Thursday, April 30, 2009

Capitalist swine manure lagoons

So now the swine flu outbreak may have an interesting link to "manure lagoons" at gigantic pig farms in Mexico on land stolen from campesinos and run by US agribusiness. There's a shocker! A big international corporation like Smithfield Farms involved in a catastrophe of Bhopal proportion?

Oh, yeah. Bhopal was a catastrophe caused by a big international corporation. So was this whole "recession". (Well, not by one.)

Smithfield Farms, by the way, has been on labor's naughty list for several years, too. The company has even become the Baby Face Nelson of union-busting, poster boy of the need for the Employee Free Choice Act:

" ...At a Smithfield Farms plant in North Carolina, the company actually formed its own police force, in cahoots with the local sheriff, to scare away the union with guns. The Wagner Act was supposed to end that kind of corporate criminality more than 70 years ago, but it is still happening today. ..."

And speaking of the recession, how does Smithfield Farms coming out smelling before this swine flu thing? (You can probably guess the apropriate simile from the first line of this post.)

" ...Workers soon to be let go from Farmland Foods have learned there will be no severance money to go with them.
Smithfield Farms Inc. announced in February it was closing the New Riegel plant April 17, along with five other plants around the country in a reorganization effort.

"...Some of [the workers] have been there for more than 30 years. They came to us two months ago and told us they were going to close the facility as well as four or five other plants owned by Smithfield.

"...At this point, he said they are not really bargaining with Smithfield, they are begging.

"...They [Smithfield] agree that they are making money ... They just won't pay a severance package. It's really a slap in the face to the people who made their livelihood there for better than 30 years."

Nice, huh?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

More on "tea parties"

Yes, it's a pun.

Sorry, my basic critique of this "tax day tea party" embarrassment is below, but I just couldn't resist these -er- insightful comments from the Illinois "tea party" site, which I think show their true colors:

"I stand for preserving the American way. I am against this socialistic regime the uninformed have elected. I’ll be there with others!"

"[...] liberals are projecting a very rabid socialist agenda."

And when one lone voice chimed in to criticize the war, "Uh, [...] 'failed Iraq war'? Did you miss something? Like the success in Iraq? Democracy? Come on down to the tea party, be sure to wear your Obama slobbering t-shirt so we know who you are … maybe by April 15 you’ll come to your senses when you see how (N)Obama is rapidly destroying our country."

"I will be there will bells on. I am so tired of what Obama is doing to this country! We need to take back our country and renew our pride in being a true American."

"I am in P-Town also Carol and Bobbie, and if we can get an April 15th Tax Tea Party here in the land of Obamunism Central, I can be there. Of course, I also view April 15th as National Buy A Gun Day, so it might have to happen after Pekin Gun Store opens."

"Operation Support Our Troops organization will be there and is requesting perhaps a donation to bring since their inventory is low for the troops. Come with American Flags and signs - enough is enough! Get our country back! Help us with this 2009 American Revolution - stand strong, stand united and let us make history!"

"No more government funding of a 'bridge to nowhere', no more providing non-essential medical care for illegals, no more research grants 'to study the Kentucky toad' (see Stimulus bill), or public funding of 'artists', No more public financing of insurance for those that CHOOSE to live in high casualty risk areas, like beach front property."

I want to be clear that criticism or anger directed at Obama is not necessarily racist - there's a lot to gripe about, including how the economy is being managed and on whose behalf - but in this context of jingoistic "Ameristan" comments emphasizing the middle name "Hussein" and so on, I think there is good reason to see racism at work.

That's not all that's wrong, of course. Take the photo of a Texas woman proclaiming, "I'm a proud right-wing extremist." Or the anti-welfare "distribute my work ethic" or "free markets not free loaders".

This could go on all day, but maybe in closing we can pause to ponder the sly, "Don't tax me, bro."

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Big little banks

Today's New York Times has a worried article about the government's assessments of the nation's biggest banks, and how lower assessments might send investors packing from the "smaller" ones. Es posible.

But the scale is all wrong for this discussion, or at least it's not to our scale for most of us. The big little banks or the big big banks, any and all of them are ready, willing and able to sack our communities like a thirsty horde of Vikings.

What would help us is to break them all up into local or regional banks, reorganized along cooperative lines - one member-depositor, one vote - and a mission to support local sustainable economies.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Missing the Boat

Seems the Libertarian nutjobs are coming out of the woodwork, holding little "tea parties" here and there. But these so-called tea parties have just about one and a half things in common with the original in Boston, besides the name, that is.

First, they are disguised. In 1773 the famous tea party-istas were disguised as Native Americans. In 2009 the cheap knock-offs are disguised as patriots who are standing up for the common people.

In 1773 of course the issue was "taxation without representation". The British colonies in North America had no elected representation in the British Parliament, though some of them did have influence via money. The American Revolution was a mixed bag, led by wealthy landowners - most involved in slavery - and by common craftsmen and idealists who believed in Thomas Paine's quite radical "Rights of Man."

These 21st century tea-party-goers have the principle just about reversed. They reject the basic principle established in the English wars of parliament versus king, carried on in the American rebellion, that the power to tax derives directly from the democratic process, and - I'd argue - that its primary purpose is to "promote the general welfare."

So, taxes would be the second thing this year's tea parties have in common with the 1773 party, except that it's similar in name only. That's why I say one and a half things in commmon.

There is certainly plenty of wastage of tax money, always has been. Business-obsessed and war-mongering public officials put our tax money to the worst possible uses: aggressive wars, subsidies to the biggest and most destructive corporations, tax breaks to the rich, deregulating industry, privatizing public services (yes, these activities cost tax money).

On the other hand, taxes pay for schools, libraries, streets, sanitation (in many places), public health, fire departments, adult education programs, and other things that clearly "promote the general welfare". Social security, disability, and child and family welfare programs are excellent uses of tax money. We could use twice as many teachers, and a lot more expenditure in most of these neglected areas. Better levees and a half-way decent evacuation plan might have saved half a million poor people's homes in 2005. Clearly a comprehensive response after the fact was missing, sidelined to the more pressing objectives of the richest 1 percent of our population.

So clearly taxes are not the problem, per se. The problem is a two-parter: how we spend taxes, and how we collect tax. Taxes are not too high, in fact; they are too low - on the rich. Sure, they're too high on most of us - sales taxes, property taxes, gas taxes, all regressive (they hit you harder, the lower your income). This is not a wonkish detail; it's the very heart of the issue. Libertarians (emphasis on the capital 'L') who gloss over this crucial reality are either clueless or faking, at the deepest level.

A lot of coded racism plays into this nowadays, too: anti-welfare "queen" ideology a la Ronnie "Rayguns" Reagan, etc. On a very important institutional level this is a familiar "divide and conquer" politics of the sort that allowed the English to conquer the Native Americans, India, and so on, and still keeps the American people under the thumb of its wealthy. It distracts our righteous popular anger over the repeated bail-outs of the rich and deepening neglect of most of us - away from the authentic popular pressure that is striving heroically in the opposite direction: toward a "people's bailout" and what some are calling equity.

Monday, April 6, 2009

The People's Potluck

Last summer a solid union friend of mine named Gene Vanderport got together some people he knew to talk about ways that communities could address the economic crisis.

This was well before the financial sector locked up and job losses really spiked in October and November. Of course the economists-that-be now admit that the recession started last year (at least), but at that time they had not admitted anything. What Paul Krugman tells us is a "liquidity crisis" some of us - including Gene's members - were already experiencing as a big fat "cash flow" problem, a housing problem, a job problem, a wages and benefits and paying-the-bills sort of problem. Of course it means the same thing.

The idea hatched at Gene's house was to hold a "People's Thanksgiving" just before the holiday of a similar name, and bring together activists and service providers from across the community with people who need food and housing and jobs, and put our heads together and see how we could help one another. The assumption was that we cannot rely on the government, certainly not on capitalism, to rescue our communities.

It was prescient.

The first potluck supper, which actually happened the weekend after Thanksgiving, turned into regularly monthly get-togethers - and spun off working subgroups focused on various aspects of the problem, and built ties to other local movements with potential for what my old hippy editor at the Buffalo Alternative Press used to call synergy: housing, food, jobs, union rights, health care, veterans' benefits and war, urban justice and racism, immigration and migrant farm work in the area.

One group is planning community gardens and teach-ins on container gardening, cooking on a low budget, canning what you grow, working with food pantries, etc. The Catholic Worker in town is involved and already fighting evictions in a nearby town, presenting ideas on how to put "stimulus money" to good use. A couple groups are collaborating on compiling a directory of services, discussing ways to fill the void left by our town's sudden loss of its Urban League, which had provided so many services and referrals.

Homeless participants are taking an active and integral role. Felons are telling their stories. Unionists and Greens and tenants' union advocates are working together, talking about nationalizing banks, collecting clothes for abused women and children, eating together and talking and sharing ideas on a "People's Bailout" or "Social Monetary Fund" and demands to make on elected officials as well as direct actions and organizing for mutual aid.

At first we talked about building towards a "Central Illinois Social Forum" in May. Now that event promises to bring in such new energy, so many exciting new ideas and connections, such excellent new community, that it will ikely be just the beginning.

I recommend the model. Highly.