behind China – not only economically but militarily. McCoy identifies Bush’s rash decision to invade Iraq as the start of the American empire’s steady decline. While the US has spent the last 16 years mired in unwinnable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, China is busily building alliances and investing their trade surplus (from selling Americans cheap consumer goods) in Russia and other countries located in the World Island. In Afghanistan alone, they are responsible for 79% of foreign investment.

Meanwhile China is rapidly creating a single economic zone across the Eurasian landmass, with a vast network of high speed trains and pipelines following historical Silk Road and Tran-Siberian Railway routes – and soon a high speed Southeast Asian and Moscow-Beijing line.

Even the Pentagon-linked Rand Corporation predicts China’s will exceed that of the US by 2030 or sooner. In 2010, China became the world’s leading manufacturing nation. In 2014, it took the lead in the number of new patents it awards annually.

Even more concerning is the rapid decline of US educational standards compared to those of China, which has ominous implications for the development of high tech weaponry. Chinese students consistently score first in math, science and reading, while US students score 27th, 20th and 17th respectively.

By 2025, China is expected to have better long range cruise missiles than the US, better air defense aircraft, better electronic sensors, better digital communications capacity, better computer processing power and better cyber-security. At the same time, they have a significant strategic advantage because the US spreads its military resources so thin by fighting so many foreign wars simultaneously.

According to McCoy, they already have the ability to cripple critical US infrastructure (electrical and telecommunications grid and pipelines) via cyber warfare.

Collapse Predicted Between 2030-2040

McCoy predicts (and makes an excellent case for) the demise of the US empire some time between 2030-2040. It could happen gradually, as US economic and military prowess continues its steady decline – or suddenly, if the loss of its privileged status causes the US dollar to collapse. The impending implosion may be aggravated by climate change, especially if the Pentagon is drawn into wars over dwindling food and water resources or control of massive numbers of climate refugees.


*In a separate development, the Kingdom of Hawai’i was illegally overthrown by The Committee of Safety (a group of wealthy American/European businessmen) in 1998. The Committee of Safety used U.S. Marines to detain the Queen while they announced their takeover of Hawai’i.

**”Pacification” is a military euphemism for violently subjugating the indigenous population of an occupied country.

Originally published in Dissident Voice

 

 

China’s Declining Economic Miracle

The End of the Chinese Miracle

Financial Times (2017)

This documentary explores factors behind China’s declining economic growth and the potential effect on the rest of the global economy.

The filmmakers attribute China’s recent economic miracle to an explosion of young workers willing accept low wages in hundreds of thousands of factories manufacturing cheap consumer goods for the West. Over two decades, the lure of jobs has prompted the migration of millions of Chinese youth from the countryside to 88 super cities (the size of London) all over China.

Owing to demographics, this supply of endless young workers has stalled, causing average manufacturing wages to more than double. The global recession and declining demand for cheap plastic has prompted many Chinese manufacturers to move to Southeast Asia, where wages are much lower. Others are are illegally employing undocumented Vietnamese laborers smuggled into China. Not mentioned in the film, is the rapid replacement of Chinese workers with robots (see China Replaces Workers With Robots) .

Owing to the decline in good paying manufacturing jobs, many rural workers are returning to their families to work the land.

Meanwhile commodity exporting countries (eg Australia, China’s main source of coal) are being forced into recession as Chinese manufacturing declines.

 

 

Inside the Banker’s Brain: The Physiology of Greed

In Search of the Banker’s Brain

Directed by Jos de Putter (2013)

Film Review

In Search of the Banker’s Brain is about the biochemical changes associated with greed. Inspired by a Dutch blogger who investigated the “banker culture” that led to the 2008 global economic collapse, it paints a troubling picture about our willingness to place the welfare of the global economy in the hands of 25-year-old ruthless macho hyper-competitive psychopaths.

In addition to several former investment bankers, the film also features a Dutch psychologist who treats Wall Street bankers and a former trader turned neuropsychologist who investigates how greed affects the brain. He begins by describing the rigged reward system that rewards traders to take enormous risks with other peoples’ money – they get massive bonuses if they’re successful and no consequences at all if they fail.

In response, they begin to crave risk, which feels just like a narcotic when it floods their brain with adrenaline and cortisol. They become cunning like heroin addicts looking for their next fix and show traits (loss of conscience and scruples) virtually indistinguishable from psychopaths in a prison environment.

Like psychopaths, they also tend to burn out around age 40, which is when they are at high risk for “econocide.”*


* Term coined by psychologists term for banker suicide.