Friday, November 20, 2009

What Is Wealth?

It is becoming increasingly clear to more people that money has become detached from any intrinsic value. It's no longer based on gold or silver, cattle or salt or beads. It isn't even something that you can put into your pocket anymore. It's simply numbers in a computer.

And yet the world economy depends on these artificial numbers. If the computer screen shows you have enough, you can buy a private jet to fly to France for dinner. You can own seven houses, and pay for workers to maintain them while you're not there.

Food flows across the planet, steel is made and turned into cars, oil is pumped and burned, clothing in sewn in one place and worn in another, plastic gewgaws galore are passed around and sold.

But without the correct numbers, you're thrown out on the street, reduced to foraging through dumpsters for dinner, and begging from strangers for your beer.

Some urge a return to the gold standard, but this didn't work out so well for our ancestors. (Unless your ancestors were bankers, of course.)

The ingenuity of humans has led us to a place where we can all live in well fed comfort. And yet, only 2 billion of us do. Two billion live in utter starving misery with the rest in between. And now, more and more of us are sliding into poverty everyday. Why? Why is is that the lack of money, which has become more and more ephemeral, still has the power to destroy lives?

As Franklin Delano Roosevelt pointed out in 1933;

And yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply. Primarily this is because the rulers of the exchange of mankind's goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.

True they have tried, but their efforts have been cast in the pattern of an outworn tradition. Faced by failure of credit they have proposed only the lending of more money. Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They only know the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.

Yes, the money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.

Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and the moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days, my friends, will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.

These are fine words, but FDR didn't really live up to them. The money for the New Deal was borrowed from the Federal Reserve and social values were not universally applied.

But we don't even get lip service today. Our money changers were not driven from the temple, their tearful exhortations were heeded, and trillions provided for their continuance and profit. Their vision of bonus checks became reality, while the people perish.

At least FDR put people to work doing useful things, like building bridges and parks, planting trees, interviewing former slaves, painting murals, writing plays, and other things that would never be considered today.

We have three wars going on, with young people spread out on 700 bases around the world, millions in prison, and still the unemployment rises.

Wealth used to be recognized as the product of labor. Adam Smith pointed out that things that are of value don't cost anything unless there is human labor involved.

The value of any commodity, ... to the person who possesses it, and who means not to use or consume it himself, but to exchange it for other commodities, is equal to the quantity of labour which it enables him to purchase or command. Labour, therefore, is the real measure of the exchangeable value of all commodities (Wealth of Nations Book 1, chapter V;

Interestingly, Adam Smith and others recognized the value of that which has no price, like water, air and common land.

The word VALUE, it is to be observed, has two different meanings, and sometimes expresses the utility of some particular object, and sometimes the power of purchasing other goods which the possession of that object conveys. The one may be called 'value in use ;' the other, 'value in exchange.' The things which have the greatest value in use have frequently little or no value in exchange; and on the contrary, those which have the greatest value in exchange have frequently little or no value in use. Nothing is more useful than water: but it will purchase scarce any thing; scarce any thing can be had in exchange for it. A diamond, on the contrary, has scarce any value in use; but a very great quantity of other goods may frequently be had in exchange for it. (Wealth of Nations Book 1, chapter IV)

(Of course, now Betchel and Nestle have managed to turn water into a profit making commodity, another sign of how far we've fallen from common sense.)

Marx pointed out that nature is as important as human labor in providing wealth.

"Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much a source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor which is itself only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power."

America, which started the 19th century with immense forests and fertile plains, plentiful water and bountiful wildlife, ended the 20th with remnants of all those things. Forests stripped, waters dammed and polluted, a massive dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, mass extinctions of some species and near extinctions of others, poisoned air and atmosphere pumped full of carbon dioxide and rising. Our natural wealth has been strip mined!

Our human resources are mostly underused or misused, by contrast. As I pointed out earlier, millions are in the military, trying to take resources from people in other lands. Millions are locked up with millions employed in getting them and keeping them in prison. Millions work in the FIRE industries, spending their days leeching wealth from the very few left who actually produce anything of value. Millions are unemployed.

We must revalue our wealth. Each person's labor time should be equal to anyone else's, and other species must have equal worth to ours.

That sounds to radical to 21st century Americans, convinced as they are that some are WAY more equal than others, and that other species can be eliminated if profitable. If you don't go to college, you don't deserve to make a decent living, in the new American thinking. And the longer you go, the more money you may make.

There is no reason to value some labor so much more than others.

After our hurricane, I was so glad to see the tree workers, and the electrical workers, and the roofers. They moved the trees, turned on our electricity and repaired the roofs. They did productive work.

But when they fell off a roof and broke their legs, or cut themselves with a chainsaw, they were glad that I was there to help reset their bones, or sew up their wounds. The doctors, nurses, techs and others are also doing productive work. But why should the labor of sewing skin be worth so much more than that of sewing cloth? Why should resetting a bone be worth so much more than clearing a road? The skill of splinting is no more exacting than that of reconnecting a high voltage wire.

And, of course, those who do very little productive work, make the most. CEOs and the financial leeches making the million dollar bonuses, have helped no one.

And at the very top, where Paris Hilton lives, there is no productive work done. Those who own and do no labor, make much more wealth than those who are productive members of society.

Since we are capable of producing enough for all, we should do so. And all should contribute to the production, unless unable.

Everyone's time is valuable and all productive labor should be measured in time.

If we pay people to go to college and learn to be doctors, lawyers or engineers, they won't feel that they are owed more for the rest of their lives for the time they put in as young adults. That way, people can choose professions to which they have a calling, and not for the prospect of making more money than others.

The only way to make more than other people should be by putting in more hours than other people. Those that wish to do that are welcome to it. Personally, I'll put in enough time to pay the rent and buy food. Kind of like I do now.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The United States of Amnesia

Americans have no sense of history, but we mark anniversaries anyway.

Last week, it was ten years since the Glass-Steagall Act was abolished. This anniversary, coming as it does as capitalism collapses, made a handy whipping boy, complete with villains, conveniently comprised of both flavors of the corporate parties. Democrats could point at Gramm and other Republicans in the Senate, Republicans at Clinton for signing it.

All agreed, however, that the Glass-Steagall Act had made capitalism work beautifully, and if we only re-passed it, all would be well again.

Talking head amnesia prevented them from remembering that they have spent months comparing this depression with the one in 1981, back when the Act was in effect.

And there is total amnesia concerning the saving and loans speculation in the 80s, complete with bank failures.

Far right commentators, however, go farther back in blame. Capitalism, they claim, worked well for all, back in the gold standard days. They blame all dysfunction on the Federal Reserve Act of 1913.

Did capitalism work without problems before 1913 or 1999? Even with google, it's hard to research this. Google "depressions, crashes, recessions" and you get the Big One, the 1930s, that was traumatic enough that very few Americans who lived through it have forgotten.

You have to google "panic" to get the 19th century depressions, which came in 1819, 1837, 1857, 1873, and 1893, and then 1907, long before the Federal Reserve or Glass-Steagall.

Here's the thing. You really can't understand how capitalism works unless you listen to
Karl Marx. This is why the ruling class has trained Americans to respond like Pavlov's dogs to any mention of the man.

Try it on yourself. I say "Marx". You say, "Failed!! Dictator!!! Millions killed!!!"

Really, however, Marx was a philosopher, writer and believer in the ability of humans to band together and make a better world. What people did with his writings after his death is not really his responsibility.

Here's Marx on the ability of the Glass-Steagall Act to regulate financial firms such as Goldman Sachs who were able to make billions on credit derivative speculation: (quoted in the Monthly Review),

" accumulation meets with difficulties in its employment, through a lack of spheres for investment, i.e., due to a surplus in the branches of production and an over-supply of loan capital, this plethora of loanable money-capital merely shows the limitations of capitalist production. The subsequent credit swindle proves that no real obstacle stands in the way of the employment of this surplus-capital."

Although it is difficult to read 19th prose, I think that his point is much more believable than the colloquial speaking talking heads desperately trying to convince us that all is well.

Capitalists will only operate when there is a profit to be made, and it is impossible to continue to expand in a closed system. Therefore it has to collapse every few decades. (Just like cancer stops when it kills its host).

Capitalists are not here to "give us jobs". We are here to make money for them, and when there is no money to be made in productive enterprises, they will turn to speculation until the bubble bursts. There is no law that will stop them.

People have starved before in the midst of plenty. As a matter of fact, people are starving now while others burn food in their cars.

Either we choose to use our wisdom and our capabilities to provide a modest standard of living for all, or we choose to let billions die to keep some wealthy.

Seems like an easy choice to me, but I'm not in control.

Read more!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Happy Veteran's Day!

Time for the annual genuflecting to our brave soldier heroes, the waving of flags, the ritual parading of veterans bragging about how they fought for our freedoms. Really? I didn't see any troops attacking Congress when they voted for the Patriot Act and abolished the Bill of Rights. What freedoms did they protect?

Read the Bill of Rights and tell me which rights the military has protected.

And now for another view-

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Monday, November 9, 2009

Unitarians and Mass Murderers

Unitarians and other empathetic bleeding heart liberals take a lot of abuse from the belligerent chest thumpers and wedding party bombers on the right.

We are accused of being cowards, unlike the brave heroes sucking up billions of tax dollars to protect us, in the military, the police state and Homeland Security.

Is it immodest to point out that in every mass killing (in the US, that is) so far, only the Unitarians rushed the shooter and subdued him? Without hurting him while doing so? The cowardly, unarmed Unitarians risked their own lives to stop the killing and save others.

The cop heroes usually cordon off the killing site and wait for the killers to go ahead and finish and then kill themselves, and then the cop heroes go in. I'm not sure what the soldier heroes did, but the (accused) killer ended up with bullets in him, so they didn't subdue him unarmed.

I'm just saying.

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Friday, November 6, 2009

Tragedy in Texas

A soldier flips out and uses his weapon to indiscrimately kill a bunch of people.

What makes this news? Big news? Front page, top of the broadcast, day after day news?

The fact that it happened in Texas, not Iraq or Afghanistan.

And the fact that the victims were US soldiers and not sleeping mothers and children.

Too bad that no one else will point this out.

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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Doh!! Fooled Again

In yesterday's election, voters that voted Democrat last time voted Republican this time, in New Jersey and Virginia.

Ellen DeGeneres did a great bit where she wondered if goldfish ever get bored. She wanders back and forth across the stage as if it were a fishbowl, saying "I guess I'll go over here now. I guess I'll go over here now".

Who are these voters who never get bored with the duopoly of the corporate parties? Why do they fall for the "choice" again and again, like a baby playing peek-a-boo, endlessly believing that they are voting for something different? "I guess I'll vote for team A this time. I guess I'll vote for team B this time."

Half of the people in this country refuse to play this game. Most refuse on principled grounds, realizing that it doesn't make any difference who you vote for, and resisting the browbeating, the guilt tripping, the lecturing, the pleading, the preaching, the endless celebrities trotted out to insist that voting is important.

They tell us that we can't complain if we don't vote. Well. That's certainly the epitome of democracy! Vote, so you have the right to complain when they screw you over.

Then they tell you that you deserve the government you get. Well, that's infuriating! Not only do you have to deal with the betrayals, but then you're told that you asked for it. It's now not PC to announce that a woman deserves to be raped because of her dress or because she went to a bar, but voters are told that they deserve their government because they voted! That ain't right.

And my favorite, when people who actually vote complain about their choices, when they realize that both of the corporate vetted puppets are objectionable, when they want something that neither of the puppets are even bothering to promise, like peace, or liberty, or fair taxation, and you suggest that perhaps they should vote for the Green Party candidate, they laugh.

"I don't want to waste my vote", they say.

Read more!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Media says "Jump" Americans say "How High?"

It takes a few months to get the American people worked up enough to attack people they've never heard of before they're told that the New Improved Hitler has appeared in that country, wherever it may be. This is the task of the corporate media and their efficiency at focusing bloodlust to the approved target has been remarked on before.

My last post drew a comment from someone who has been turned against his fellow Americans by the media. It took a long time to work up this division, and, actually, it's only working on the young, not so much Baby Boomers and their parents, who mostly cling to the idea that they shouldn't be allowed to starve in their old age, as people did before Social Security.

Of course, it is ironic that people who are willing to kill millions of non-Americans to "save" American lives are usually the same ones who aren't really that fond of actual Americans. Actual Americans include non white people, poor people, old people, children on food stamps, liberals, and tree huggers. Except for those who are unborn, most killer Americans would be happy to see these Americans dead, or at least disappeared.

But I digress. What I meant to marvel at is the ability of corporate media to manipulate the public on a more basic level.

When the media hype about swine flu reached its peak, life in the ER was miserable. We were completely swamped. Everyone who coughed or sneezed ran in to be saved.

My coworker said that CNN had announced that "People are dying!! Get to the ER immediately or you will die!!"

Apparently, my ER was not the only one swamped. The word went out.

So my local TV station then said "Only go to the ER if your child looks blue or gray".

OK, that was too much of a turn around. But it started to make a dent in the flow.

All of a sudden, it stopped.

A patient who came in for a twisted ankle explained why. She said "I was afraid to come to the ER, because the TV said that I could get swine flu here, but I was afraid my ankle was broke".

The tsunami of coughers, followed by the dearth of patients, was an astounding demonstration of the power of the media on the day to day personal behavior of the well trained American public.

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