October 30, 2010

Trick or Treat – Walmart and Local, Sustainable Food

Filed under: Food and Farms, Relocalization — Tags: — Russ @ 3:07 am


America needs millions more small farmers. The imperatives are economic, political, and physical. We need food relocalization, our own structures, our own farmers’ markets, garden markets, CSAs, distribution networks. We need to organize, manage, and of course own all this ourselves, completely outside the corporate system. One word used to encompass all of this is sustainability.
It’s not just corporate production which is destroying our democracy and health, but corporate distribution. Therefore a prospect like Walmart allegedly emphasizing local foods is a great danger.
Gandhi famously said, “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.” He didn’t add, “then they try to co-opt you”, but it goes in there somewhere between ridicule and where we win. It proves we’re on the right track, that what we’re doing has “profit” potential, and even better that it’s a significant rival to corporate practice.
Walmart’s plan, called “Heritage Agriculture” in honor of Orwell and of George Bush initiatives like Healthy Forests and Clear Skies, purports to invest in regional and local food (“training and infrastructure for small and medium size farmers, particularly in emerging markets”), to develop a “sustainability index”, and to double (to 9%) the proportion of food it sells which is “local”. This expands upon the “green” initiative launched in 2005.
Since this is Walmart we don’t need to speculate on whether its intentions are benevolent. Obviously the intent is to co-opt the terms “sustainable” and “local” and commodify them, or at least discredit them. By definition sustainability means, among other things, resiliency, redundancy, slack, and independence. But here “sustainable” will be revalued in corporate terms of sustainably maximized production and profit, given some Potemkin criteria. That’s what this “sustainability index” is all about.

“Over time, may not need the U.S. government setting standards for how we plant, spray and harvest. We will just have to follow Walmart’s rules,” noted a farmer who has been in discussions with Walmart officials.

We could already imagine what it’ll mean for farmers to be at the mercy of Walmart’s rules. But we have more detailed evidence. I’ll just go ahead and call this the “quote of death”:

Certainly, Walmart is not alone in the rush to “go green” in the U.S. and around the globe. Other major farm and food players, like Cargill, Monsanto, Syngenta, General Mills, Kelloggs, Pepsico, Mars, Dairy Management Inc., and Stonyfield Farms are also on the hunt for measurable sustatinability goals.

They joined Walmart in funding the Sustainability Consortium, which plans to develop “transparent methodologies, tools and strategies to drive a new generation of products and supply networks that address environmental, social and economic imperatives, according to their web site. Ironically, the very farmers who might be most impacted by their benchmarks, are not part of the Consortium, where first tier membership costs $100,000 per year.

The Consortium, which is jointly managed by the University of Arkansas and Arizona State University and includes research from universities around the globe, has been developing an index which can be used to evaluate and measure sustainable practices on the farm and throughout the supply chain.

Eventually, this might lead to products in your local Walmart that are “scored” according to their level of sustainability, says Matt Kistler, the Senior Vice President of Marketing for Walmart and the man who previously served as Senior Vice President for Sustainability.

By definition you can’t be sustainable yet deeply entangled with any multinational, let alone proven enemies of humanity and the earth like Monsanto and Syngenta.
(Meanwhile we can imagine what kind of “training and infrastructure” program they have in mind “for small and medium size farmers, particularly in emerging markets”. It may not be as overtly ideological as the Chicago Boys or the Goldman Gals, but it’ll exemplify the same corporate imperatives.)
For Walmart, “sustainable” will be defined as grown and sold in the same state. Right there we can see how conceptually frivolous it is, since there’s zero scientific or practical basis for basing anything on the cockamamie borders of states.
Previous Walmart opponents, counterattacking it on other fronts, have already laid bare how bogus Walmart “sustainability” concepts are.

A 2004 Counterpunch article by Yoshie Furuhashi used a Teamster’s organizing map of Wal-Mart distribution points to demonstrate that most states are already served by local Wal-Mart distribution centers. The term local, in other words, as a definition of ‘sustainable’ doesn’t require any transformation to existing Wal-Mart distribution patterns. It’s green washing at its most sophisticated.

So Walmart already covers the geography to the point that, according to their definition of “local”, this alleged initiative really won’t require them to change their existing practices at all.
Still, this could be at least a short term boost for economically beleaguered farmers. They need as many lucrative markets as possible, so it would be dubious for anyone to argue from a political perch that they shouldn’t commit to Walmart, that they should resist Walmart. But I would just tell them the same thing I’d tell anyone about anything Walmart does: This is not sufficient for survival. It cannot be a substitute for truly local distribution, and really doesn’t even uphold local production. The money leaves the community. To whatever extent we participate in this, it has to be only as a temporary economic survival tactic while we build parallel but independent, truly local and sustainable, distribution networks. We have to become able to stand on our own. That’s the essence of what’s sustainable, and the real definition of that word includes a naturally imposed mandate. True sustainability, unlike any corporate marketing term or battle plan, is not a choice, but an existential imperative. Since Walmart “sustainability” can hinder this action, it has to be touched only with skepticism and with the consciousness that this is not enough, we need to still build our own infrastructure, and the goal is to break free of all corporate distribution.
We know where Walmart always leads. We’ve seen its scorched earth mentality toward local business (right there we have a decisive precedent for what it really thinks of local farmers), jobs, workers, externalizing costs on the community, forcing people into cars. It has a unanimous record as a kind of Mongol horde ravaging the countryside, putting all communities to the sword and torch. We know this is the same poison.
Again, we don’t need to rely purely on deduction here. We can look at the record of Walmart’s vaunted “organic” initiative. Watchdogs and studies have extensively documented how this has been widely flouted in practice. Walmart frequently uses misleading banners and shelf layouts to misrepresent non-organic products as “organic”. And it has systematically abused the term “organic” and even the USDA Organic seal on non-food products containing harmful synthetic ingredients. (Apparently there’s little restriction on the basic term “organic” on labels for non-foods, but you certainly can’t use the USDA seal for synthetic products.) Much of this organic sourcing has been offshored to China. Not only are the organic inspection safeguards practically nil in China, but this also puts Walmart’s newfound commitment to “local” production in ironic perspective. I won’t try to select a single quote from this excellent summary of what Walmart “organic” has meant. It’s a fairly short piece, worth reading in its entirety. And the white paper I linked above is a far more extensive treatment. Based on this case study, and Walmart’s universal record, we can forecast the same dynamic for “local” and “sustainable” in their hands.
So why is Walmart trying to do this, if they’re not morally on the level? The consensus is that the main reason is to continue the political whitewash and greenwash they’ve been embarked upon since 2005, after such a run of bad publicity over their labor practices and their gutting of local economies (again that perspective on localism). It may also be part of a plan to squeeze more out of bigger suppliers, by promoting an alternative with great fanfare. Even if it is pretty clearly a bluff, and one which corporate producers must in other ways applaud and support, they too have to view Walmart as fundamentally predatory toward them as well. And perhaps this is even Walmart hedging its bets with regard to Peak Oil. That’s definitely not the main reason, but it could be a secondary one.
There’s no question what we need to do as customers. It’s the same as with every other potential interaction with Walmart. If you can afford to patronize local businesses, always do so. Only shop at Walmart under economic duress. (And I disclose, being under such duress, I sometimes have to do so myself. But I’m always aware that this is something from which we need to find a way to break free completely.) So the same dynamic applies with food, but even more critically. If economically and logistically possible, buy directly from local farmers, or from local grocers who carry local produce. If you must go to a chain, choose the supermarket over Walmart. The supermarket hasn’t played anywhere near the same role in devastating communities the way Walmart has. Only shop at Walmart as a last recourse, when there’s no practicable alternative.
What should farmers do? They may need to sell to Walmart to some extent. But they need to be aware that this is a trap set for them. They need to simultaneously keep working for truly independent, democratic distribution. We need to keep ALL our money in the community, or as much as possible. If it’s possible to prevent Walmart from making off with one extra cent, that’s worth preventing. Otherwise we shall become Walmart’s serfs, just like the way the chicken and hog markets are dominated by distributor oligopolies. Here a monopoly retailer threatens, but the principle and the threatened outcome are the same.
The essence of true sustainability is that food producers own and manage their production while they and the community own and manage the distribution network, which distributes within the community for the full benefit of the local producers and community. The closer we come to this goal, the more democratic, prosperous, secure, healthy, and fulfilled our lives will be. Walmart is definitely no friend to this goal, and to the extent we have to deal with them at all, it has to be as a temporary measure, perhaps seeking if possible to use them to our advantage, but always with the consciousness that the world we seek is free of them completely. 

October 29, 2010

Chinese Internet Racketeering, Coming Soon to A Pipe Near You


Maybe for once I can get in on the China-bashing too. (But all China-bashing is really just misdirection from the crimes of our own corporate and government elites. China can’t do anything to our economy or security except in close collaboration with home-grown criminals.)
The NYT had a piece about a Chinese telecom equipment provider, Huawei Technologies, which is seeking to break into the US market through a proposed $3 billion wireless equipment deal with Sprint. US information and hardware providers have long had a close, lucrative collaboration going with the repressive Chinese regime. This deal would be a kind of cultural exchange. (We have the concept of the FIRE sector and the term: finance, insurance, real estate, as one closely synergized, malevolent complex. In light of the Google-Verizon Pact; Microsoft, Yahoo, Cisco and others partying in China; telecom immunity; and now deals like this, maybe we need a term for the surveillance/telecom/IT complex. “SITT”? “STIT”?)
The threat is that Chinese knowhow will be put to use by US telecom rackets to engage in transmission discrimination (gutting net neutrality) and content censorship. It might be able to do both of these by stealth. The real threat, in other words, is simply that the Chinese, with their more extensive practical experience, will help the US rackets do the things they already do and want to keep doing at an escalated level. 
Of course the Congressional objections, as always, aren’t to racketeering as such, but to phony “national security” concerns. None other than “cyberwar” fear-monger and architect of a bill to impose total government shutdown power over the Internet, Joe Lieberman, took the lead in sending a letter of protest to FCC chief Genachowski. (The piece, with inadvertent truth-telling, refers to Lieberman as “independent of Connecticut”. That’s supposed to refer to his nominal non-aligned status vis the parties. But the small “i” highlights how truly independent he is of any concern for the wishes or well-being of the people of Connecticut or of America. It highlights what illegitimate rogue tyrants all these officeholders are.)
Given Genachowski’s record of craven inertia ever since the Comcast court case, we could expect him to cave in upon receiving this letter. But wait:

Anticipating these hurdles, Huawei has hired a remarkable array of Washington lobbyists, lawyers, consultants and public relations firms to help it win business in the United States. It has also helped create Amerilink Telecom, an American distributor of Huawei products whose high-powered board includes former Representative Richard A. Gephardt, the former World Bank president James D. Wolfensohn and the one-time chief executive of Nortel Networks, William A. Owens.

(What happens when the easily movable object is squashed between two irresistible (for him) forces? Stay tuned.)
There’s the “American way”. It’s not “capitalism”, it’s never capitalism. It’s corporatism, racketeering. No one who has the muscle to do otherwise ever lets the idea and the product speak for itself. No one believes in “the market”. Instead, they always use their pre-existing wealth hoard in a might-makes-right manner to impose market presence by brute force. That’s the Rule of Rackets.
This is a charming bunch of businessmen:

The company has repeatedly been linked to the People’s Liberation Army of China. And over the last decade, Huawei has been sued in the United States by two of its major competitors, Cisco Systems and Motorola, over accusations that it stole software designs and infringed on patents.
Cisco settled its suit with Huawei soon after filing it. But in court documents filed in a lawsuit last summer, Motorola claimed that a group of Chinese-born Motorola engineers developed contacts with Huawei’s founder and then, between about 2003 and 2007, conspired to steal technology from Motorola by way of a dummy corporation they had set up outside the company.

It’s also funny how European corporatists are worried about Chinese government subsidies to Huawei. How’s that agricultural dumping going, Europeans?
Now THIS is funny:

“We’re an innovative company driven by the business needs of customers…”

How does that square with this again?

Anticipating these hurdles, Huawei has hired a remarkable array of Washington lobbyists, lawyers, consultants and public relations firms to help it win business in the United States. It has also helped create Amerilink Telecom, an American distributor of Huawei products whose high-powered board includes former Representative Richard A. Gephardt, the former World Bank president James D. Wolfensohn and the one-time chief executive of Nortel Networks, William A. Owens.

But the NYT then goes into stenographer mode, reproducing some boilerplate from the company’s flackery pamphlet. I especially like the adjectives and adverbs.

Industry analysts say Huawei, based in Shenzhen, has quickly matured into a fierce competitor in one of the most important and hotly contested technology arenas: sophisticated equipment that enhances the delivery of voice and video over the Internet and through wireless devices.

They say Huawei is gaining, in part, because of heavy spending on research and development. Chinese companies are generally weak in R.&D., but Huawei has 17 research centers around the world, including in Dallas, Moscow and Bangalore, India, and most recently in Santa Clara.

Indeed, of the company’s 96,000 employees, nearly half are engaged in research and development. In May, Huawei opened a stunning $340 million research center in Shanghai that it says will eventually house 8,000 engineers.

That’s reportage. Yup, John Burns, you’re right - the NYT doesn’t engage in “hagiography”.
They also perform their usual routine of attributing their own bias and lies to anonymous sources, in this case phantom “industry analysts.”
I’ll conclude by highlighting a good example of media corporatist bias. Here’s two excerpts from the piece:

Despite those successes, Huawei has struggled to break into the United States market, largely because of the security concerns and accusations of intellectual property theft and corporate espionage….

In 2008, worries about national security and China’s weak protection of intellectual property forced Huawei to drop its $2.2 billion joint bid with the American firm Bain Capital to acquire 3Com, the American networking company.

They just assume, probably unconsciously, that:
1. There’s such a thing as corporate IP;
2. That “protecting it”, i.e. using it as a weapon, should be a priority for government policy.
But the communications infrastructure was built by the public in the first place, and only continues to exist at all as a project of the society. So all intellectual property relating to it is already public property in principle. (The same is true in all other rackets.) All that happens when government privatizes things is that it illegitimately and unconstitutionally alienates public property. This is a crime, not a legitimate action. So it cannot create a private property right.
On the other hand, if we accept privatization’s premise, if we’re to disregard the social context for all industrial ideas, then we also have to disregard the corporate context. A corporation is, after all, just a different kind of “social structure”, right? So anyone who rejects the proposition that society creates all ideas can’t coherently turn around and say a corporation does create them. In that case we’d have to revert to the superman inventor theory, and we’d have to repose all patents in individuals only. So either way corporations can never legitimately own ideas.
(If someone wanted to say, “OK, I accept the social ownership concept, but the corporation is the proper kind of society”, the response is that society itself legitimately exists for the well-being of the people. Any society which fails in that practice is a failure, period. Corporations go even further in their failure, however, since they not only fail to bring weal to the people, but bring only woe; but even in principle they renounce any social responsibility. The institutional sociopathy of the corporation whose only responsibility is to the shareholders places it outside civilization and in the state of nature. It declares itself, in principle, the enemy of the people and of any human society.
So that disposes of any theoretical legitimacy of corporations as societies.
And of course we’re familiar with their record in practice - eroded wages, gutted amenities, destroyed jobs, stolen and destroyed public property, environmental devastation, socioeconomic devastation, global repression and mass murder, mass fear and hatred, a genocidal assault on democracy itself.
Yes, on the practical level as well the corporate “society” has to be called a failed society.)
But from reading the NYT or the MSM in general you’d think there wasn’t even a question here. That’s just one of the characteristic Status Quo Lies, most of them implicit, of the corporate media. That’s why not a single word they say can ever be trusted in itself, but has to be distilled through an anti-corporate filter.
The people need a completely new media. 

October 27, 2010

First They Came for the Raw Milk, And I Did Nothing…..

Filed under: Corporatism, Food and Farms, Freedom, Relocalization — Tags: , — Russ @ 5:25 am


I’ve never drank raw milk, but it’s my right to do so. Humanity has done so for tens of thousands of years. On a broader level, we have a human and constitutional right to grow and produce our own food and distribute it among ourselves as citizens. When you read the history books few things stand out as so emblematic of tyranny as feudal designations of all the produce of the land and the farmer as belonging to the king or the nobles.
Therefore it’s a metric of our recrudescence into a new feudalism that a new King, in the form of corporate agriculture and its government lackeys, is trying to proclaim itself the total lord of the food demesne, with the full force of law and the full violence of armed robbery.
Since it’s a “fringe” culture, raw milk is ground zero for the government’s war on food freedom. Corporatism thinks that if it can make raw milk persecution the template, and establish here the legal, political, and tactical precedents, it can from there launch a broader assault on all production and distribution of food outside the corporate system.
Before I continue let me stress that in all the years of the industry there has been only one documented case of food-borne illness arising from raw milk. On the other hand, Jack DeCoster’s Wright Eggs, a factory-farming oligopolist, recently sickened thousands with salmonella poisoning. This was only the latest and worst outrage in DeCoster’s decades-long campaign of flouting health rules, abuse of workers and animals, environmental degradation, and socioeconomic devastation. His record is typical among corporate producers.
In spite of Jack DeCoster’s open contempt for the law and for all food safety rules, prior to the salmonella outbreak he has never been subjected by government authorities to more than cursory inspections and flaccid letters. Let’s be clear: The feds knew about DeCoster’s practices, and they knew that he’d inevitably cause a major outbreak. But these “authorities” intentionally chose to go through the motions. They telegraphed the fact that, much like the corporations themselves, government regards food-borne illness as just a hazard of doing business. Where it comes to the big producers, that is. But with the small private clubs who drink raw milk they’ve been far more intrepid.
In recent years there have been a series of raids on raw milk producers and clubs in the US and Canada. The most outrageous and lawless action was this summer’s raid by armed, uniformed goons on Rawesome Foods, a private buying club in California, and the subsequent persecution of its main supplier, Morningland Dairies of Missouri. Since this action is typical in its essence but also sets a new bar for the magnitude of its thuggery and brazen lawlessness, I’ll describe the timeline in some detail.
1. June 30, armed agents of several federal, state, as well as Canadian agencies burst into the private facilities of Rawesome Foods in Venice, California. Many of these agents had guns drawn.
The raid was fundamentally illegal, since the feds already knew, after a prior incident, that Rawesome is a private buying club which does not sell to the public, and therefore not within their jurisdiction. Without a specific search warrant, the police cannot enter such premises.
Without sufficient warrants, the armed intruders shut down cameras, harassed and detained employees and customers, seized computers, and confiscated stock. (Going beyond the fundamental illegality of the raid, when Rawesome finally, belatedly did see a partial warrant – only four of an alleged 16 pages - even this perhaps forged warrant would only have authorized the taking of samples. But the raiders seized large troves of produce and ordered the club to cease from selling the rest.)  
No one has since given an explanation for the guns, but some of the uniformed cops have said they were lied to about what the raid was really looking for. The whole thing is being enveloped in fog by the FDA’s smoke machine, but one thing that shines through brightly is that the main purpose of this show of force was intimidation as such. it was meant to send shock waves throughout the sustainable food movement. It has certainly done so, but whether that will help achieve the government’s goal or on the contrary galvanize us to resist and reject these pirates, is up to us.
2. In August the goon squad showed up at the door of Rawsome’s supplier, Morningland dairies. In over thirty years of operation Morningland has never been implicated in a single case of food-borne illness. Its record is exemplary. But now the feds claimed to have found contaminated samples among the food seized at the Rawesome raid and were demanding a further “investigation” of Morningland.
Leaving aside the fact that the Rawesome raid itself was illegal and unconstitutional, the alleged evidence of contamination is extremely dubious. California state authorities have refused to provide documentation of the proper storage and chain of custody of the samples, or of the testing methodology, or of the actual results. The allegation of contamination by listeria and staph bacteria basically amounts to innuendo.
But as we saw in the case of the raid, the intent here clearly is not to detect bacteria and take action to render the food supply safe. It’s a direct attack on a non-corporate producer and distributor, and an intimidation campaign against all non-corporate food.
3. Having used an undocumented positive test from an illegally seized sample to justify this further incursion, the government did further testing at the Morningland facility and found nothing after 100 swab samples.
But that didn’t stop them from ordering Morningland to destroy over 50,000 pounds of cheese worth $250,000. They also “requested” that Morningland issue a recall of 70,000 pounds of cheese previously sold. This was a tremendous burden on a small producer who, remember, in thirty years of operation has never made a single person sick. By law the FDA can only request this recall; nevertheless, without waiting for an affirmative answer, the FDA went ahead and publicly announced the recall, thereby politically coercing Morningland into compliance. This can’t be seen as anything but pure thug extortion.
And that’s the disposition of the cases thus far. None of this could ever hold up in court, nor was there any intent for it to do so. This is the most basic kind of Mafia strong-arm tactics. (Rawesome has since received harassment from the building inspector as well.) The intent is political. 
I think the record here establishes two things.
1. The intent is malevolent. The focus on small producers in the first place, the illegality of the raids, the high-handed seizures and general flouting of all procedural rules, the drawn guns, the illegal news release, the public demonization, all depict an abusive government intent on repression of an unpopular group.
2. But these aren’t the best-coordinated bunch. More like the Keystone Kops. The warrant for the Rawesome raid seems to have been unconstitutionally acquired after-the-fact, perhaps by forgery, yet still only authorized the raiders to seize samples, not whole stocks. Even if the warrant was legit, that would just be more evidence of the basic criminality of the raid in its execution. Either the warrant was real but flouted in many ways, or else it’s forged but was still flouted in its letter by the actions of the raiders.
And then the investigators failed to find any contamination at the Morningland facility itself. If they’re acting in good professional faith, that should be the end of the action against the facility right there. But they went ahead and ordered stock destruction and “requested” the recall as if they had found contamination. It’s as if their course of action was pre-ordained, yet they forgot to trump up the incriminating forged evidence.
I don’t know if this is because these cadres are fairly new to this level of repression, or whether they’re just low-quality people operating on a strained budget. Bush slashed the FDA’s budget at the same time that he wanted it to serve as a hired goon. I suppose the result is that all the “talented” thugs work at more glamorous and lucrative agencies, while the FDA (let alone state agencies) gets the dregs. Probably the only difference between the average FDA enforcer and a gutter debt collector is that the one had the money to go to college.
The reason for this campaign of persecution, intimidation, and harassment is that the government food agencies are the flunkeys of industrial agriculture. That’s proven just by the complete inverted disparity between two overwhelming ratios. These are: the ratio of corporate-caused food poisoning (over 99%) to that caused by small producers; and the ratio of government enforcement, preventive as well as remedial, of these same toxic industrial producers to its enforcement actions against small producers. The ratio there is just as lopsided but on the opposite side.
So it’s clear that in the eyes of the government, the more dangerous you are, the less you warrant any preventive or punitive action, while the more innocent you are, the more you’re seen as a target. The reason for all this is obvious. Government food policy is in the hands of the same corporate thugs who push the same pro-corporate policies as we see with the banks, the insurance rackets, the weapons rackets, and in every other sector.
If anyone needs any further evidence, just look at how Bush and Obama have filled practically every position in the food bureaucracy with cadres from Monsanto and other food racketeers.
These cadres whose handiwork we’re already seeing at the enforcement level are the same who will be further empowered by the Food Tyranny bills currently making their way through Congress. These bills – the House version passed in 2009, and the Senate version is currently stalled but likely to see action after the election - impose one-size-fits-all regulatory burdens which have been intentionally crafted to pose at most a minor nuisance to the big producers while posing severe, and perhaps insurmountable, economic and logistical obstacles for small ones. They’re intended to economically crush non-corporate producers and distributors. But just in case that’s not enough, they also increase the government’s enforcement power. For example, remember how I said the FDA can currently only request a recall, not order it? Under these bills it will be empowered to order recalls. Of course, if we lived in a human society where food agencies really were enforcing food safety and looking out for the public interest, that might be a good thing.
But the record is clear. The chances that under kleptocracy this mandatory recall will be used against the likes of Wright Eggs are vanishingly small. The chances it will be used only against small producers like Morningland approach 100%.
The goal of these bills and these enforcement actions is to aggrandize corporate agriculture and repress the healthy, resilient, sustainable food production and distribution such ever-growing numbers of people are recognizing as an imperative. We recognize that Food Freedom is necessary for the health of our families, as well as for our economy, society, and democracy. These are one whole, and the course of action toward all forms of health runs in the same direction – relocalization, economic self-direction, democratic participation.
For obvious reasons this is a mortal threat to the corporate food system. That’s why they’re mustering this level of government thuggery. But we the people don’t need or want government aggression against small producers. It’s clear that any proactive government action must be against the big producers, whose criminality and negligence of safety is well-documented. And if the government refuse to be proactive here, than it has no legitimacy in ANY proactive measure. Meanwhile the record is clear on how remedial and punitive the government gets when DeCoster eggs sicken thousands. And it’s clear how much “correction” is demanded in the case of Morningland Dairies, which has sickened no one.
Given that record, it looks like here most of all “that government is best which governs least”, and the less the food agencies do, the better off we are. We’ll definitely be better off without a new food bill. Public pressure has already had salutary effects on the Senate bill, which has been amended to a far better condition than it started out. So the people should keep up the pressure. But best of all would be if the thing is defeated completely. From here we need to grow our own food and food production and distribution networks. As for the rogue government, the best we can do is enforce the much-despised 10th Amendment. Now that’s one thing we’ll definitely have to do for ourselves. 
So the takeaway is:
1. The government wants to smash local, sustainable food, especially where this is a business, but not exclusively where it’s a business.
2. The government targets small producers and distributors. It looks for a pretext for enforcement, and if it can’t find one it trumps one up. Law, science, and professional procedure are all to be freely used, abused, or discarded in this process.
3. The food bills in Congress would increase the government’s power while imposing extreme hardships on those same small producers and distributors. The Food Tyranny bill is therefore both a direct and indirect police state assault on non-corporate food.
This is about food, but not just about food. What’s at stake here is nothing less than our attempt to redeem democracy itself. That’s true on every battlefront. The same struggle is playing out in every sector. It’s corporate tyranny, abetted by a rogue, illegitimate government, against the people’s health, our social stability, our economic prosperity, our political participation, and in every way our right, wish, and will to live as democratic human beings. That’s the defining struggle of the age. And nowhere can it be more visceral than at the level of our very food.
So when you see them coming for the raw milk people, even if you don’t drink raw milk or use any product of it, you can know that they’re coming for you as well.
People can donate to a benefit for Morningland Dairies here.

October 26, 2010

The Corporatism of MERS

Filed under: Corporatism, Land Reform — Tags: — Russ @ 3:54 am


Taken in itself, MERS is just a lesser moving part of the big mechanism of the Foreclosuregate Land Scandal. It’s a malfunctioning gear, not the ghost in the machine. The most important features are the break in the chain of ownership, leaving the liens homeless and vagrant, and the vagrancy of the securities in the MBS trusts. In both cases we seem to be left with nothing but unsecured paper. The MBS themselves are worthless, and neither kind of paper directly touches the house. All of this has been propped up in the eyes of the law by massive, systematic forgery and perjury. The culpable conspiracy to commit fraud must encompass all officers of every entity involved, right up to the CEOs of BofA, Wells, Citi, and JPM. (Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley as well, since they knew how the MBS scam worked.)
MERS is just an electronic registry set up to secretively toss around “ownership” in the form of virtual ones and zeroes but not in the form of the physical paper required for it to have any force of law. This was intended to render the conveyor belt from originator to trust and servicer to investor more “efficient”, meaning cheaper in labor and tax evasion. It was also helpful in tranche fraud, since rather than the mortgages actually being sliced and diced ahead of time, the computer waited until one went bad and then assigned it to the proper tranche so the favored gamblers wouldn’t take the hit. The system was like a million Schrodinger’s cat boxes where people bet on how many cats were dead, except that the connected players were tipped off whenever a cat died and always got to avoid those boxes.
Nearly a year ago I wrote about this, and I think my description and assessment hold up pretty well:

But at the very center of the financial system, out of its own logic and procedure, it has grown a tumor. This is the system’s failure to maintain its own registry, its own paper trail, its own legal basis. It’s as if they already burned many of the deeds for us.

The people are already outraged at the crimes of the banks. We can join to this moral and political outrage an understanding of the structural anarchy and illegality of the system in itself. According to its own premise it has no legal basis, even a phony one, because the land ownership premise is that whoever holds the note has the right, so if there’s no note, there’s no right.

This philosophical and moral combination could provide the basis for a real reform movement. The goal is not just to take back the country from the banksters, but to restore the rule of law and order itself.

So let’s be clear: To be a revolutionary today is to be the advocate of law, while to defend the status quo is to be a lawless rioter.

Property ownership, duly recorded and registered, is the foundation of this legal system. Anarchy at this point equals anarchy throughout. You sell a property, you transfer the written deed. The legal owner, the piece of paper in hand. This has allowed for the orderly ranking and disposal of any claims on the property. Adjudication is not supposed to get hopelessly entangled right at the outset, in even figuring out who holds the note.

But the housing bubble’s fuel was a vast supply of mortgage loans passed along a conveyor belt of entities – lender, sponsor, depositor, trust – while being sliced and diced into tranche layers to then be securitized. Apparently the paperwork and fees and taxes payable at each transfer were too much for the banks to deal with so they simply set up their own extralegal system where any of the shell firms along the way could at any time be what the bank’s computer would call the “owner” (meanwhile the piece of paper often simply disappeared).

The banks (Citi, BofA, JPM, Wells), the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA), Fannie and Freddie, the street-level sleazy lenders and servicers and others set up the Mortgage Electronic Registration System (MERS) as a front to carry out foreclosures and serve as the respondent in any court case. MERS simply claims to own the mortgage if anyone asks. It doesn’t really even “exist” in the sense of having many employees, etc. Where action is necessary an employee of the underlying bank, servicer or whatnot doubles as the MERS cadre.

For convenience sake, and to cheat on fees and taxes, they simply blew off centuries of property law, the rule of law as such. The result of all this is a system of accounting fraud and avoidance of legal responsibility in general. Anyone who has to deal with them, especially who tries to fight back, has to play Whack-A-Mole with this crazy bureaucracy where no one in particular has any responsibility, authority, or ability to do anything. It takes faceless, bloodless limited liability, the zero responsibility-total rights ideology, to the extreme.

Most ridiculous, the note itself often disappears. Demands to produce it lead to MERS or some similar shell simply vouching for itself, “I own it”, with zero proof.

While MERS is not the essence but a tool, it is symbolic of the corporate phenomenon – the disembodied claim to total rights, the relinquishing of all responsibility, shifting of all costs, the assumption of all prerogative, the essence of might makes right.
In a sense MERS is a totem of corporatism, and a taboo for humanity. Even for ardent propertarians like Hernando de Soto, MERS is a monster to be feared and loathed. MERS flouts, assaults, or subverts several of the criteria de Soto listed for stability of property rights – that registries be accessible to the public, that they take all externalities into account, that deals be “firmly tethered to the real value of the asset from which it originated” (MERS systematically orphaned the lien), and that opacity and obfuscation be purged from the system.
The anti-MERS ruling of the Kansas supreme court made a joke about it:

“The relationship that MERS has to Sovereign [Bank] is more akin to that of a straw man than to a party possessing all the rights given a buyer… What meaning is this court to attach to MERS’s designation as nominee for Millennia [Mortgage Corp.]? The parties appear to have defined the word in much the same way that the blind men of Indian legend described an elephant — their description depended on which part they were touching at any given time. Counsel for Sovereign stated to the trial court that MERS holds the mortgage ‘in street name, if you will, and our client the bank and other banks transfer these mortgages and rely on MERS to provide them with notice of foreclosures and what not.’ ” (Landmark National Bank v. Boyd A. Kesler)

It was oddly appropriate that in 1997 the MERS CEO proclaimed, “Yes, there is life on MERS.” This was false, but it does capture the sense of the MERS corporation itself as a sterile rock floating through a dead void.
There’s something horrible about this:

On April 7, 2010, in the Superior Court of New Jersey, MERS Treasurer and Secretary William C. Hultman gave an oral sworn video/telephone deposition in the case of Bank Of New York v. Ukpe.:

Q Do the assistant secretaries — first off, are
you a salaried employee of MERS?
A No.

Q Are you a salaried employee of MERS Corp,
A Yes.

Q Are any of the employees of MERS, Inc.
salaried employees?
A I don’t understand your question.

Q Does anyone get a paycheck, if they are an
employee of MERS, Inc., do they get a paycheck from
Mercer, Inc.?
A There is no MERS, Inc.

Q I thought, sir, there’s a company that was
formed January 1, 1999, Mortgage Electronic Registration
Systems, Inc. Does it have paid employees?
A No, it does not.

Q Does it have employees?
A No.

Q Does MERS have any employees?
A Did they ever have any? I couldn’t hear you.

Q Does MERS have any employees currently?
A No.

Q In the last five years has MERS had any
A No.

Q How many assistant secretaries have you
appointed pursuant to the April 9, 1998 resolution; how
many assistant secretaries of MERS have you appointed?
A I don’t know that number.

Q Approximately?
A I wouldn’t even begin to be able to tell you
right now.

Q Is it in the thousands?
A Yes.

Q Have you been doing this all around the
country in every state in the country?
A Yes.

Q And all these officers I understand are unpaid
officers of MERS?
A Yes.

Q And there’s no live person who is an employee
of MERS that they report to, is that correct, who is an employee?
A There are no employees of MERS.

It’s not just run-of-the-mill crookedness (let alone “sloppiness”.) There’s something horrible about how they strive to make this corporation a truly humanless entity. Their concept was that whenever they wanted, MERS was to have “standing” in court, stand as “owner” of the land. Yet not only is it a “corporate person”, but it claims to have no human persons as employees. Whenever they needed an actual person to stand in for the corporate entity they’d deputize someone from one of the other entities such as the servicer.
This is the trend of all corporations. Wherever possible, as per the Rule of Rackets (the capitalist-to-oligopolist imperative and prerogative), the goal is to become a “brand” and delegate all the actual work, if any, to subcontractors. This is also intended to “legally” put buffers between the corporation and its responsibility for anything at all, for example using something close to slave labor. (See Naomi Klein, No Logo.) Or, as in our mortgage conveyor belt example, to buffer the originator, i.e. a big bank or subsidiary thereof, from legal liability for the bogus quality of its mortgage loans when that same bank later stands as trustee for the MBS derived from them. The bank’s liability is supposed to have been laundered in both directions through the conveyor process. MERS facilitated this.
MERS is also used to illegally assign mortgages after an originator had gone bankrupt, when only the bankruptcy trustee could have such authority. But this crime would regularly be committed, whenever the trust belatedly needed such an assignment. The system’s opacity was intended to cover this up. 
It would stand to “own” the land wherever a foreclosure was to take place. This is the logic of separating useful work on the land (the original kernel of the ultimately fraudulent labor theory of property itself) from legal ownership. Todau we reach the point where temporarily unwanted land can be consigned to humanless corporate “ownership”. This is the better to relinquish responsibility for maintaining the foreclosed land and paying property taxes on it until the next buyer is found. Beleaguered towns and cities, facing fiscal disaster and whole neighborhoods falling into neglected semi-vacancy and the squalor that follows, have had great trouble trying to find out who really “owns” these vacant, unmaintained houses. (The same trouble the individual foreclosee often has.)
These phenomena describe the full logic of corporate personhood. The goal is for none of us human beings to have any legal rights vs. the corporation, but for it to have total rights vs. us. The goal is for none of us to be “employees” of the corporate entity, but just deputized laborers. Have you seen the impoverished day laborers who stand in a parking lot waiting for some guy to come around in a pickup truck? The goal is for all workplaces to become like that in essence, just piling into the pickup truck. (That is, for the diminishing number of us who’ll have a job at all.) You’ll get your meager pay, but beyond that you won’t exist, in the eyes of either the corporation or the law, as a human being. You’ll be a deputized cog at work, and outside work you simply won’t exist at all, other than as a criminal.
It’s chillingly redolent of the phenomenon described in Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, where the stateless person had no legal existence unless he committed a crime. The only difference is that in the mass refugee situations Arendt was describing she claimed that the stateless unperson could actually improve his condition by committing a crime and in that way becoming a legal person. I doubt that’s likely to be true under corporatism where the system aggressively criminalizes poverty itself.
Today the whole mortgage conveyor system totters, calling into profound question both the legal and market validity of securitization as well as the legal disposition of the residential land itself. The system will try to retroactively legalize the mess, but the hurdles it faces are daunting. If it’s possible to hold the line vs. MERS and this system of fraud, could the rest be rolled back from there? Many commenters are saying this threatens to bring us back to September 2008. We should be saying, is that a threat or a promise? Could this actually give us a second chance to do what we should have done two years ago? Could this derail the Bailout and bring about the destruction of Wall Street itself?
And from there, could we find ways to invigorate other battlefronts with the same primal sense of outrage people are now feeling where it comes to their very own homes? In this case, as I said in my Jubilation post, “the political street entered the house”. But how do we find other such avenues, to the point that we can get Americans out of the houses and into the streets?

October 24, 2010

Transparency, Wikileaks, and Odious Secrecy


Today the people are the beneficiaries of the latest Wikileaks document delivery, nearly 400,000 pieces of information touching on every aspect of the horrors of the Iraq war of aggression. I’ve previously written about Wikileaks here and here.
We ought to be the beneficiaries, if we choose to use this opportunity to learn about the crimes of this system. Unfortunately the previous deliveries didn’t have much immediate effect on the shocking complacency of what may be a terminal slave populace. But it’s too early to know how the beer will taste until it’s fully brewed. These things sometimes fester underground, like the flame that can slowly smoulder its way invisible through miles of subterranean pine needles before it bursts into the air as wildfire.
We have no idea what the tipping points will be, and what gradual, organic forces and tensions will have undermined the balance to the point of sudden imbalance.
However that may be, sunlight is a pure value. It warms, it invigorates the air, conjures the photosynthetic basis of complex life. It illuminates, it directs, it teaches, it inspires.
And while as individual human beings we also need and are entitled to our shade and shadow and our night as well, no one has the right to block out the sun. The information our society creates belongs to us all. It is our property as citizens. It’s our social sunlight, which illumines our collective truths. Top down secrecy is odious. It’s a theft of public property. It’s a characteristic crime of tyranny, committed for the obvious reason of concealing from us the rest of their crimes against us. It’s also done for its own sake, out of the inertia of power and the haughty sense of entitlement of elitism itself. It’s the smothering fog coughed up to obscure our sun. It’s shoving us into the grave dug for us, and the shoveling of sterile dirt upon our heads. Secrecy is death.
There’s certainly no “practical” reason for it. America has no existential enemies, except the criminals themselves. And even its lesser terrorist enemies are not a threat worth all we’ve pusillanimously surrendered to them. They’re mostly a threat to the elite empire, not to the citizenry. And it’s the empire’s war which creates the terrorists anyway. The Arab world long ago got sick of jihad. Only US aggression still fans those flames. So the pretext for the secrets is the same crime which generates the opposition whose alleged threat is supposed to justify the secrets. This is the same crime whose details the secrecy seeks to cover up. We’ll find that this applies in every example, not just the war.
So secrecy has no practical purpose or moral validity. Secrecy can only be part of legitimate sovereignty to the point it is absolutely necessary on account of some existential threat. Where, as in our case, this threat is nonexistent, the justification is nonexistent. So to the rest of our indictment we can add that a secretive government is an illegitimate government. In our case secrecy is not part of sovereignty, but is only instrumental toward tyranny.
Julian Assange of Wikileaks is an eloquent articulator and relentless activist of this ideal.

WikiLeaks receives about thirty submissions a day, and typically posts the ones it deems credible in their raw, unedited state, with commentary alongside. Assange told me, “I want to set up a new standard: ‘scientific journalism.’ If you publish a paper on DNA, you are required, by all the good biological journals, to submit the data that has informed your research—the idea being that people will replicate it, check it, verify it. So this is something that needs to be done for journalism as well. There is an immediate power imbalance, in that readers are unable to verify what they are being told, and that leads to abuse.” Because Assange publishes his source material, he believes that WikiLeaks is free to offer its analysis, no matter how speculative…..

Assange does not believe that the military acts in good faith with the media. He said to me, “What right does this institution have to know the story before the public?”…….

In some respects, Assange appeared to be most annoyed by the journalistic process itself—“a craven sucking up to official sources to imbue the eventual story with some kind of official basis,” as he once put it. WikiLeaks has long maintained a complicated relationship with conventional journalism. When, in 2008, the site was sued after publishing confidential documents from a Swiss bank, the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press, and ten other news organizations filed amicus briefs in support. (The bank later withdrew its suit.) But, in the Bunker one evening, Gonggrijp told me, “We are not the press.” He considers WikiLeaks an advocacy group for sources; within the framework of the Web site, he said, “the source is no longer dependent on finding a journalist who may or may not do something good with his document.”

Assange, despite his claims to scientific journalism, emphasized to me that his mission is to expose injustice, not to provide an even-handed record of events. In an invitation to potential collaborators in 2006, he wrote, “Our primary targets are those highly oppressive regimes in China, Russia and Central Eurasia, but we also expect to be of assistance to those in the West who wish to reveal illegal or immoral behavior in their own governments and corporations.” He has argued that a “social movement” to expose secrets could “bring down many administrations that rely on concealing reality—including the US administration.”

And here:

This information has reform potential. And the information which is concealed or suppressed is concealed or suppressed because the people who know it best understand that it has the ability to reform. So they engage in work to prevent that reform . . . .

There are reasons I do it that have to do with wanting to reform civilization, and selectively targeting information will do that — understanding that quality information is what every decision is based on, and all the decisions taken together is what “civilization” is, so if you want to improve civilization, you have to remove some of the basic constraints, which is the quality of information that civilization has at its disposal to make decisions. Of course, there’s a personal psychology to it, that I enjoy crushing bastards, I like a good challenge, so do a lot of the other people involved in WikiLeaks. We like the challenge.

He writes in his manifesto, “Conspiracy as Governance”,

He had come to understand the defining human struggle not as left versus right, or faith versus reason, but as individual versus institution. As a student of Kafka, Koestler, and Solzhenitsyn, he believed that truth, creativity, love, and compassion are corrupted by institutional hierarchies, and by “patronage networks”—one of his favorite expressions—that contort the human spirit. He sketched out a manifesto of sorts, titled “Conspiracy as Governance,” which sought to apply graph theory to politics. Assange wrote that illegitimate governance was by definition conspiratorial—the product of functionaries in “collaborative secrecy, working to the detriment of a population.” He argued that, when a regime’s lines of internal communication are disrupted, the information flow among conspirators must dwindle, and that, as the flow approaches zero, the conspiracy dissolves. Leaks were an instrument of information warfare.

The organization is a model of rhizomatic resilience and redundancy:

Assange is an international trafficker, of sorts. He and his colleagues collect documents and imagery that governments and other institutions regard as confidential and publish them on a Web site called WikiLeaks.org. Since it went online, three and a half years ago, the site has published an extensive catalogue of secret material, ranging from the Standard Operating Procedures at Camp Delta, in Guantánamo Bay, and the “Climategate” e-mails from the University of East Anglia, in England, to the contents of Sarah Palin’s private Yahoo account. The catalogue is especially remarkable because WikiLeaks is not quite an organization; it is better described as a media insurgency. It has no paid staff, no copiers, no desks, no office. Assange does not even have a home. He travels from country to country, staying with supporters, or friends of friends—as he once put it to me, “I’m living in airports these days.” He is the operation’s prime mover, and it is fair to say that WikiLeaks exists wherever he does. At the same time, hundreds of volunteers from around the world help maintain the Web site’s complicated infrastructure; many participate in small ways, and between three and five people dedicate themselves to it full time. Key members are known only by initials—M, for instance—even deep within WikiLeaks, where communications are conducted by encrypted online chat services. The secretiveness stems from the belief that a populist intelligence operation with virtually no resources, designed to publicize information that powerful institutions do not want public, will have serious adversaries……

Assange also wanted to insure that, once the video was posted online, it would be impossible to remove. He told me that WikiLeaks maintains its content on more than twenty servers around the world and on hundreds of domain names. (Expenses are paid by donations, and a few independent well-wishers also run “mirror sites” in support.) Assange calls the site “an uncensorable system for untraceable mass document leaking and public analysis,” and a government or company that wanted to remove content from WikiLeaks would have to practically dismantle the Internet itself……..

As it now functions, the Web site is primarily hosted on a Swedish Internet service provider called PRQ.se, which was created to withstand both legal pressure and cyber attacks, and which fiercely preserves the anonymity of its clients. Submissions are routed first through PRQ, then to a WikiLeaks server in Belgium, and then on to “another country that has some beneficial laws,” Assange told me, where they are removed at “end-point machines” and stored elsewhere. These machines are maintained by exceptionally secretive engineers, the high priesthood of WikiLeaks. One of them, who would speak only by encrypted chat, told me that Assange and the other public members of WikiLeaks “do not have access to certain parts of the system as a measure to protect them and us.” The entire pipeline, along with the submissions moving through it, is encrypted, and the traffic is kept anonymous by means of a modified version of the Tor network, which sends Internet traffic through “virtual tunnels” that are extremely private. Moreover, at any given time WikiLeaks computers are feeding hundreds of thousands of fake submissions through these tunnels, obscuring the real documents. Assange told me that there are still vulnerabilities, but “this is vastly more secure than any banking network.”

This is a new model for the kind of sunlight activism we need. Imagine a whole media system dedicated to such recovery of the people’s stolen information. (I’m of course referring to collective public information, regarding politics, the economy, business, foreign policy. Just as with property in general, the personally used item or information belongs to the individual; the collective infrastructure belongs to those who build it.) We can know our need for so many suns as we survey the wasteland of odious secrecy. I’ll just select some of the examples from some of the fronts.
The Banks:
So many secrets of the Bailout. The Fed’s still stonewalling the fight for sunlight which has outlived its originator, Bloomberg reporter Mark Pittman. Will we ever know how much taxpayer money was embezzled by the Fed’s “facilities” and arcane Treasury programs? How much was handed to the banks practically for free to let them gamble against our economy, prosperity, and society?
No sooner was the sham finance bill passed than it came to light (heh) that the bill contained a provision allowing the SEC to keep practically all of its activities veiled from the FOIA. Although Congress went through the charade of “fixing” this “oversight”, even the fix still adjures the SEC to protect the secrets of hedge funds.
So there’s a good example of what the sham finance “reform” bill was really about. Since they were worried that SEC activities which were subject to FOIA requests could become a conduit for throwing sunlight on the shadow banking system, they used the bill as a mechanism for indirectly gutting the FOIA where it comes to the finance sector. We should look for such anti-FOIA gambits in every other kind of bill.
Among its many vectors of criminality, the MERS system is meant to cause all mortgage information to disappear down a black hole. But the land belongs to the people, and the banks have no right to secrets over it. Why should we ever agree that some secret system vouches for the ownership of land? It’s not bad enough we have private property in land on the part of unproductive bankster “owners”, but this system of ownership is also being kept secret from we the people, from whom this potentially productive land was stolen in the first place?
The truth is that the banks themselves have long since lost track of this ownership, and abrogated the chain of title beyond redemption. Part of the point of MERS was to carry that out, and now part of its point is to conceal it.
Even a neoliberal propertarian like Hernando de Soto deplores this assault on transparency, considering it subversive of property rights. Among the criteria he lists for stability of the property regime are that all assets and transactions be listed on publicly accessible registries, that all finance deals must stay closely tied to the real value of the underlying asset (so it follows that this value must be transparent), and that government must forbid opacity and obfuscation in the language of market transactions.
(I mention de Soto to demonstrate that a leading neoliberal concurs in the assessment that the MERS system, including its secretiveness, has called landed property itself into quesion.)
The Health “Insurance” Rackets:
They’re notorious for total darkness where it comes to pricing. (Doctors and hospitals are guilty of that too.) The customer has practically no basis for cost comparison or any kind of understanding of why he’s being quoted the rate he’s experiencing. The racket bailout bill alleges it will change that, but we’re already seeing how well the bill’s provisions are being enforced.
Internet Access and Participation:
The telecoms and cable companies have so far mostly refrained from transmission discrimination because they fear political fallout and a consumer backlash. But the formal enshrinement of net neutrality has become all the more critical as the technology now exists to let the telecoms discriminate in a secretive manner.
(The FCC’s proposed net neutrality principles, even if enshrined, may actually be pretty weak against such secret discrimination. But one fight at a time. Let’s get a basic net neutrality enshrinement, and then we’ll improve it.)
The FDA, a corporate tool, has done all it can to keep secrets from the American people about the safety and costs of their own food. It seeks to ban GMO-free labeling. Although it hasn’t (yet) banned bovine growth hormone labeling, it allows and is encouraging states to do so. Recently a federal court overturned an Ohio state ban where the Agriculture Department sought to intervene on behalf of the state.
The Obama administration also continues the Bush tradition of refusing to update public environmental databases even where required by law. In this case the USDA has refused to update its pesticide use database since 2007.
The Gulf Oil Eruption:
Perhaps the most chilling secrecy event, imposed not by stealth and bureaucracy but by brute force, was Obama’s literal handing over of (anti-)sovereign jurisdiction over much of the US part of the Gulf of Mexico to BP. Federal employees openly said they could only do or allow what BP authorized, and federal agents became de facto privatized deputiesWe still know almost nothing about what’s really happening in the Gulf, and while we’ll eventually know the full effects if only by experience, the system criminals will do all they can to keep our information from us as long as they can, to our economic and health detriment.
(With all of these, we should recall the sick joke out of Chicago, how markets were going to be “free” and “efficient” and “rational” since all “participants” would have all the necessary information. But as I described in my deconstruction of the ideological and “constitutional” rationale for the Stamp mandate, we were really never considered participants in this utopian market, but passive subjects, clay to be worked, a resource to be mined, victims. That’s the full Orwellian truth of neoclassical economics. So there also lies their explanation for how Secrecy = Transparency. Their theory was only ever meant to apply to the elites themselves.)
It’s easy to see how many powerful interests are ranged against the people’s sunlight. So it’s also no surprise that Assange and Wikileaks have been demonized by the government, the MSM, and conservative and liberal hacks alike. (Including quite a few of the “real progressives” who oppose Obama, but who nevertheless as liberals remain elitists and still viscerally abhor the ideal that the elites are entitled to no secrets at all.)
The fact that such an array of criminals has assembled against Wikileaks is a metric of its effectiveness, and even more, of its perceived threat, and a badge of honor. We can expect every kind of tactic to be deployed against Assange and the rest of the team, but the aspirations of the organization and the task may just withstand the onslaught. It’ll help if more people and organizations follow on this path.
We who reject the existence of the “elites” also reject their nonexistent right to keep secrets. Every leak against the will of the elites is a restitution of stolen property. Wikileaks is in fact an agent of law and order, and its people are part of the human citizenry.

October 22, 2010

Jubilate! Mortgages and Property


The Street Enters the House - Umberto Boccioni

The implications of the Land Scandal keep rippling out to ever more distant shores of political possibility. By now it has sunk into the public consciousness: Your alleged bank may not have the note on your mortgage. It may only be posing as the real owner of your house. It may have no legal right, even according to its own bank-friendly laws, to foreclose if you stop paying the mortgage. Show Me the Note!
People understand that the reason they’re losing their homes is not because of any moral failing on their own part, but because the banks have systematically destroyed America’s jobs through their program of forced globalization, outsourcing, offshoring, downsizing, and consolidation. The main goal of all of these, other than direct looting on the part of banksters, was to destroy all decent American jobs. At the same time the banks undermined the economy and all social protections to the point that losing one’s job or having a medical emergency is likely to trigger a personal mortgage crisis. (As is often pointed out, only in the banksters’ America does losing one’s job mean losing one’s health insurance. This system of a double-hit was intentionally set up by the corporatists as a form of socioeconomic terrorism. It’s meant to quash dissent among the work force.)
The people understand that the same banks who presided over the massive bubble propaganda then willfully burst that bubble, dumping overboard and underwater many of the housedebtors they induced into extravagant mortgages they can now no longer afford, on houses worth far less than they borrowed. These bloated loans were all predatory loans. The bubble was a fabrication, the bloated housing prices were a fabrication, the loans and municipal taxes and bonding based upon them were fabrications. Every lender and every government was guilty of massive, willful fraud. Now that the bubble has burst, prices are seeking their real economic level. So by definition anyone who’s underwater is the victim of lending fraud.
The fraud extended to the federal government. The only priorities of both kleptocratic parties are to reflate the bubble, prop up the zombie banks, and help them continue looting. This has forced the government into all sorts of policy contortions, trying to navigate the contradictions of a situation where everyone wants to keep prices up but also wants to foreclose, which would bring more housing stock onto the already grossly oversupplied market. (And we’re learning about the conflicts of interest between the servicers, who have an incentive to foreclose, and the MBS investors who do not, since the phony “value” of their toxic assets depends upon extending and pretending with everything including the mortgages.)
Facing these paradoxes, the administration launched its HAMP scam. The goal was to lie to distressed housedebtors, telling them if they keep paying for the time being they’ll get a permanent mod. In reality Obama never intended to give anyone mods, but only to string people along, forestalling any ideas they were having about walking away, inducing a few more payments out of them, before the servicer lowered the boom once and for all.
If there were ever any doubt about this, the fact that Obama, as per his normal corporatist procedure, put the servicers themselves in charge of the mod application process, in direct contradiction of their own interest, should dispel it. That proved right from the start what the real plan was.
The people are learning how the banks, in their rush to securitize these fraudulent loans, separated the note from the lien and didn’t convey title along the Rube Goldberg chain of sponsors and depositors and trustees, thereby rendering the trusts themselves illegal, the MBS as nothing but unsecured loans now of zero value (so the banks we already knew were insolvent are now known to be in far worse shape than previously thought), the liens as phony “liens” that are also fraudulently referring to unsecured loans, and the houses themselves in legal limbo.
We know how once people started to wise up the banks simply set up Taylorist conveyor belts to churn out fraudulent affidavits. When judges started getting suspicious of all these lost-note affidavits, the fraud progressed to actual fabrication of documents. One company presented a price list.
We know that the banks are worthless, useless, criminal, parasitic, insolvent, obnoxious, and stupid. We know they have no right to exist at all, that every cent they’ve stolen (including the “bonuses”) has to be taken back in restitution, and that what’s supposed to be our government is really an illegitimate rogue kleptocracy which has committed itself not only to refusing to put a stop to the crimes of the banksters, but to helping them continue these crimes. The core policy of Bailout America is to steal taxpayer money and hand it over to the banks, in order to prop up their insolvency and enable them to continue gambling and looting. This is the essence of what this government does, and all other policy is defined by it.
We the people know all this, and when it comes literally to our homes we’re confronted with it in the starkest, most questionable form, and it is indeed causing us to start to ask some hard questions.
The three questions of the relationship of the banks and the land are these:
1. Does your particular bank own your particular mortgage? Or is it just lying about that?
2. Should banks – parasitic, insolvent, criminal, and since the Bailout the property of the people – be allowed or considered to own land at all? Isn’t this illegitimate on its face?
3. Does the very concept of unproductive ownership of land make any sense? Shouldn’t that be done away with as a counterproductive, immoral practice which only breeds the kind of criminal parasitism which so afflicts us today? Weren’t the “American Dream” and the “ownership society” nothing but scams to cover up bank looting? (Let’s recall how “ownership society” was the Bush slogan for his big push to privatize Social Security.)
I know that I’m still an outlier in asking #3. But it seems that the banksters have gratuitously, out of sheer idiotic greed, caused #1 to become a question in the first place, perhaps the central political question of the day. And having voluntarily, in an unforced error put #1 in play, they’ve reinforced the still-small but existing trend toward people starting to ask #2. And if #2 comes widely into play, #3 logically follows.
Just as the pro-bank scum try to keep the debtor-bashing propaganda going, but with less and less success, so they also keep saying, “even if the bank can’t produce the note, you still owe the debt.”
Here’s a typical example I found funny:

Joseph R. Mason, a finance professor who holds the Louisiana Bankers Association chair at Louisiana State University, said that concerns about proper foreclosure documentation were overblown. At the end of the day, he said, even if the banks botched the paperwork, homeowners who didn’t make their mortgage payments still needed to be held accountable.

“You borrowed money,” he said. “You are obligated to repay it.”

(I think it’s funny that LSU has a “Louisiana Bankers Association chair”. Actually I appreciate the honesty of that. Most of corporate academia is more deceptive about its prostitution.)
I keep asking the same question in response to this and never get an answer. Assuming I granted that “you are obligated to repay” a debt like this, to whom would you owe it?
The banks are criminal organizations. Morally no one should feel the need to owe them anything. Legally there’s also no obligation to pay off a “contract”, written by a loanshark, based on fraud. Granted, the disposition of such a legal claim would depend on how bank-friendly the judge was, but we’ve already seen judges willing to follow the spirit and letter of the law here.
Similarly, if we think it’s the government, as owner of many of the mortgages through the GSEs, as well as the real owner of the banks themselves, who owns the debt, the answer has to be that this is not the people’s government but a rogue criminal organization serving really as the banks’ flunkey and thug even though it’s actually their owner. So paying the government would be similarly immoral.
No, I think that if the debt exists, its an orphan debt owed to no one in particular, and therefore payable to no one in particular, which is as good as saying it doesn’t exist.
To put it another way: While the debt is not owed to the government, it is owed to the people. And since there’s no direct way to pay it to the people, the right way to discharge it is to stop paying the banks, and stay in the house. That’s the way one practices citizenship under these bank-created conditions. The good citizen resists the banks in any way possible. This is the most direct way of striking at them. Refusal to pay the fraudulent debt not owed to the banks is the way to pay the true debt we owe to ourselves and to one another as citizens.
I’m not the only one thinking this way. Read these excellent pieces on “the coming middle class anarchy”. Here’s just one of the snowballing anecdotes establishing how the words, Show Me the Note, strike terror in the hearts of the banksters. This is something for which their goon government has no fix. Not if a critical mass of people find the will to do it.
And how fortuitous! We decry how Americans are unwilling to leave the comforts of their homes to get out in the streets to protest, but here the Street has entered the House, the arena of protest has literally come home, and it’s the home itself which is at stake, in a fight to the finish with the banksters.
Compare today to where we were a year ago, when Brent White’s excellent paper on “strategic defaults” said you have to credibly threaten to walk away in order to get a mod. Now the debtor is in a much stronger position, if he’s willing to take advantage of it. He can credibly threaten to stop paying completely and stay in the house.
Nor is it just some radical bloggers saying this. These ideas are percolating closer to the mainstream. Chris Whalen is certainly no firebrand. Yet even he is saying that as the federal government continues to coddle the banks, state governors may end up calling upon people to “keep paying property taxes, stop paying the mortgage, and stay in your home”.
I don’t agree that Obama is unconscious in the sense Whalen means. I think he’s very intentionally dedicated to serving the banks and consciously doesn’t care if this dooms America to a Second Great Depression (although he probably thinks it won’t be that bad; but he certainly doesn’t care about impoverishment and suffering).
But I love the implication that this will have federalism ramifications, as state governments will have to take up some of the power the federal government has abdicated. Whalen thinks we’ll end up with mortgage moratoria in fifty states, but on a state-by-state basis, and implicitly in defiance of the federal government, at first.
So he sees power devolving in the right direction, downward, as a result of this “cancer” as he calls it. (Of course he thinks that’ll just be a temporary stopgap until “democracy does the right thing”. But we know he’s wrong about that part.)
Every housedebtor, distressed or not, underwater or not, should:
1. Stop paying the mortgage;
2. Stay in the house.
If America jubilated that way, it would be a good start toward our desperately needed Land Recourse. America needs two million small farmers. Feeding ourselves post-Peak Oil will require all land to be put into food production. The elites want to do this on the basis of feudal enslavement, but political freedom and moral integrity require that it be done on a democratic food stewardship basis. A bottom-up mortgager jubilee can be a great first step toward this.
And it can provide the base for a wider, greater debt jubilation. Other system debtors need to consider their positions. Here’s just one example: We have a growing legion of unemployable student debtors, burdened by massive indentures which cannot be discharged even in bankruptcy. These victims of a bank/government/university propaganda scam were swindled into taking out massive undischargeable loans for an “education” meant not to humanistically educate but to provide a credential (a Stamp) certifying that one jumped through a formal hoop and paid an exorbitant toll. This extortion payment, it was promised, would guarantee one a lucrative “career”.
But then those same banks intentionally crashed the economy, unilaterally reneging on the system’s side of the student debt deal. Now those college degrees are worthless. But the debt remains, for as long as the victims of this fraud choose to let it remain. Some are suing their universities for fraud, and that’s a good start.
But here as everywhere else where a debt to the big banks or government (where in a case like this the government simply socialized the exposure to the debt while privatizing the lender profit) exists, the real action is to strike at the senior criminal. That’s always the bankster. In the case of student debt, where the banksters’ rigged law has foreclosed even bankruptcy as an option, where the bank has placed its relationship with the debtor into the state of nature, the debtor has NO system recourse. The only option of student debtors is to form a default union and default as a bloc.
So there’s one example where the problem is harder to solve, but where the spirit of debt revolt can find a way. Ground zero for the spirit of jubilation, and for the general Revolt Against the Banksters, is the mortgage crisis.
Demand to see the note, and resolve not to pay one cent more until they show the note or give you a real modification. A real mod, meaning a principal writedown; the people in Lira’s example still look like they’re going to let Wells Fargo off too easy.
Better yet, demand to see the note, but resolve to stop paying period. If enough people did this, we’d break the banks over our knee. The government’s malice would sputter out in impotent fulminations. This one small step for an individual debtor would collectively be a giant leap toward taking back our country.

France: Workers and Students

Filed under: Civil Disobedience, Neo-feudalism — Tags: — Russ @ 2:17 am


Strikes and protests continue as Sarkozy’s austerity government pushes ahead with its plan to raise the retirement age from 65 to 67, and for the partial pension from 60 to 62. This is standard “austerity” – the bank bailout is accompanied by deficit fearmongering and the looting of public property in the form of gutting democratically established worker compensation. It’s absurd on its face that France “can’t afford” these pensions. Just restitute what the banksters stole, and make the parasite rich pull their weight, and there would be far more than enough money.

For some the economic crisis has reinforced common French misgivings about capitalism. In this view bosses and workers are engaged in an endless, antagonistic tug-of-war.

Beyond the political fault lines of left and right, for many French youth companies and the market cannot be trusted. Any measure that benefits them necessarily hurts employees.

In contrast to Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” the “visible hand” in this world is the state, or the “public powers” to use the French term, whose role is to tame companies, protect workers and hold sway over economic growth with public spending.

Back in Nanterre, during a meeting of the “mobilization committee,” Vanessa Ronchini, 24, put it this way: “This is about redistribution. If bosses pay more, then we could afford the retirement system. It’s not true that we don’t have a choice.”

And of course every cent of this wealth was produced by the workers themselves, so they’re certainly entitled to distribute it among themselves in this way. The elites never had a right to one cent or one crumb.
But Sarkozy’s government is not a democratic, public interest government. It’s a neoliberal gang, dedicated to looting as fast and furiously as possible. In recent days the government has moved to get the vote done. They pulled a parliamentary maneuver to cut off debate, and now the vote is expected sometime next week. Meanwhile Sarkozy and his cronies have been fulminating against the strikers and protestors, calling them every name in the book and issuing vague but grim threats to “track down” and punish dissenters. The incoherence is manifest – it takes a special kind of boorishness for a government official to condemn democratic protestors as “anti-democratic”, and in the same speech to say “we’re gonna hunt you down”. It sounds like the bluster of weakness and incipient panic, if the protest movement can continue.
The unions have called for two further National Days of Action, on Thursday the 28th and Saturday November 6th. (Is Saturday a good day for such a thing in France? Maybe if it’s more a matter of blocking roads than shutting down workplaces.)
Government attempts to keep the fuel flowing are having mixed results. They’ve reopened some depots and prevented the blockage of others, and some distribution seems to be occurring. (They’re apparently also importing more gasoline and electricity. It would be nice to see solidarity among energy workers in all the countries.)
But many gas stations remain low on fuel or empty. Meanwhile transportation remains blocked in many places, and slowdowns and stoppages are common on the highways. One participant gives his account here.
He says there’s debate among the rank and file strikers as to whether to seek an “open-ended” strike or instead to have a revolving strike with 15% of the workers going out every day. He also says the workers are only beginning to debate whether they really want to go all the way to managing their own industries, or whether they only want to block “austerity” within the social democratic context.

And yes, we have to really start talking about the logical implications of what we’ve been doing over the past six days, i.e. refusing to obey and actively fighting the government and the bosses. Although everybody is saying that the bourgeoisie-backed government is illegitimate, few are actually saying that workers “should” start taking steps towards managing things themselves. At the moment, the aim is to force Sarkozy to back down, and yet we all know that the anger and frustration that is fueling this strike runs far deeper than a simple political exercise.

One of the most promising signs is the activism of students, who recognize that this fight is over their own future. They also recognize that raising the retirement age will only make the already-difficult task of new entrants finding a job even harder. (In safety net states like France getting a job in the first place is difficult because the rentiers, who must of course extract their god-given portion of the social wealth, thereby render a significant part of the surplus uninvestable, so there’s a dearth of new jobs created. This is also an intentionally, politically created scarcity, by which they hope to gain traction for their lies about how the safety net itself stifles job creation.)
Perhaps most alien of all from the American point of view, in France there’s actually a tradition of teaching the young that protest is their birthright.

France’s tradition of youthful rebellion has its roots not just in the now almost mythical student movement of 1968 but ultimately the French Revolution itself.

It has practically become a rite of passage for a generation to be initiated into political life through protesting. Many of the young people marching Thursday said they have often been told nostalgic tales by their parents and teachers who had taken to the street before them. And some of those parents and teachers marched with them on Thursday.

“This tradition of protest is a marvelous specificity of French culture and a very good political education,” said Pascal Boldini, 51, a mathematics professor at the Sorbonne who still fondly recalls his first demonstration in 1972. He was 15 at the time. “It’s a tradition that is handed down from generation to generation.”

With that tradition come rituals that have barely changed over time.

Leaders shout slogans into bullhorns, and a delirious mass of students responds in rehearsed unison.

High schools and universities call “general assemblies,” where students vote on whether to continue the movement. Perhaps most importantly, the mood is powerfully convivial, accompanied by music, tasty food and, often, bottles of red wine.

But what is profoundly different today compared with the 1960s, Mr. Cohn-Bendit said, is that French youths now, faced with chronically high unemployment rates, are much more pessimistic about the future.

What is not so different is that French students, like their parents and teachers, still subscribe to economic concepts that no longer make sense to people in most other Western countries. From President François Mitterrand, who lowered the retirement age in 1982, to Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who introduced the 35-hour week in 2000, Socialist leaders have done much to ingrain the idea that the pool of labor is fixed and needs to be shared.

It is an argument that was repeatedly made among the marchers on Thursday.

By contrast, in America we’re taught that protest and rebellion were once heroic, but have long since won all the necessary victories already, and that’s why we now live in the perfect society. Implicit in that, and wherever necessary stated explicitly, is the notion that dissent and protest are no longer historically constructive, but by now are just the province of malcontents and troublemakers. But the people are finally starting to learn otherwise.
In the meantime, there’s yet another reason to keep our children out of the corporate “public” schools.
So we’re going to see what happens when in 2010 the people of a Western country do rouse themselves to mass protest against a specific government action but stop short of seizing the power themselves. (That’s how things look right now.) Sarkozy has staked the fate of his personal career, and perhaps of Austerity itself, on this fight.
The people face several possibilities. This action can continue as is, and they may force the government to cave in. That would validate mass protest within the social democratic framework for their own country, for the time being. Or they can fail, and draw the lesson that nothing works, and give up. Or they can fail and draw the conclusion that their own leaders misled them, and they need far more radical action. Or, seeing legislative defeat looming, they could resolve now to escalate the action, since it’s clear this government is not democratic and holds the will of the people in contempt.
Here in America more and more people have come to know that’s the case with our own kleptocracy.

October 20, 2010

France – National Strike

Filed under: Civil Disobedience, Neo-feudalism — Russ @ 5:58 am


Tuesday was the ninth National Day of Action of the French strikes and protests against the government’s “austerity” assault. The day saw 24-hour strikes on the rail and aviation networks. The actions have been raging for weeks. Each day of action is a partial general strike, while in many sectors worker councils have formed which vote each day to carry on independent, renewable 24-hour strikes. The strikes occur against a backdrop of protest marches, demonstrations, blockages, street fighting, and massive public support for the strikers.
Last week two Days of Action saw over 3 million workers go on strike each day. These Days have been called by the union leadership. The rank and file have been far more enthusiastic about calling a general strike, but the bottom up call has not been heeded.
The strikes have spread among many critical sectors. Skilled oil workers at port facilities and the country’s twelve refineries have so stanched the flow of fuel that the country’s main airport, the Charles Degaulle, may run out of fuel this week. Both action days brought out mass strikes in the oil, electricity, transportation, telecom, education, and civil service sectors. Students have joined the struggle. In the 18-24 age group, 84% support the strike. (This flouts Sarkozy’s glib sneer that the youth will support him.) The government has been whining about how high school students are being “manipulated” into joining the protests. By this they mean they’re upset that their own brainwashing and manipulation aren’t working.
Since October 13 worker councils have disregarded the top-down leadership and voted their own daily strikes. The 12 refineries keep renewing the strikes, as do half the country’s transportation networks. Truck drivers are blocking tunnels and industrial quarters as well as conducting slow blocking convoys on the highways.
In Lyons and other cities the protests have escalated into serious street clashes with riot police
Polls establish that 70% of manual workers demand a general strike. 53% of the population would support a general strike.
This is France’s belated self-defense action against the aggression of playboy Sarkozy’s neoliberal government. Even as France’s banks were bailed out to keep the billions they stole, to continue their crimes and steal billions more, Sarkozy’s been pushing an incremental “austerity” program. Bit by bit the government’s been trying to steal back what the French people rightfully established as a portion of their share of the social wealth. Needless to say, their proper portion is 100%, and much of what’s rightfully theirs has been stolen as it is, but still the share that trickles back down to them is much greater than in many other countries. They also see how bailouts plus “austerity” in Britain and Germany have generated considerably higher unemployment than in France. Forewarned, they’re finally taking action.
The tipping point was Sarkozy’s scheme for pension “reform”. As part of the general assault, he imperiously announced that he’d push a bill to raise the age for retirement on a partial pension from 60 to 62. Sarkozy is so belligerent about this that, contrary to normal political practice (which is for the president to make the prime minister his figurehead on unpopular legislative initiatives), he voluntarily turned it into his personal crusade. So this is the playboy tough guy gonna personally smash in the faces of the people, I guess to convince his consort that he’s a real man, something we can all plausibly doubt.
The vote is scheduled for next week. 71% of the French people reject Sarkozy’s “reform”. Please, let’s have no talk of how that doesn’t sound like much of a concession. By American standards, yeah. But we need to support the struggle of the citizenry against the banksters everywhere. Everywhere, on every line, that’s the critical point at which to say No to Austerity, and to demand Total Austerity for the Parasites, No More for the People. (Bashing those who have a little more is just as dumb and plays just as much into the criminals’ hands as bashing those who have a little less, debtor bashing. We must bash and smash only upward, toward the top.)
One in three gas stations are out of gas or running short. Today the French government will try to forcibly open three blocked fuel depots. The protestors vow to continue to block fuel deliveries. This is a critical chokepoint, as we should all be aware.
As we could expect, the swinish NYT has a pro-government, anti-public slant. But even their coverage includes an admission by the prime minister of the movement’s vigor, and contains an implicit acknowledgement that union leaders are in cahoots with the government.

“But at the same time, the movement is radicalizing,” he said, after reports of masked youths clashing with the police, throwing bottles and setting scattered fires in French cities.

Jérôme Sainte-Marie, head of political research for the French polling institute C.S.A., said, “We are in a situation where government and the unions are losing control, and if something serious happens, it will both weaken the unions and be a catastrophe for the government.”

Even the Socialists are worried, he said, “because they could be largely discredited if there are excesses” and violence.

Indeed, the union leadership looks feckless at best.

YOU MIGHT think that with such levels of public support, union leaders would pull out all the stops for a general strike, but professional negotiators don’t think like that. The main trade union confederations have so far been united about the need for one-day mass strikes, which has made impossible the standard government tactic of luring one confederation to their side with minor concessions, and using this fact in propaganda to reduce public support for the strikers.

But union leaders aren’t pushing for renewable strikes and are calling for negotiations, not for the simple defeat of Sarkozy’s pension law. The union leaders’ banner at the head of Saturday’s demonstration read “Pensions, jobs and wages are important to society” when it should have read “General strike to beat Sarkozy.” So it will be up to the rank and file to build up to a general strike, though some regional leaders are supporting the idea.

The rank and file and lower level leaders are calling for a general strike. The situation looks ripe, just like in May 68. But the “leadership” looks craven. They want to “negotiate”. Some are demanding a referendum on the law. When the moment cries out for decisive direct action, these are the tricks of traitors.
Will the workers let the union honchos sell them out? Will the strike fizzle out like in Italy in 1920 or France in 1968? The NYT gives the basic plan:

Most political analysts expect the reforms to pass into law and for the dissent to fizzle out gradually.

The union leadership is definitely incompetent and cowardly. They’re probably consciously corrupt and treacherous as well. Either way we again see the lesson: Reject the existing elites, the existing “leadership”. ALL OF THEM. That includes in the unions and NGOs.
We again have occasion to bruit the basic fact. We must absolutely reject any and every policy of “austerity”, “fiscal responsibility”, “deficit reduction”, which is nothing but robbery, and demand Total Austerity for the banks, the rich, all parasites, all criminals. We’ve sacrificed enough to finance their looting.
As for any pension, any plan, any benefit, we paid for it. It’s ours. The elites have stolen every cent they have, and they only want to steal more.
The French fight is our fight in America as well. I salute the true citizens of France, and all citizens everywhere, wishing them godspeed in their righteous struggle.
Now how do we find our way out of our own strange labyrinth and into the sunlit streets? 

October 18, 2010

The Health Racket Bailout is an “Austerity” Bill


Obama’s core promise in pushing for his Stamp Act, AKA the health racket bailout, was his constant mantra, “if you like the coverage you have, you’ll get to keep it.” This was intended to neutralize the majority who have employer-based coverage. Most of them don’t really “like” it, but they consider it adequate and feel more fear over change than hope that a good policy will bring something better. Obama was pushing what they rightly considered a dubious health bill, but he assured them that at worst they’d be able to keep what they have now. They were right to fear.
Obama’s promise has already been unmasked as a Big Lie. Already the rackets and employers are moving on parallel tracks toward the bill’s real intended goal of driving people out of employer-based insurance and into the far more expensive, far less protected individual “market”, where we’ll face the rackets alone to buy our mandated individual Stamps. The goal here is to help employers get out of any responsibility for providing health insurance even as the government still refuses to exercise its own responsibility* to do so. The real goal is to revoke organized health care itself for a large portion of the population.
[*Basic, decent health care is a necessary element of a civilized society. If all the people don't have access to it within the capacity the society allows, and for such a rich country as America that capacity is vast, then how can people be said to have civilization at all? And what would be the purpose of anything one wanted to call "society" if it couldn't meet this basic, modest standard? (We know what's the alternative - "civilization" as simply the front for a way of organizing resource extraction and labor indenture for the benefit of a handful of gangsters. That's the essence of neoliberalism. That's, for example, Obama's ideology. This Stamp Act is an example of Obama's neoliberal corporatist ideology in action.)
But health care, like any other basic civilizational requirement, cannot be delivered on a profit basis. The very concept contradicts itself. A "market" by definition has to be voluntary. But we need health care. Nature is the indelible coercive party to the transaction here. So on its face there can never be a legitimate market for health insurance. Since nature coerces us into the transaction, by definition a legitimate government has the duty of managing this transaction for the maximum benefit of the people. For government to instead inject "profit" into the mix is to abrogate its civilizational role and instead side with nature against the people. This can only be the criminal construct of a rogue government. By setting up this illegitimate health insurance market in the first place, and now further entrenching it with this bill, government has placed itself in the state of nature.
The people are always sovereign. This sovereignty can never be alienated, but it can be temporarily left stranded in an interregnum between when government abdicates and goes rogue and when the people choose to pick up and redeem this vacated sovereignty. We're in such an interregnum now. The health "insurance" system in general, and the health racket bailout in particular, are stark examples of that.]
What does today’s politics call it when the elites seek to further cut their own costs and rob the people by further cutting the amount of the people’s wealth which is spent on the people’s well-being? They call it “austerity”. (The Orwellian quotation marks signify how true austerity would mean we purge ourselves of the parasites who afflict us; that we austeritize them. But when the parasites themselves invoke the term to describe their own robbery, to represent the victims as the subjects who make a necessary sacrifice rather than the objects of crime as they really are, the term is just another example of depravity. BTW, the meme of debtor-bashing in the Foreclosuregate Land Scandal should be put in that perspective as well.)
This was evident from the start in the way Obama and his hacks chose to focus on cost-cutting as such, “bending the cost curve”. The proper focus is never cost cutting in itself, but rendering health care (or anything else) more affordable for Americans. Where it’s clear that most of the costs and inefficiencies of a system are the result of bloated parasites, the only proper start toward affordability is to purge the parasites. Completely purge their rent extractions. Only after that, once the parasite costs have all been expunged, would it ever be appropriate to look into cutting costs as such, if the system were still too expensive. But we’re obviously a long way from there. So long as the health insurance rackets exist at all, we’re a long way from there.
So when Obama announced at the outset, even during the campaign, “I recognize the health insurance industry as a legitimate stakeholder, and we have to focus on cost-cutting in general”, the game should have been up right there. He was announcing that he had zero intention of making health care more efficient, less costly, more affordable. He was announcing that he wanted only to make it less costly and more profitable for the parasites. 
It soon became clear that he also wanted to solve the problem of employer costs, again not by austeritizing the insurance rackets, but by shifting the costs from the employers to the people. Let’s look at some math.
In recent years employer health insurance costs have been rising an average of 9% a year. Their industry groups think the racket bailout bill will add 2-3% a year to this. They claim that of this pre-existing 9% trend the employer generally absorbs 6% and passes on 3% to the employee. But as the Depression has been setting in they’ve passed more and more of the whole cost to the employee. They say this is because of their own economic hardship, which I don’t doubt is partially true. (But we can be sure it’s also because of the employee’s increasingly weak position. The game plan for forty years has been to weaken job security in order to squeeze more blood out of the turnip, and that’s not changing today.)
So employer-based insurance was already becoming more costly for the worker even before the bill. The employer was passing on more and more of the cost, while policies increasingly contain higher deductibles, higher co-pays, fewer covered services. Now the bill promises to make things even more costly. Since the bill imposes all manner of coverage requirements but imposes few nominal cost controls, insurers will evade the requirements simply by jacking up rates and further imposing deductibles and the other costs. (Nor are there any credible enforcement measures in the bill for the few controls it does purport to impose.)
Employers are encouraged to pass on or evade these costs. The administration’s been promsicuously handing out coverage and cost waivers. Employers are also increasingly resorting to previously exotic things like high-deductibility plans. The insurance rackets are pushing new plans with lower premiums but which severely restrict doctor choice (now how does “keep what you have” sound?). Meanwhile the bill actually imposes a penalty on employers who continue to provide good coverage. Few things more clearly demonstrate Obama’s anti-worker malevolence than his demonization of duly negotiated worker compensation in the form of decent health insurance coverage as “Cadillac plans” which need to be subject to an excise tax. Here again, all too many among the non-rich let themselves be swindled into fighting among themselves. But Obama’s rhetoric and actions make it clear that he regards ALL decent employer-based coverage as an affront to his pro-racket imperative. That’s why every aspect of this bill is meant to gut all employer-based coverage. “Keep what you have”? No, Obama and the Stamp rackets want to take what you have, every cent of it.
Meanwhile, in another piece of misdirection, the NYT has been leading the charge in representing costs on the provider side as the real problem. It seems that the problem is we peasants just demand too much health care. The NYT wants to pretend that most of the costs are because we’re all demanding Botox injections. So once again it’s the same old answer – we fat, spoiled indulgers must submit to austerity, we have to forego all these elective boutique medical services. That will “bend the cost curve”. The insurance rackets aren’t the problem at all.
Of course the truth is the exact opposite. We the people need and demand basic, decent health care. We need checkups and medicine and necessary care for ourselves and our children when we’re sick or injured. That’s all we demand of our society, and that’s what we demand. But I’m sure that in the eyes of the editors of the NYT, just as much as in Obama’s eyes, medicine for a sick child, if it’s not a rich man’s child, is just as frivolous and elective as a Botox injection. Indeed more frivolous and elective, since the wingnut who wants that injection is probably rich. To anyone in the system, any luxury the rich want, no matter how extreme, absurd, and obscene, is by definition a necessity, while anything the non-rich need, no matter how critical, is by definition an absurd luxury. That’s why all social wealth, 100% of which is produced by the working people, has to be stolen by the rich parasite elites – to achieve the proper balance of necessary and luxury spending according to them. That is, to turn truth, morality, and justice completely upside-down.
That’s the essence of neoliberal ideology and practice, and of the “austerity” regime. This health racket bailout is a classical example of it.
So the goal is to render employer-based insurance more costly and less adequate. In other words, they want to force you to stop purchasing employer-based insurance. That’s in order to absolve the employer of possibly having to pay any part of your Stamp cost at all. (Needless to say, none of what the employer saves here will be passed on to the worker in the form of higher wages. That employer-based insurance substitutes for higher wages was briefly true during WWII when it was a way to get around wage freezes. Since then it’s never been anything but a typical trickle-down lie.) The goal is to force us all into the individual “insurance markets”, where the hack CBO itself admits costs will keep going up.
So employers get to cut costs, government gets to shift its own costs onto the non-rich individual, and the rackets get to continue to increase their rent extractions. The individual worker will have to pay for it all by being mandated to buy an individual Stamp. This “insurance policy” will be ever more expensive and worthless, since it will be too expensive to actually use it given the rates we already paid and the deductibles and other extra costs piled onto it. No enforcement will restrain any of this, even the few parts the bill supposedly restricts.
This is a particularly vicious manifestation of “austerity”. Let’s sum up:
1. This government will still refuse its responsibility and instead prop up an artificial parasite racket.
2. The rackets will continue to maximize rent extractions. The bill will help them do this.
3. It’ll let employers off the hook for having any responsibilities toward the health of their employees. Indeed it penalizes those who might want to do the right thing by their workers. That’s a smoking gun. The plan is to destroy employer-provided “insurance” without substituting a government-based provision. The end goal here as everywhere is to force the atomized individual to stand naked, alone, and unarmed before the massive thug power of the corporation.
4. In that way Obamacare cuts costs for everyone within the system and enables greater top-down looting, but doesn’t cut costs in general. Instead it puts them all on the people. The same people it’s simultaneously subjecting to plunder.
There’s the template as always, the template to which Obama always adheres, the neoliberal “austerity” template. “Cut costs” doesn’t mean truly cutting costs. It just means shifting all costs of maintaining the parasite corporations and rich onto the non-rich individual. A true public-interest advocate would demand that we cut costs for the people by purging all rents.
Here’s the formula for true austerity:
*Total austerity for the big banks, for the big corporations, for the rich. Total demolition of all corporate welfare and welfare for the rich. Total purge of all parasites.
*Not one cent more from the people.
So applying that to paying for health care:
*Total austerity for the health insurance and drug rackets.
*Single payer.
Only then would we see what kind of cost-cutting might be worthwhile on the provider side.
One formula for the age: It’s austerity vs. “austerity”. As this vicious bill exemplifies, it’s a struggle to the death.

October 17, 2010

Foreclosure Counterattack: Propaganda, Pseudo-Legality, and Thuggery

Filed under: Land Reform, Law, Mainstream Media, Neo-feudalism — Tags: — Russ @ 1:32 am
(Also posted at Naked Capitalism.)
As Foreclosuregate, the legal crisis, looms ever larger and becomes a major political issue, the banks and government have scrambled to mount a counteroffensive against the consequences of their crimes. We can see how flat-footed they were caught. They seem to have become so comfortable with cutting every legal corner and evading every requirement which was even mildly inconvenient that they’re truly surprised this has escalated with such abruptness and violence. Their plan is to try to bluster and bully their way through by any means possible. They expect lies and lawlessness to prevail as always.
The first line of defense is the propaganda line that this is just a technical glitch, not a fundamental problem with the loan or the security, or any kind of systematic intentional fraud. So far this has been the preferred PR line for the administration and the mainstream media. But the banks are also working the line that no matter what the flaw, it can simply be legalized by legislative brute force.

Rather than deal with the considerable consequences of these abuses, the banks are prepared to bulldoze well settled state laws to give them an easy way out. And I’m not basing my view on this story alone; I had a conversation yesterday with a Congressional staffer who matter-of-factly said (but with little understanding of the underlying issues) that Congress would intervene on behalf of the industry, via its authority over national banks.

Congress took one step in this direction by frantically grabbing and unanimously passing a pre-existing bill which would require all states to accept the weakest state-authorized electronic notarizations. This would be only a minor fix of one of the technical issues, and isn’t very important in itself. But it probably foreshadows the far more expansive legislation we can expect to see after the election. Bolstering all of this, the banks are making extortionate threats against the real economy. They promise to wreck it even further if they aren’t given a clear path on this.
At the same time a concurrent propaganda line, seeming to somewhat contradict the other, is a hectic emphasis on speed.

Federal regulators sought Wednesday to prevent the growing furor over improper foreclosures from escalating, pressing mortgage lenders to replace flawed and fraudulent court documents while insisting that foreclosures continue apace.

It’s unclear why they’re simultaneously trying to downplay the significance of all this but also to drum up a sense of crisis which requires a stampede. You’d think they’d at least pretend to want to slow things down in order to make sure all those alleged “technical glitches” are properly fixed.
Demonstrating that the banks understand the significance of how the blogosphere has driven this story, the PR offensive has descended to the comment thread level, as we’re seeing the biggest surge yet of pro-bank commenters, many repeating the same talking points with suspicious discipline.
As Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism observed,

One regular reader has noticed that every time I put up a foreclosure post, the first comment, suspiciously close to the post time, is always a version of “deadbeat borrower”. He reads enough blogs that he is pretty convinced that NC is being targeted for this sort of message.

Perhaps the most insidious propaganda line, and certainly the most scabrous, is the bashing of alleged “deadbeats”. While the subprime borrower – powerless, often a minority – has long been an easy target, and the contempt has been spreading up the income scale as more people are engulfed in the catastrophe, the fact remains that few people intentionally bought more house than they could afford. Most were induced by the massive propaganda barrage from the banks, government, MSM, and even consumer groups, to see a house as a guaranteed investment which could only appreciate in price. More importantly, the main cause of inability to keep up the mortgage is losing one’s job or suffering a medical disaster. It’s the banks themselves who have presided over the destruction of America’s jobs, especially over the last two years. And it’s the government which refuses to counteract the banks’ campaign of socioeconomic scorched earth. (That’s the same government which also pointedly refused to reform the health care system, choosing instead to further entrench the existing larcenous dysfunction under a facade of lies and misdirection.)
So it’s the banks and government themselves who are overwhelmingly responsible for the wave of defaults. The defaults are the knock-on effects of the bank crimes, and now the banks want to seize the homes by further criminal means. Even after all this, few people fight foreclosures if they can’t afford to pay. The great majority of them say they can pay if they get a promised modification, or claim to be the victims of servicer error. So by any measure – moral, rational, or legal – the “deadbeat borrower” talking point is a sham.
But it’s no surprise, given the scurrilous character of the banks and their functionaries. A good indication of the kind of “legal” recourse they assume they can take are the kangaroo courts of Florida. These are not really courts of law but dedicated foreclosure machines manned by judges pulled out of retirement, apparently selected specifically for their bank-friendliness and/or ignorance of mortgage law and existing programs like the HAMP. These were given the mandate to process foreclosures as fast and lawlessly as possible. That puts the administration rhetoric about the need for speed in a new light. Evidently Florida’s rocket docket is the federal government’s dream solution as well.
But even this is failing to work for them. Political scrutiny and demands for legality are becoming more insistent, and the rocket docket has had to slow down and at least pretend to respect the law.
Underlying all of this, the foreclosures continue in spite of the vaunted moratoria. Perhaps they think they can still fool the judges this way: “We announced our moratorium, so obviously we’re only going ahead with fully legit foreclosures. Here’s the lost note affidavit on this one…” Now that this scam has been exposed, they’re spouting a reprise of the original lies – it’s a mistake, it’s miscommunication, we don’t know what’s happening with those bad apples….(Anyone who actually took anything they said seriously would have to wonder how it’s possible to be such a Master of the Universe, and warrant such a “bonus”, and yet make so many self-admitted mistakes and be so ignorant of everything all the time.)
This preference for lawlessness, this knee-jerk recourse to lies and crimes, is however no joke. At the lower levels, outside the regular media eye, the banks have repeatedly demonstrated their comfort with pure brutality. The examples proliferate of thugs threatening people, breaking and entering, bashing in doors, terrorizing occupants. So long as government at every level is the waterboy of the banks while people on the ground remain unorganized, atomized, and vulnerable, this will only get worse. We hear rhetoric, “joking” of course, about how they need to start burning houses down.

“The question to me is not do you foreclose or do you not foreclose. The question is when and with what philosophy you foreclose,” the man on the bank restructuring team said. “If you want to reduce the amount of leveraged homeowners you have, you need to ultimately kick them out of their homes.” A colleague walked up: His recommendation was to burn houses. It would lower the supply.

Even if that’s still a joke at the moment, how long can it remain so? It’s certainly in the mainstream of the logic.

Look, our hope is is that this moves rapidly and that this gets unwound very, very quickly and that if they can go back, reconstruct their paperwork and what we’ve stressed to them is that they need to expedite that process and work very, very quickly to get it done. we’re going to continue to push for that.

That’s Obama factotum Axelrod. And more from the firebugs:

“The first thing that needs to happen, I think, is to get these people out of their homes,” a man wearing a bespoke blue-striped shirt, a Hermés tie patterned with elephants and Ferragamo loafers said recently. “Correct! I’ll explain,” the veteran member of a bank restructuring and advisory team said.

Right there at Naked Capitalism we saw what may have been pro-bank handiwork, a shot across the bow, as it were. Yves was the target of a Denial of Service attack. Now that’s taking trolling to a whole new level. If it was done on behalf of the banks, it’s part of the logic.
All of this, from the original predatory lending, to flippancy about conveying the titles and legally securing the trusts, to the Bailout dedicated to propping up those toxic MBS, which we now know are probably nothing but unsecured loans, to the government-led propaganda campaign and legislative hankering to cover up and eventually “legalize” this latest revelation, down to the brutish violence and dirty tricks of the gutter, is one coherent whole, one simple train of logic. It’s simply the logic of might makes right, feudal greed, and total nihilism vis the law and democracy. The mortgage debacle reveals so many abdications of the system, and this abdication of the rule of law is one of the most thorough.
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