Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Para Usted

World's Most Violent People - Americans

Shirley Katz is not afraid to fight for her rights. Last week the schoolteacher, 44, went to court in her home town of Medford, Oregon, to protest at her working conditions. Specifically she is outraged she cannot carry a handgun into class. 'I know it is my right to carry that gun,' she said.

Katz was in court in the week that someone else took a gun to school in America. This time it was a pupil in Cleveland, Ohio. Asa Coon, 14, walked the corridors of his school, a gun in each hand, shooting two teachers and two students. Then he killed himself. Coon's attempted massacre made headlines. But a more bloody rampage, the murder of six young partygoers by Tyler Peterson, a policeman in Crandon, Wisconsin, got less attention, even in the New York Times - America's newspaper of record - which buried it deep inside the paper.

Guns, and the violence their possessors inflict, have never been more prevalent in America. Gun crime has risen steeply over the past three years. Despite the fact groups such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) consistently claim they are being victimised, there have probably never been so many guns or gun-owners in America - although no one can be sure, as no one keeps a reliable account. One federal study estimated there were 215 million guns, with about half of all US households owning one. Such a staggering number makes America's gun culture thoroughly mainstream.

An average of almost eight people aged under 19 are shot dead in America every day. In 2005 there were more than 14,000 gun murders in the US - with 400 of the victims children. There are 16,000 suicides by firearm and 650 fatal accidents in an average year. Since the killing of John F Kennedy in 1963, more Americans have died by American gunfire than perished on foreign battlefields in the whole of the 20th century.

Studies show that having a gun at home makes it six times more likely that an abused woman will be murdered. A gun in a US home is 22 times more likely to be used in an accidental shooting, a murder or a suicide than in self-defence against an attack. Yet despite those figures US gun culture is not retreating. It is growing. Take Katz's case in Oregon. She brought her cause to court under a state law that gives licensed gun-owners the right to bring a firearm to work: her school is her workplace. Such a debate would have been unthinkable a few decades ago. Now it is the battleground. 'Who would have thought a few years ago, we would even be having this conversation? But this won't stop here,' said Professor Brian Anse Patrick of the University of Toledo in Ohio. Needless to say, last week the judge sided with Katz and she won the first round of her case.

It is a nation awash with guns, from the suburbs to the inner cities and from the Midwest's farms to Manhattan's mansions. Gun-owning groups have been so successful in their cause that it no longer even seems strange to many Americans that Katz should want to go into an English class armed. 'They have made what was once unthinkable thinkable,' said Patrick, a liberal academic. He should know. He owns a gun himself. Even the US critics of gun culture are armed.

To look at the photographs in Kyle Cassidy's book Armed America is to glimpse a surreal world. Or at least it seems that way to many non-Americans. Cassidy spent two years taking portrait shots of gun owners and their weapons across the US.

The result is a disturbing tableau of happy families, often with pets and toddlers, posing with pistols, assault rifles and the sort of heavy machine-guns usually associated with a warzone. 'By the end I had seen so many guns and I knew so much about guns that it no longer seemed unusual,' Cassidy said. He keeps his in a gun safe in his home in Philadelphia. 'This turned into a project not about guns but about a diverse group of people,' he said.

At the cutting edge of weapon culture remains the gun lobby and its most vocal advocate, the NRA. Founded in the 19th century by ex-Civil War army officers dismayed at their troops' lack of marksmanship, the NRA has transformed into the most effective lobbying group in Washington DC. It has scores of lobbyists, millions of dollars in funds and more than three million members. It is highly organised and its huge membership is highly motivated and activist. They can have a huge influence on politics.

In 2000 Vice-President Al Gore supported stricter background checks for gun-buyers and the NRA organised against him, describing the election as the most important since the Civil War. It spent $20m against Gore in an election ending in a razor's edge result. Its influence was especially felt in Gore's home state of Tennessee, which he narrowly lost to NRA gloating. 'Their vote can select the President. They don't get to pick who goes to the White House. But they can tip the balance,' said Patrick.

Democrats have learnt that lesson now. Many shy away from gun control issues, wary of taking on such a vociferous lobby group. In the 2006 mid-term elections the NRA was able to back a historically high 58 Democrats running for office. Every one of them went on to win. Such influence over the past three decades has seen the NRA fight a successful campaign against new gun laws. It has in fact loosened regulations, spreading the ability to legally carry concealed weapons across 39 states. And this has all been done in the face of a fight from anti-gun groups, backed by much of the mainstream media. 'Politicians are so afraid of the gun lobby. They run scared of it,' said Joan Burbick, author of the book Gun Show Nation

But the key question is not about the number of guns in America; it is about why people are armed. For many gun-owners, and a few sociologists, the reason lies in America's past. The frontier society, they say, was populated by gun-wielding settlers who used weapons to feed their families and ward off hostile bandits and Indians. America was thus born with a gun in its hand. Unfortunately much of this history is simply myth. The vast majority of settlers were farmers, not fighters. The task of killing Indians was left to the military and - most effectively - European diseases. Guns in colonial times were much rarer than often thought, not least because they were so expensive that few settlers could afford them. Indeed one study of early gun homicides showed that a musket was as likely to be used as club to beat someone to death as actually fired.

But many Americans believe the myth. The role of the gun is now enshrined in mass popular culture and has huge patriotic significance. Hence the fact that gun ownership is still a constitutional right, in case America is ever invaded and needs to form a popular militia (as hard as that event might be to imagine). It also explains why guns are so prevalent in Hollywood. Currently playing in US cinemas is the Jodie Foster film The Brave One, a classic vigilante movie of the wronged woman turning to the power of the pistol to murder the criminals who killed her boyfriend. Foster's character is played as undeniably heroic. 'There is a fascination with guns in our culture. All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun,' said Cassidy.

But this worship of the gun in many ways springs from economics, not the historic frontier. It took mass production and mass marketing to really popularise firearms. The Civil War saw mass arms manufacturing explode in America, including making 200,000 Colt .44 pistols alone. It saw guns become familiar and cheaper for millions of Americans. The later 19th century saw gun companies using marketing techniques to sell their weapons, often invoking invented frontier imagery to do so. That carries on today. There are more than 2,000 gun shows each year, selling hundreds of thousands of guns. It is big business and business needs to sell more and more guns to keep itself profitable. 'They will do anything to sell guns,' said Burbick.

Labels: ,


Consumer Debt

This past summer's subprime meltdown involved about $900 billion in now-suspect securitized debt, reckless lending, and consumers who buckled under the weight of loans they couldn't afford. Now another link in the consumer debt chain - credit cards - is starting to show signs of strain. And the fear that the $915 billion in U.S. credit card debt (an uncannily similar figure) may blow up has major financial institutions like Citigroup, American Express, and Bank of America strapping on their Kevlar vests.

Last month, as banks reported their worst quarterly results since 2001, concerns about rising credit card delinquencies began to make their way onto earnings announcements alongside mentions of subprime woes.

First Citigroup, reporting a 57% decline in earnings, cited higher consumer credit costs and said it would put aside $2.24 billion in loan-loss reserves to cover future defaults.

In describing the situation to analysts, CFO Gary Crittenden said Citi's credit card holders were beginning to increase the balance on their cards or take cash advances on those cards for the first time - behavior that, in his experience (which includes seven years as CFO of American Express), can translate into future trouble. Citi said the change in loan losses was "inherent in the portfolio but not yet visible in delinquencies."

Then American Express said that it too was seeing "signs of stress" and would boost its loss reserves in its core U.S. card unit by 44%. Capital One, Bank of America, and Washington Mutual all said they are bracing for a 20% or higher increase in credit card losses over the near and medium term.

So are U.S. credit cards going to be the catalyst for the next seizing up of the global credit markets? It depends on whom you ask.

"We are in a heightened state of alert to monitor a potential domino effect," says Michael Mayo, Deutsche Bank's U.S. banking analyst.

Dennis Moroney, an analyst at TowerGroup, expects credit card delinquencies will rise as consumers, who have until now used home-equity lines of credit to pay off their cards, start ratcheting up higher card debt. When housing prices were rising, it was easy for consumers to tap the escalating values of their homes to keep borrowing. With the home-equity spigot turned off, over-leveraged consumers may have trouble keeping up with payments.

The doomsday scenario would play out something like this: Just like CDOs and other asset-backed securities, credit card debt is sliced, diced, and sold off again as packages of securities. Rising delinquencies would hurt not only the banks involved but the securities backed by the credit card receivables. Those securities would decline in value as consumers defaulted, leading to bank losses as well as portfolio losses in the hedge funds, institutions, and pensions that own the securities. If the damage is widespread enough, it could wreak havoc on the economy much as the subprime crisis has done.

To be sure, there are key differences between the subprime market and the problems brewing with credit cards. The first is that while rising mortgage delinquencies were apparent for months before the subprime market blew up, credit card delinquencies are actually coming off unusually low levels.

"This is absolutely not the next one to blow," says Meredith Whitney, banking analyst at CIBC. Christopher Marshall, CFO of Fifth Third Bancorp in Cincinnati, points out that the U.S. has a long history of credit card securitization, "so it's fairly well understood." The securitization of the subprime sector, by comparison, "got blurry, and people didn't focus on what it meant."

Credit agencies that monitor credit cards in the asset-backed securities market share that confidence. "The performance in the core consumer [asset-backed securities] sectors is expected to deteriorate modestly, but not enough to cause substantial downgrades," says Kevin Duignan, managing director at Fitch.

But credit card debt is different from subprime debt in another way: Unlike mortgages, credit card debt is unsecured, so a default means a total loss. And while missed payments are at a historical low, they show signs of an uptick: The quarterly delinquency rate for Capital One, Washington Mutual, Citigroup, J.P. Morgan Chase, and Bank of America rose an average of 13% in the third quarter, compared with a 2% drop in the previous quarter.

What's more, consumers and the people who market financial services to them may not have learned their lesson. Klaus-Peter Müller, CEO of Germany's Commerzbank, told Fortune he was stunned on a recent trip to the U.S. to see TV ads still aggressively touting no-questions-asked credit. In Germany he's calling for tighter standards.

"I'm speaking out on the ethical questions about consumer lending," he says.

If there is an international precedent the U.S. should be watching, it's actually that of the U.K. British consumers are just as overstretched as Americans, but since the real estate market there rose faster and fell earlier, they're about 18 months ahead in the credit cycle. Since the last quarter of 2005, credit card delinquencies and charge-off rates in Britain have risen as much as 50%, forcing banks to take huge write-offs.

It's a sign of the times that, according to one survey last month, 6% of British homeowners have been using their credit cards to pay their mortgages. That's suicidal, of course, given that credit card interest rates are more than double even the heftiest mortgage. Keep your fingers crossed that it's not a trend that crosses the Atlantic.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, October 30, 2007


Drugged Out America


In 2001, an estimated 15.9 million Americans aged 12 or older were current illicit drug users, meaning they had used an illicit drug during the month prior to the survey interview. This estimate represents 7.1 percent of the population aged 12 years old or older. The percentage of the population using illicit drugs increased from 6.3 percent in 1999 and 2000 to 7.1 percent in 2001. Between 2000 and 2001, statistically significant increases were noted for the current use of marijuana (4.8 to 5.4 percent), cocaine (0.5 to 0.7 percent), pain relievers (1.2 to 1.6 percent), and tranquilizers (0.4 to 0.6 percent). A change in NHSDA questions on hallucinogens caused the estimated rate of use of this category of drugs to increase from 0.4 to 0.6 percent between 2000 and 2001. Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug. In 2001, it was used by 76 percent of current illicit drug users. Approximately 56 percent of current illicit drug users consumed only marijuana, 20 percent used marijuana and another illicit drug, and the remaining 24 percent used an illicit drug but not marijuana in the past month. Therefore, about 44 percent of current illicit drug users in 2001 (7.0 million Americans) used illicit drugs other than marijuana and hashish, with or without using marijuana as well. Of the 7.0 million current users of illicit drugs other than marijuana, 4.8 million were current users of psychotherapeutic drugs. This represents 2.1 percent of the population aged 12 or older, which was higher than the rate observed in 2000 (1.7 percent). Of those who reported current use of any psychotherapeutics, 3.5 million used pain relievers, 1.4 million used tranquilizers, 1.0 million used stimulants, and 0.3 million used sedatives. In 2001, an estimated 1.7 million (0.7 percent) of Americans aged 12 or older were current cocaine users and 406,000 (0.2 percent) were current crack users. Approximately 1.3 million (0.6 percent) of the population aged 12 or older were current users of hallucinogens. In 2001, an estimated 8.1 million (3.6 percent) of Americans aged 12 or older had tried "Ecstasy" at least once in their lifetime. This is more than the estimated 6.5 million (2.9 percent) lifetime users in 2000. The number of current users in 2001 was estimated to be 786,000 (0.3 percent). The 2000 NHSDA was not designed to report past month or past year use of Ecstasy. In 2001, approximately 957,000 persons aged 12 or older had used Oxycontin nonmedically at least once in their lifetime. This number is higher than estimates from both 1999 (221,000) and 2000 (399,000). The NHSDA was not designed to report past month or past year use of Oxycontin. Current heroin use was reported by an estimated 123,000 Americans in 2001. This represents 0.1 percent of the population aged 12 or older and is similar to the number estimated for 2000 (130,000).


Rates and patterns of drug use show substantial variation by age. For example, 3.8 percent of youths aged 12 or 13 reported current illicit drug use in 2001 (Figure 2.3). As in other years, illicit drug use in 2001 tended to increase with age among young persons. It peaked among 18 to 20 year olds (22.4 percent) and declined steadily after that point with increasing age. Among youths aged 12 to 17, 10.8 percent were current illicit drug users. This was higher than the rate observed in 2000 (9.7 percent). Among youths aged 12 or 13, the rate of past month illicit drug use increased from 3.0 percent in 2000 to 3.8 percent in 2001, which was similar to the rate observed in 1999 (3.9 percent). There were no changes between 2000 and 2001 in rates of past month use for any of the illicit drug categories for youths aged 14 or 15. The rate of current any illicit drug use among youths aged 16 or 17 did not differ between 2000 and 2001. However, declines were noted in rates of current LSD (1.1 to 0.7 percent) and methamphetamine use (0.6 to 0.3 percent) between these 2 years. Among young adults aged 18 to 25 years, the rate of past month any illicit drug use increased between 2000 and 2001, rising from 15.9 to 18.8 percent. Increases were evident for current use of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, hallucinogens, pain relievers, tranquilizers, stimulants, and methamphetamine. There were no changes in rates of drug use among adults aged 26 or older between 2000 and 2001. The rate of current illicit drug use was 4.2 percent in 2000 and 4.5 percent in 2001. Although rates of use of most drugs in 2001 were higher among youths and young adults compared with older adults, the age distribution of users varied considerably by type of drug. About half (51 percent) of current illicit drug users were aged 12 to 25. However, in 2001, 86 percent of hallucinogen users and 76 percent of inhalant users were aged 12 to 25. Conversely, only 40 percent of cocaine users and 45 percent of nonmedical psychotherapeutics users were aged 12 to 25. In 2001, approximately 2.0 million (8.6 percent) youths aged 12 to 17 had used inhalants at some time in their lives. Although there were no observed differences in rates of inhalant use between 2000 and 2001 among youths, the proportion of persons aged 26 or older reporting inhalant use increased from 6.4 to 7.1 percent.


As in prior years, men were more likely to report current illicit drug use than women (8.7 vs. 5.5 percent) in 2001. However, rates of nonmedical psychotherapeutics use were similar for males (2.2 percent) and females (2.0 percent), consistent with previous findings for these drugs. Between 2000 and 2001, the rate of past month illicit drug use increased among both men (from 7.7 to 8.7 percent) and women (from 5.0 to 5.5 percent) aged 12 or older. Among youths aged 12 to 17, the rate of current illicit drug use was higher for boys (11.4 percent) than for girls (10.2 percent) (Figure 2.9). Although boys aged 12 to 17 had a higher rate of marijuana use than girls (8.9 vs. 7.1 percent), girls were more likely to use psychotherapeutics nonmedically than boys (3.8 vs. 2.7 percent). Among youths aged 12 to 17, there was a significant increase between 2000 and 2001 in the rate of current illicit drug use among boys (from 9.8 to 11.4 percent), but no significant difference was noted among girls (from 9.5 to 10.2 percent).

Pregnant Women

Among pregnant women aged 15 to 44 years, 3.7 percent reported using illicit drugs in the month prior to interview (based on the combined 2000 and 2001 NHSDA samples). This rate was significantly lower than the rate among women aged 15 to 44 who were not pregnant (8.3 percent). Among pregnant women aged 15 to 17, the rate of use was 15.1 percent, nearly equal to the rate for nonpregnant women of the same age (14.1 percent). In 2001, the rates of current illicit drug use were similar for white (4.0 percent), black (3.7 percent), and Hispanic (3.3 percent) pregnant women.


Rates of current illicit drug use among the major racial/ethnic groups in 2001 were 7.2 percent for whites, 6.4 percent for Hispanics, and 7.4 percent for blacks. The rate was highest among American Indians/Alaska Natives (9.9 percent) and persons reporting more than one race (12.6 percent). Asians had the lowest rate. Although Asians as a group had the lowest rate of current illicit drug use, there were variations among the Asian subgroups. For persons aged 12 or older, the rates were 1.3 percent for Chinese, 2.2 percent for Asian Indians or Filipinos, 3.0 percent for Vietnamese, 4.5 percent for Japanese, 5.0 percent for Koreans, and 5.1 percent for Pacific Islanders excluding Native Hawaiians (Figure 2.12). To ensure adequate sample sizes for these population subgroups, these estimates are based on combined 2000 and 2001 NHSDA data. Based on combined 2000 and 2001 data, rates of past month illicit drug use in the Hispanic population aged 12 or older were 9.2 percent for Puerto Ricans, 5.8 percent for Mexicans, 3.7 percent for Cubans, and 3.6 percent for Central or South Americans. Among youths aged 12 to 17, the rate of current illicit drug use was highest among American Indians/Alaska Natives (23.0 percent for combined 2000 and 2001 data).


Illicit drug use rates are generally correlated with educational status. Among adults aged 18 or older in 2001, college graduates had the lowest rate of current use (4.3 percent). The rate was 7.6 percent among those who had not completed high school. This is despite the fact that adults who had completed 4 years of college were more likely to have tried illicit drugs in their lifetime when compared with adults who had not completed high school (47.2 vs. 32.0 percent).

College Students

In the college-aged population (i.e., those aged 18 to 22 years old), the rate of current illicit drug use was nearly the same among full-time undergraduate college students (20.6 percent) as for other persons aged 18 to 22 years, including part-time students, students in other grades, or nonstudents (21.7 percent). Between 2000 and 2001, there were no significant differences observed in the rate of current illicit drug use among full-time undergraduate college students; however, among other persons aged 18 to 22, the rate increased from 18.2 percent in 2000 to 21.7 percent in 2001.


Current employment status is also highly correlated with rates of illicit drug use. An estimated 17.1 percent of unemployed adults aged 18 or older were current illicit drug users in 2001 compared with 6.9 percent of those employed full time and 9.1 percent of those employed part time. Although the rate of drug use was higher among unemployed persons than other employment groups, most drug users were employed. Of the 13.4 million illicit drug users aged 18 or older in 2001, 10.2 million (76.4 percent) were employed either full or part time.

Geographic Area

Among persons aged 12 or older, the rate of current illicit drug use in 2001 was 8.3 percent in the West, 7.5 percent in the Northeast, 6.8 percent in the Midwest, and 6.2 percent in the South. By geographic division, rates ranged from 9.2 percent in New England division and 8.7 percent in the Pacific division to 6.2 percent in the West South Central division and 5.7 percent in the East South Central division.
The rate of illicit drug use in metropolitan areas was higher than the rate in nonmetropolitan counties. Rates were 7.6 percent in large metropolitan counties, 7.1 percent in small metropolitan counties, and 5.8 percent in nonmetropolitan counties (Figure 2.13). Completely rural nonmetropolitan counties had lower rates of illicit drug use than other types of nonmetropolitan counties. Rates were 4.8 percent in completely rural counties and 5.5 percent in less urbanized nonmetropolitan counties. Among youths in 2001, rates of any illicit drug use ranged from 14.4 percent in completely rural nonmetropolitan counties to 10.4 percent in less urbanized nonmetropolitan counties. The rate of use for youths in large metropolitan areas was 10.4 percent.

Criminal Justice Populations

In 2001, among the estimated 1.4 million adults aged 18 or older on parole or other supervised release from prison during the past year, 20.8 percent were current illicit drug users. This rate is higher than the rate for adults not on parole or supervised release (6.5 percent) and similar to the rate observed in 2000 (21.6 percent). Among the estimated 4.0 million adults on probation at some time in the past year, 24.4 percent reported current illicit drug use in 2001, which was comparable with the rate observed in 2000 (24.2 percent). This compares with a rate of 6.3 percent among adults not on probation in 2001.

Frequency of Use

Between 2000 and 2001, the frequency of marijuana use among past year users was similar. In 2001, 11.9 percent of past year marijuana users used the substance on 300 or more days in the past 12 months. This translates to 2.5 million persons using marijuana on a daily or almost daily basis over a 12-month period. Among past month users, about a third (32.0 percent, or 3.9 million persons) used marijuana more than 20 days in the past month.

Association with Cigarette and Alcohol Use

The rate of past month illicit drug use among youths and adults was higher among those who were current cigarette or alcohol users compared with those who did not use these substances. In 2001, the rate of current illicit drug use was approximately 9 times higher among youths who smoked cigarettes (48.0 percent) than it was among youths who did not (5.3 percent). Illicit drug use also was associated with the level of alcohol use. Among youths who were heavy drinkers in 2001, 65.3 percent also were current illicit drug users, whereas among nondrinkers, the rate was only 5.1 percent.

Driving Under the Influence of Illicit Drugs

An estimated 8.0 million persons reported driving under the influence of an illicit drug at some time in the past year. This corresponds to 3.6 percent of the population aged 12 or older and is significantly higher than the rate in 2000 (3.1 percent) but similar to the rate in 1999 (3.4 percent). Among young adults aged 18 to 25 years, 12.4 percent drove under the influence of illicit drugs at least once in the past year. Of the 8.0 million persons who had driven under the influence of illicit drugs in the past year, most (77 percent) had also driven under the influence of alcohol.


Prescription Drug Use

In 2002, Americans filled 3,340,000,000 outpatient prescriptions. That's 12 prescriptions for every man, women, and child in America. Has the American dream become 2 kids, 2 cars, and a dozen drugs in each person's medicine chest?

Despite a cold economy in which most industries have seen sales drop, U.S. drug sales increased substantially in 2002, reaching $219 billion. According to NDCHealth, overall drug sales (all sources) grew 12% 2002, 18% in 2001, and 15% in 2000 (based on wholesale acquisition costs). The trend of doctors writing more and more outpatient prescriptions each year continues without pause:

2002: 3,340,000,000 Rx
2001: 3,200,000,000 Rx
2000: 2,979,000,000 Rx
1999: 2,821,000,000 Rx
1998: 2,523,000,000 Rx

The cost of these drugs has more than doubled in five years. The outlook for the future? According to Pharmacy Times last year: "For the past 3 years, prescription volume has grown by 25% in the United States, and there doesn't appear to be a slowdown in sight."

What is the goal of the drug industry? To simply sell as many drugs as possible? Yet, medications aren't like other commodities. Prescription drugs aren't the same as cars, cosmetics, or CD players. Drugs have direct, powerful effects on human systems. Most of these effects are negative, and taking multiple drugs -- as 25% of Americans do -- increases the risks exponentially. Psychologically, the growing attitude that drugs are the answer for every ache and angst is destructive for individuals and societies.

Prescription medications are the #4 leading cause of death, cause more than 1 million hospitalizations annually, and are a major cause of disability and drug dependency. Over-use of medications is rampant.

Monday, October 29, 2007


Land Of Greed, Home Of Depraved

The following article should help place American Foreign Policy in perspective of the true values of America:

According to the latest statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice, more than two million men and women are now behind bars in the United States. The country that holds itself out as the "land of freedom" incarcerates a higher percentage of its people than any other country. The human costs — wasted lives, wrecked families, troubled children — are incalculable, as are the adverse social, economic and political consequences of weakened communities, diminished opportunities for economic mobility, and extensive disenfranchisement.

Contrary to popular perception, violent crime is not responsible for the quadrupling of the incarcerated population in the United States since 1980. In fact, violent crime rates have been relatively constant or declining over the past two decades. The exploding prison population has been propelled by public policy changes that have increased the use of prison sentences as well as the length of time served, e.g. through mandatory minimum sentencing, "three strikes" laws, and reductions in the availability of parole or early release.

Although these policies were championed as protecting the public from serious and violent offenders, they have instead yielded high rates of confinement of nonviolent offenders. Nearly three quarters of new admissions to state prison were convicted of nonviolent crimes. Only 49 percent of sentenced state inmates are held for violent offenses.

Perhaps the single greatest force behind the growth of the prison population has been the national "war on drugs." The number of incarcerated drug offenders has increased twelvefold since 1980. In 2000, 22 percent of those in federal and state prisons were convicted on drug charges.

Even more troubling than the absolute number of persons in jail or prison is the extent to which those men and women are African-American. Although blacks account for only 12 percent of the U.S. population, 44 percent of all prisoners in the United States are black.

Census data for 2000, which included a count of the number and race of all individuals incarcerated in the United States, reveals the dramatic racial disproportion of the incarcerated population in each state: the proportion of blacks in prison populations exceeds the proportion among state residents in every single state. In twenty states, the percent of blacks incarcerated is at least five times greater than their share of resident population.

The official figures confirm what those who live in African-American communities know full well — too many blacks are behind bars, particularly black men. Indeed, nearly five percent of all black men, compared to 0.6 percent of white men, are incarcerated. In many states the rate is far worse. According to Human Rights Watch's calculations based on the 2000 U.S. Census, in twelve states more than ten percent of black men ages 18 to 64 are incarcerated. The Justice Department reports that nationwide, a similar percentage of black men in the ages 20-29 are behind bars.

The absolute level of black incarceration should be cause for national concern. But so should the striking disparity with white incarceration. Nationwide, black men of all ages are incarcerated at more than seven times the rate of white men, according to the Justice Department. Again, shocking as such a national average is, it masks even worse racial disparities in individual states. In thirteen states, black men are incarcerated at more than ten times the rate of white men. No state is free of significant disparities.

The national war on drugs has perhaps been the primary factor behind the extraordinary rates at which blacks are incarcerated. Drug offenses account for nearly two out of five of the blacks sent to state prison. More blacks are sent to state prison for drug offenses (38 percent) than for crimes of violence (27 percent). In contrast, drug offenders constitute 24 percent of whites admitted to prison and violent offenders constitute 27 percent.

African-Americans are arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned for drug offenses at far higher rates than whites. This racial disparity bears little relationship to racial differences in drug offending. For example, although the proportion of all drug users who are black is generally in the range of 13 to 15 percent, blacks constitute 36 percent of arrests for drug possession. Blacks constitute 63 percent of all drug offenders admitted to state prisons. In at least fifteen states, black men were sent to prison on drug charges at rates ranging from twenty to fifty-seven times those of white men.

The high and disproportionate rate of minority incarceration, particularly in the context of the war on drugs, is a grave challenge to the country. It exposes and deepens the racial fault lines that weaken the country; contradicts principles of justice and equal protection of the laws; and undermines faith among all races in the fairness and efficacy of the criminal justice system.

States have choices in the means by which to promote community well-being, protect public safety and curb the drug trade. Over the last two decades, the choice was imprisonment. Prison is, of course, a legitimate criminal sanction, but it should be used as a last resort — i.e. used only for serious crimes -- and the length of the sentence should be commensurate with the conduct and culpability of the offender. Unfortunately, too many states have opted instead for sentencing policies that mandate long sentences even for nonviolent, low-level drug offenders.

The budgetary demands of swollen prison populations at a time of fiscal crisis are currently forcing states to reconsider their sentencing policies. We believe they should examine the cost-effectiveness, fairness, and wisdom of adopting shorter sentences, eliminating mandatory minimums and increasing the use of alternatives to incarceration. Although financial pressures now compel the reassessment of sentencing policies, public officials should take the opportunity to consider the damage caused by unnecessary and excessive incarceration, and the consequences of dramatic racial disparities among those who are placed behind bars.

Labels: ,

Friday, October 26, 2007


Corruption! Everywhere You Look

A senior Securities and Exchange Commission official said on Thursday insider trading appeared to be "rampant" among Wall Street professionals and the agency has formed a working group to focus on it.

"I believe we're going to see more insider trading cases," Linda Chatman Thomsen, the SEC's enforcement director, told reporters on the sidelines of a securities fraud conference.

"I am disappointed in the number of cases we are seeing by people who make an abundant livelihood in the market that they are sort of abusing by insider trading," Thomsen said, referring to cases already brought against professionals this year.

Insider trading "appears to be rampant" among Wall Street securities professionals, she added.

Alice Fisher, assistant attorney general with the Justice Department's criminal division, echoed Thomsen's sentiment and said: "The number of insider trading cases don't seem to be going away."

In the past year, SEC enforcement lawyers have brought increasing numbers of insider trading lawsuits and settlements. Recent high-profile cases include charges against a husband and wife in Hong Kong for trades in Dow Jones & Co Inc shares ahead of News Corp's $5 billion takeover bid, and guilty pleas from three former Countrywide Financial Corp (CFC.N: Quote, Profile, Research) executives for trading company shares ahead of a disappointing profit report.

Also, in March U.S. prosecutors charged 13 people, including employees at top Wall Street banks UBS (UBSN.VX: Quote, Profile, Research), Morgan Stanley (MS.N: Quote, Profile, Research) and Bear Stearns Cos Inc (BSC.N: Quote, Profile, Research) in what they called one of the most pervasive trading rings since the 1980s. The SEC also brought civil charges against 11 people, as well as against three hedge funds.

Insider trading involving hedge funds is the focus of one of the four internal working groups the SEC has set up to tap expertise and coordinate efforts throughout the agency. The $1.8 trillion hedge fund industry guards its secrecy and complex trading strategies.

The SEC also has a working group looking at municipal securities, one focused on subprime mortgage lending issues, and a group examining stock options backdating by executives.

Thomsen expected more enforcement actions related to options backdating, but would not provide a time frame.

"There will be more to come," she told the securities law conference.

More than 180 companies have been investigated by the SEC or have conducted their own internal inquiries into possible manipulation of stock option grant dates.

The SEC has brought civil charges against former executives at several companies, including Apple Inc's (AAPL.O: Quote, Profile, Research) former general counsel.

In the subprime lending area, Thomsen said there was a wide variety of potential violations, including disclosure issues and the packaging of subprime loans.

At the same conference, Peter Bresnan, the SEC's deputy director of enforcement, highlighted 10b5-1 trading plans and said the agency had several under investigation.

The plans allow corporate executives to file a trading plan with the agency for future sales of their stock. The SEC has been looking at the general issue of whether executives are illegally trading on insider information and using the preset trading plan to avoid suspicion.

Bresnan would not comment on reports the SEC has opened an informal probe into stock sales by Countrywide Chief Executive Angelo Mozilo. The agency has not confirmed or commented on the reports.

Separately, Bresnan said the agency was seeing a trend in larger rings involving more people, international cases, as well as those involving securities professionals and hedge funds.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, October 23, 2007



There’s something perversely fascinating about educational policies that are clearly at odds with the available data. Huge schools are still being built even though we know that students tend to fare better in smaller places that lend themselves to the creation of democratic caring communities. Many children who are failed by the academic status quo are forced to repeat a grade even though research shows that this is just about the worst course of action for them. Homework continues to be assigned – in ever greater quantities – despite the absence of evidence that it’s necessary or even helpful in most cases.

The dimensions of that last disparity weren’t clear to me until I began sifting through the research for a new book. To begin with, I discovered that decades of investigation have failed to turn up any evidence that homework is beneficial for students in elementary school. Even if you regard standardized test results as a useful measure, homework (some versus none, or more versus less) isn’t even correlated with higher scores at these ages. The only effect that does show up is more negative attitudes on the part of students who get more assignments.

In high school, some studies do find a correlation between homework and test scores (or grades), but it’s usually fairly small and it has a tendency to disappear when more sophisticated statistical controls are applied. Moreover, there’s no evidence that higher achievement is due to the homework even when an association does appear. It isn’t hard to think of other explanations for why successful students might be in classrooms where more homework is assigned – or why they might spend more time on it than their peers do.

The results of national and international exams raise further doubts. One of many examples is an analysis of 1994 and 1999 Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) data from 50 countries. Researchers DB and GL were scarcely able to conceal their surprise when they published their results last year: “Not only did we fail to find any positive relationships,” but “the overall correlations between national average student achievement and national averages in [amount of homework assigned] are all negative.”

Finally, there isn’t a shred of evidence to support the widely accepted assumption that homework yields nonacademic benefits for students of any age. The idea that homework teaches good work habits or develops positive character traits (such as self-discipline and independence) could be described as an urban myth except for the fact that it’s taken seriously in suburban and rural areas, too.

In short, regardless of one’s criteria, there is no reason to think that most students would be at any sort of disadvantage if homework were sharply reduced or even eliminated. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of world schools – elementary and secondary, public and private – continue to require their students to work a second shift by bringing academic assignments home. Not only is this requirement accepted uncritically, but the amount of homework is growing, particularly in the early grades. A large, long-term national survey found that the proportion of six- to-eight-year-old children who reported having homework on a given day had climbed from 34 percent in 1981 to 58 percent in 1997 – and the weekly time spent studying at home more than doubled.

SH of the UM, one of the authors of that study, has just released an update based on 2002 data. Now the proportion of young children who had homework on a specific day jumped to 64 percent, and the amount of time they spent on it climbed by another third. The irony here is painful because with younger children the evidence to justify homework isn’t merely dubious – it’s nonexistent.

So why do we do something where the cons (stress, frustration, family conflict, loss of time for other activities, a possible diminution of interest in learning) so clearly outweigh the pros? Possible reasons include a lack of respect for research, a lack of respect for children (implicit in a determination to keep them busy after school), a reluctance to question existing practices, and the top-down pressures to teach more stuff faster in order to pump up test scores so we can chant “We’re number one!”

All these explanations are plausible, but I think there’s also something else responsible for our continuing to feed children this latter-day cod-liver oil. Because many of us believe it’s just common sense that homework would provide academic benefits, we tend to shrug off the failure to find any such benefits. In turn, our belief that homework ought to help is based on some fundamental misunderstandings about learning.

Consider the assumption that homework should be beneficial just because it gives students more time to master a topic or skill. (Plenty of pundits rely on this premise when they call for extending the school day or year. Indeed, homework can be seen as a way of prolonging the school day on the cheap.) Unfortunately, this reasoning turns out to be woefully simplistic. Back “when experimental psychologists mainly studied words and nonsense syllables, it was thought that learning inevitably depended upon time,” reading researcher RC and his colleagues explain. But “subsequent research suggests that this belief is false.”

The statement “People need time to learn things” is true, of course, but it doesn’t tell us much of practical value. On the other hand, the assertion “More time usually leads to better learning” is considerably more interesting. It’s also demonstrably untrue, however, because there are enough cases where more time doesn’t lead to better learning.

In fact, more hours are least likely to produce better outcomes when understanding or creativity is involved. Anderson and his associates found that when children are taught to read by focusing on the meaning of the text (rather than primarily on phonetic skills), their learning does “not depend on amount of instructional time.” In math, too, as another group of researchers discovered, time on task is directly correlated to achievement only if both the activity and the outcome measure are focused on rote recall as opposed to problem solving.

CA of MS points out that it isn’t “quantitative changes in behavior” – such as requiring students to spend more hours in front of books or worksheets – that help children learn better. Rather, it’s “qualitative changes in the ways students view themselves in relation to the task, engage in the process of learning, and then respond to the learning activities and situation.” In turn, these attitudes and responses emerge from the way teachers think about learning and, as a result, how they organize their classrooms. Assigning homework is unlikely to have a positive effect on any of these variables. We might say that education is less about how much the teacher covers than about what students can be helped to discover – and more time won’t help to bring about that shift.

Alongside an overemphasis on time is the widely held belief that homework “reinforces” the skills that students have learned – or, rather, have been taught -- in class. But what exactly does this mean? It wouldn’t make sense to say “Keep practicing until you understand” because practicing doesn’t create understanding – just as giving kids a deadline doesn’t teach time-management skills. What might make sense is to say “Keep practicing until what you’re doing becomes automatic.” But what kinds of proficiencies lend themselves to this sort of improvement?

The answer is behavioral responses. Expertise in tennis requires lots of practice; it’s hard to improve your swing without spending a lot of time on the court. But to cite an example like that to justify homework is an example of what philosophers call begging the question. It assumes precisely what has to be proved, which is that intellectual pursuits are like tennis.

The assumption that they are analogous derives from behaviorism, which is the source of the verb “reinforce” as well as the basis of an attenuated view of learning. In the 1920s and ‘30s, when JW was formulating his theory that would come to dominate education, a much less famous researcher named WB was challenging the drill-and-practice approach to mathematics that had already taken root. “If one is to be successful in quantitative thinking, one needs a fund of meanings, not a myriad of ‘automatic responses,’” he wrote. “Drill does not develop meanings. Repetition does not lead to understandings.” In fact, if “arithmetic becomes meaningful, it becomes so in spite of drill.”

WB’s insights have been enriched by a long line of research demonstrating that the behaviorist model is, if you’ll excuse the expression, deeply superficial. People spend their lives actively constructing theories about how the world works, and then reconstructing them in light of new evidence. Lots of practice can help some students get better at remembering an answer, but not to get better at – or even accustomed to -- thinking. And even when they do acquire an academic skill through practice, the way they acquire it should give us pause. As psychologist EL has shown, “When we drill ourselves in a certain skill so that it becomes second nature,” we may come to perform that skill “mindlessly,” locking us into patterns and procedures that are less than ideal.

But even if practice is sometimes useful, we’re not entitled to conclude that homework of this type works for most students. It isn’t of any use for those who don’t understand what they’re doing. Such homework makes them feel stupid; gets them accustomed to doing things the wrong way (because what’s really “reinforced” are mistaken assumptions); and teaches them to conceal what they don’t know. At the same time, other students in the same class already have the skill down cold, so further practice for them is a waste of time. You’ve got some kids, then, who don’t need the practice and others who can’t use it.

Furthermore, even if practice was helpful for most students, that doesn’t mean they need to do it at home. In my research I found a number of superb teachers (at different grade levels and with diverse instructional styles) who rarely, if ever, found it necessary to assign homework. Some not only didn’t feel a need to make students read, write, or do math at home; they preferred to have students do these things during class where it was possible to observe, guide, and discuss.

Finally, any theoretical benefit of practice homework must be weighed against the effect it has on students’ interest in learning. If slogging through worksheets dampens one’s desire to read or think, surely that wouldn’t be worth an incremental improvement in skills. And when an activity feels like drudgery, the quality of learning tends to suffer, too. That so many children regard homework as something to finish as quickly as possible – or even as a significant source of stress -- helps to explain why it appears not to offer any academic advantage even for those who obediently sit down and complete the tasks they’ve been assigned. All that research showing little value to homework may not be so surprising after all.

Supporters of homework rarely look at things from the student’s point of view, though; instead, kids are regarded as inert objects to be acted on: Make them practice and they’ll get better. My argument isn’t just that this viewpoint is disrespectful, or that it’s a residue of an outdated stimulus-response psychology. I’m also suggesting it’s counterproductive. Children cannot be made to acquire skills. They aren’t vending machines such that we put in more homework and get out more learning.

But just such misconceptions are pervasive in all sorts of neighborhoods, and they’re held by parents, teachers, and researchers alike. It’s these beliefs that make it so hard even to question the policy of assigning regular homework. We can be shown the paucity of supporting evidence and it won’t have any impact if we’re wedded to folk wisdom (“practice makes perfect”; more time equals better results).

On the other hand, the more we learn about learning, the more willing we may be to challenge the idea that homework has to be part of schooling.


Monday, October 22, 2007


Oil Production

World oil production has already peaked and will fall by half as soon as 2030, according to a report which also warns that extreme shortages of fossil fuels will lead to wars and social breakdown.

The German-based Energy Watch Group will release its study in London today saying that global oil production peaked in 2006 - much earlier than most experts had expected. The report, which predicts that production will now fall by 7% a year, comes after oil prices set new records almost every day last week, on Friday hitting more than $90 (£44) a barrel.

"The world soon will not be able to produce all the oil it needs as demand is rising while supply is falling. This is a huge problem for the world economy," said Hans-Josef Fell, EWG's founder and the German MP behind the country's successful support system for renewable energy.

The report's author, Joerg Schindler, said its most alarming finding was the steep decline in oil production after its peak, which he says is now behind us.

The results are in contrast to projections from the International Energy Agency, which says there is little reason to worry about oil supplies at the moment.

However, the EWG study relies more on actual oil production data which, it says, are more reliable than estimates of reserves still in the ground. The group says official industry estimates put global reserves at about 1.255 gigabarrels - equivalent to 42 years' supply at current consumption rates. But it thinks the figure is only about two thirds of that.

Global oil production is currently about 81m barrels a day - EWG expects that to fall to 39m by 2030. It also predicts significant falls in gas, coal and uranium production as those energy sources are used up.

Britain's oil production peaked in 1999 and has already dropped by half to about 1.6 million barrels a day.

The report presents a bleak view of the future unless a radically different approach is adopted. It quotes the British energy economist David Fleming as saying: "Anticipated supply shortages could lead easily to disturbing scenes of mass unrest as witnessed in Burma this month. For government, industry and the wider public, just muddling through is not an option any more as this situation could spin out of control and turn into a complete meltdown of society."

Mr Schindler comes to a similar conclusion. "The world is at the beginning of a structural change of its economic system. This change will be triggered by declining fossil fuel supplies and will influence almost all aspects of our daily life."

Jeremy Leggett, one of Britain's leading environmentalists and the author of Half Gone, a book about "peak oil" - defined as the moment when maximum production is reached, said that both the UK government and the energy industry were in "institutionalised denial" and that action should have been taken sooner.

"When I was an adviser to government, I proposed that we set up a taskforce to look at how fast the UK could mobilise alternative energy technologies in extremis, come the peak," he said. "Other industry advisers supported that. But the government prefers to sleep on without even doing a contingency study. For those of us who know that premature peak oil is a clear and present danger, it is impossible to understand such complacency."

Mr Fell said that the world had to move quickly towards the massive deployment of renewable energy and to a dramatic increase in energy efficiency, both as a way to combat climate change and to ensure that the lights stayed on. "If we did all this we may not have an energy crisis."

He accused the British government of hypocrisy. "Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have talked a lot about climate change but have not brought in proper policies to drive up the use of renewables," he said. "This is why they are left talking about nuclear and carbon capture and storage. "

Yesterday, a spokesman for the Department of Business and Enterprise said: "Over the next few years global oil production and refining capacity is expected to increase faster than demand. The world's oil resources are sufficient to sustain economic growth for the foreseeable future. The challenge will be to bring these resources to market in a way that ensures sustainable, timely, reliable and affordable supplies of energy."

The German policy, which guarantees above-market payments to producers of renewable power, is being adopted in many countries - but not Britain and USA, where renewables generate about 4% of the electricity and 2% of overall energy needs.


Saturday, October 20, 2007



If you have ever wondered, in the face of our ever-expanding landfills and increasingly elaborate packaging of consumer goods and consumption, what happens to the all the garbage, then Heather Rogers' informative and provocative new book, Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, published by the New Press, is for you.

It is not a shock that the United States is the number one producer of garbage on the planet; with just 5 percent of the global population we generate 30 percent of the world's trash. The average American throws away a staggering 4.5 pounds of rubbish daily -- that's 1,600 pounds each year, according to Rogers. And garbage is also a global problem; today the middle of the Pacific Ocean is six times more abundant with plastic waste than zooplankton.

So how did we get to this point? Garbage production doubled in the U.S. over the past 30 years, yet waste is increasingly hidden, and the focus on recycling is fading along with it. Rogers says this situation came about through an alignment of manufacturing and marketing forces, combined with goals of the mega-garbage collection companies like Waste Management and Browning Ferris, and even some environmental laws which ended up helping the mega-companies.

Together, the persistent twin emphasis on growth -- our ever expanding consumptive society -- and the encouragement of easy disposal has made it seem painless for us to increasingly evolve to a virtually "throw away" society. With new technologies the impact is particularly pernicious and the impact is often on the Third World, our society's garbage dump. Just think for a moment about how many televisions, computers, screens, cell phones, iPods and other devices and gadgets you and your office have tossed out over the past decade.

Rogers' book, stuffed full of hundreds of fascinating factoids, combines a history of garbage collection with a political analysis of how social and economic forces have created a great garbage monopoly, in much the same way that a few companies dominate many key markets until the "free markets" are no longer remotely competitive.

Mixed in with Rogers' analysis, the reader will encounter fascinating garbage stories of incinerators and mega-dumps, of waste streams and marketing schemes, all aspects of today's waste-addicted culture. Rogers brings an emotional voice to the narrative as the garbage story is both fascinating and appalling, sharing her feelings of being both awe struck and disgusted. Garbage: it really is quite a story.

In the end, while there is plenty to be discouraged about, the book also has heroes and some smart garbage solutions from reformers, ideas to which municipal leaders, like New York's Mayor Bloomberg, are paying some attention.

Heather Rogers sat down with AlterNet in late September at a noisy Cosi's Cafe in Greenwich Village for the following interview. An excerpt from the book accompanies the Q & A.

So why did you write the book? Tell me a little bit about the experience.

I wrote the book because I wanted to know what happened to my garbage. I knew that it disappeared -- and I knew that it didn't. I also was interested in this system that, if it failed to work, whole cities could be brought to a grinding halt. I wanted to know more about what garbage collecting looked like and how it really worked -- something so integral to the way a city functions.

Once I started looking into garbage, I realized that it was this really great way to talk about the way the market works, and its relationship to labor and nature. Also, it was an excellent way to talk about the larger environmental crisis, just through this everyday substance of garbage.

What was your mood while writing it?

It was up and down. There were definitely periods of time when I was very depressed by it ... but also times when I felt good.

I noticed that some of the language you used: "mysterious," "oddly fascinating," "awesome eerie scenes," "metabolism of the market," led me to think you went through some kind of a journey in this sometimes fascinating, sometimes disgusting world.

Yeah. It's true. It was exciting because going to an incinerator, going to a landfill, I got to see these things that are normally hidden from view in our society; certain things are kept in hiding and garbage is one of them. Production is another. To get to go into that realm and see it is kind of exhilarating. You do feel like you're going into a place you're not supposed to be. And also it's horrifying. I had nightmares after I went to see this landfill in Pennsylvania that I write about in the book.

There are key metaphors that I'd like you to comment on. One of them is the massiveness issue -- the mega-facility in Morrisville, Pa. you mentioned -- the 6,000 acres of garbage. Tell me about that as a response to the garbage problem, how massiveness has become the way with which garbage is dealt.

That has everything to do with the corporatization of garbage handling, and the huge scale that's really evolved over the last 30 years. Basically, there's been a shift from the small local mom-and-pop hauling companies that would be contracted out by cities, or municipalities operating garbage collection and disposal themselves. Those have been what's sometimes called "rolled up" by these large corporations like Waste Management, Browning Ferris Industries -- there's a bunch of them now. Those were the first two.

They saw the potential basically because disposal facilities don't operate like a manufacturing facility where you can easily change economies of scale. You can't do that in the same way with garbage handling because of the relationship between collection and proximity. Your garbage has to come from the surrounding area and the costs are fixed with the trucks, etc. But these corporations could start achieving economies of scale by building these mega-fills. That's why it's gone in that direction.

Those companies have the capital to build big and put the other, smaller people out of business with predatory pricing like Wal-Mart?

Predatory pricing has been their main mechanism for driving other businesses out of markets. But it's interesting, because environmental controls passed in the early 1990s played a really key role in the further consolidation and corporatization of the garbage industry. Tighter controls were required for landfill liner and monitoring systems implemented in 1991 by the EPA, that was part of a law that was passed in 1976, called the Resource Conservation Recovery Act (RCRA).

Waste Management, Browning Ferris and these other large companies supported stricter environmental controls because it created barriers to entry for smaller businesses and for municipalities, and it allowed the corporations to come in and absorb up all these landfills that municipalities couldn't afford to upgrade.

So that's an irony, that corporatization has made the environment more healthy; is that fair to say, because the standards were raised?

Well, to some degree, except that the monitoring systems that are in place, many would argue, are completely inadequate. And yet we're told that they're flawless and that this is a great system and what Waste Management is doing in Pennsylvania at their Morrisville landfill is environmentally sound and it's not.

You write a lot about the PR capacities of the big corporations. Has PR played a big role in helping the public forget about garbage and think that it's being taken care of?

It's been very effective and what's interesting is that in the last couple years, there's been a decline in the recycling rate. People's attention and the political pressure on companies like Waste Management to recycle is waning because people do think our wastes are being handled in an environmentally sound fashion. The big companies come up with these schemes like drilling down into their closed landfills to collect the methane, the landfill gas -- under the 1991 E.P.A. rule they have to collect these gases. So they capture some portion of the gases and then direct them to a power generator, an electric company nearby and sell it to them. And they call it green energy. It's not green energy. It's totally wasteful to create that, but it's better to capture it than to release it.

Right, but they make money selling it?

They don't really make money selling it; They make some money, but it's negligible. It's not a real source of income. It's really a great way for them to put another layer of green-washing on what they do.

In the "Corporatization of Garbage" chapter, you describe how in the mid-'90s in NYC, big corporations like Waste Management and Browning Ferris wrested control of garbage collection in New York City from the Mafia. The Mafia were charging exorbitant prices. Then the big companies came in, the prices went down, but then as soon as the corporations got control of the market and the Mafia got squashed, the prices went up to where they were when the Mafia was in charge. Who would be better -- Waste Management, or Don Corleone -- at collecting the garbage?

Hopefully we'd have more options than that.

The Mafia was dislodged because there was this comprehensive undercover investigation led by a New York police officer named Rick Cowan. He infiltrated the garbage cartel -- it was called Operation Wasteland. For three years, he collected audio recordings of the Mafia describing how the cartel worked, implicating themselves, and it was a result of his work that brought the Mafia down.

But all the smaller companies that weren't Mafia but had to kind of pay to protect their turf, they all got squashed, too, right?

Yeah. The thing is that the leadership in New York City wanted the corporations to come in, in part because of business connections. And they did need the garbage to picked up. Giuliani wanted to close Fresh Kills landfill, in Staten Island, and he needed another option.

Morrisville, P.A.?

Exactly. The big waste corporations had the solutions. By 1997, Browning Ferris and Waste Management owned enough disposable capacity to handle all of New York City's garbage. So, there were real benefits that these corporations brought to the table politically and logistically to keep the city running. It was an opportunity for the city to really rethink its waste disposal practices, which they absolutely didn't do at all.

What should they have done?

They could've implemented a municipal composting program. Sixty percent of household garbage that gets thrown away in landfills in the U.S. are compostable items. That would've taken a huge chunk out of what needed to get thrown away in the first place.

So, why has recycling gone down and why isn't there more composting?

Recycling underwent its real renaissance in the late '80s and early '90s because the E.P.A. in the mid and late '80s started implementing a provision in the RCRA which said landfills have to meet a certain safety level in order to operate. Most landfills in the U.S. didn't meet those standards. So two-thirds of the U.S. landfills were shut in the late '80s. It created a disposal crisis. That's when you had that garbage barge [the Mobro 4000] that was full of ash, floating up and down the east coast trying to find a place to dispose of the ash and went to Haiti. It then dumped 10,000 tons of it on a beach illegally in Haiti, and offloaded it somewhere in the ocean.

That was a moment of real crisis over where to put the garbage. At first, local government and also the old-line environmental groups like the Sierra Club endorsed incineration. So there was this huge push to build more incinerators. Except that in New York City, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, neighborhoods got together and said "no, we don't want incinerators in our neighborhoods. They're not safe, they're not clean, we don't want to breath in the smoke and the ash coming out of the stacks.

But the garbage had to go somewhere. So these municipalities, where residents fought incineration, were forced to adopt mandatory municipal curbside recycling programs.

Because of the corporatization of waste handling and disposal, because we have these mega-fills now -- there's an overcapacity of space, so there isn't the pressure for recycling When there isn't the pressure, people aren't thinking about it as much.

Bloomberg even stopped recycling for a while in New York,

Yes, but that was instructive in that when he stopped recycling, it pissed people off. He had to start it again. People really like recycling. The same is true in DC. They stopped it twice there and they had to reinstate because people got so angry.

So there is massiveness and monopoly control; what about the notion of garbage flow ... it seems like garbage is flowing 24/7 all around world.

Shit and gold are constantly flowing. [laughing]

Shit and gold, is that it? [laughing] What do you make of that? It is described as the "waste stream."

It's interesting about that term, the "waste stream." It sanitizes the idea of discard, it's like, it's just this "stream" ... it's just an innocuous thing that's sort of naturally occurring. The levels of waste that we produce in a free market system are by no means the natural outcome of some organic process. They're the product of choices that have been made in many ways by manufacturers to boost consumption and to boost profits. In terms of these flows, you don't have consumption if you don't have wasting. You don't have expanding markets if you don't have increasing levels of consumption. So, in order to have continued intensified growth, you have to have continued, intensified wasting.

But how do you intervene into that system and slow it down or reverse it? Does it require a total paradigm shift into the way people think? Is it possible under capitalism to do that?

I think that one of the downfalls of the environmental movement is that it has tried to separate issues of environmental health from the economic system that those issues exist in. I think that people have witnessed it long enough to know that that approach is flawed.

Tell me more about the enjoyment of throwing things away.

I think there's a gratification there that people get. It's different for different people. The system that we have wasn't just thought of by huge manufacturers. It was something that was shaped by real human desires that came into play; certain choices were made. We can address this kind of gratification that people get out of the shiny packaging and when something breaks, getting to throw it away and getting a new, fancier one that takes pictures, has lights and plays music. We can try to address those desires in a different way.

Because I think again the environmental movement has, like I say in the book, this sort of pinched, austere approach that isn't that fun for a lot of people. There are so many ways, when I think about what the possibilities. For example: people are building biodiesel cars with old car bodies. They're totally efficient, great vehicles, but they have these old bodies. They don't get 10 miles to the gallon, they get much more.

Here's a big question: garbage is connected to global warming, toxic dumps, exploitation of poor neighborhoods and shipped off to third world countries. Garbage seems like a worthy metaphor for much of what is wrong in the world. Is there any trend to suggest that these problems can be addressed, that third world countries aren't going to be stuck with all this dangerous crap you describe in the book being dumped on them.

Unfortunately, Hurricane Katrina revealed that all of these issues are very much at the forefront of what's going on. What happened in the Gulf Coast is awful to see, but it lays bare the reality of the situation. Toxic wastes are being dumped on the poorest communities, and often they're communities of color, and those problems are exacerbated by global warming. All these issues are connected to issues of poverty and inequality. They produce each other. They exacerbate each other.

The stance of green capitalism is that consumption can kind of go on unabated, but you're pretty cynical about these developments: poor product to manufacturing design, bioplastics are a technical fix, etc. What you rail at in the book is: if we can make all these technical fixes, why can't we stop producing so much garbage?

Yes, why can't we change the production process so that it's less wasteful? I do think that industrial production can be made better. I do think that it's incredibly wasteful the way that it operates now. There's so much room for improvement. But I don't think that we have to get rid of industrial production.

Is it happening better in other parts of the world, in Europe or ... ?

Yes. For example, one really simple thing that we could do is switch back to refillable bottles for beverages. It would accomplish a number of things. They use this system in Germany, and 72 percent of all their beverage containers have to be refillable. That's the law. The beverage makers in that country continuously try to break that law, and the government has enforced it. They penalize the beverage producers and enforce the law, and it works. It's profitable and people like it.

They have to take their bottles back to the store; the bottles get washed out and refilled. They leave a deposit and they get it back -- a system that we used to have here, that was phased out in the '70s, because it was more profitable to have disposable containers for the beverage industry and it also facilitated the consolidation of the beverage industry.

We talked about the gratification that people get out of wasting, but there's also a psychological toll that it takes. People don't like to waste. There's another side of it too -- I think it really causes people a lot of concern. There are so few moments where we can directly affect the production process, like the process that brings us this plastic cup. There are so few points at which we can have real contact with that process. And people taking their bottles back to the store, is one of those moments. I think it gives people some hope.

What other suggestions do you have about solutions?

One example is the movement called Zero Waste, which I write about in the last chapter They advocate for a lot of the same things that the Green Capitalists advocate for, which is redesigning the production process and designing waste and designing out toxics. The difference is that the Zero Waste movement says that those things should be mandated by law and they should be enforced because producers won't do it themselves if they don't have to. There's a Zero Waste campaign right now in New York City and they're lobbying city officials. New York City has to come up with a new solid waste management plan.


Yeah, it's mandated by the state. It's at least 10-year plan, with a 20-year timeframe; it's a long-term vision on how the city is going to manage its waste. So, this group of people has been active in influencing this discussion. It's not getting a lot of attention -- they're not getting the attention they deserve.

But Bloomberg has adopted some of their ideas, one of them being that transfer stations which is where garbage gets taken between getting collected and getting taken to the dump or the incinerator should be spread around. The Zero Waste campaign said that transfer stations had to be dispersed around the city and not just concentrated in the South Bronx and in Greenpoint.

Are the neighborhoods still fighting it?

It's pretty much settled. They're going to reopen the transfer station on the Upper East Side, which those people definitely did not want ... but they lost. So there's going to be a transfer station on the UES, they're opening a transfer station on the Westside in the 50s, and that's going to be for commercial construction and demolition debris. They're spreading the burden out in a more equitable way, which is really good. That's something that the Zero Waste put together. They have other ideas.

The other thing I wanted to just mention is that ... I think it's important to acknowledge what's happened on the cultural level in terms of indoctrinating people to disposability. A lot of effort has been made to teach people to throw things away. It's not something that that comes natural to people. It's just use something and discard it, that's something we've had to learn how to do. One of the cultural institutions that has made it its business to normalize disposability is this beautification group called Keep America Beautiful. They were started in 1953.

They've normalized disposables? Are they supported by commercial interests?

Yes, they have shaped the normalization a very sophisticated way, and they were started by the beverage container industry, the packaging industry, and manufacturers. They share members and leaders with the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). They got their public relations strategy from the NAM, it seems to me.

In 1953, the state of Vermont passed a law that banned disposable bottles. It wasn't an environmental law, it was because people were throwing their disposable bottles out their car windows and it was landing in the hay and the dairy cows were eating the glass and dying. Well there were dairy farmers in the state legislature, and they said, okay we'll put an end to that.

Within months, the beverage container industry and the packaging industry created this group Keep America Beautiful. The idea behind of it was to stop any further bans like the one in Vermont and they were totally, totally successful. Can you imagine a law like that today? No disposable bottles allowed? That's so radical. And they've also been successful in blocking bottle deposit laws -- there's only 11 states that have deposit laws.

And it's because Keep America Beautiful and their allies have fought those laws. They work on the policy level, and they also work on the cultural level., Their "great" accomplishment was that they constructed garbage as the product of individual choices. As an individual responsibility, and not one connected to the production process.

Labels: , , , ,


Keep America Beautiful

In the aftermath of magazine ads promoting beverage cans as "throwaways", Keep America Beautiful (KAB) was founded in 1953 by a group of businessmen from the beverage and packaging industries. Their purported interest was to curb the growing problem of litter. Coincidently, 1953 was the year Vermont passed the nation's first bottle bill, banning the sale of beer in non-refillable bottles.

Litter was a visible problem nationwide and the bottlers and packagers were concerned that government would make them responsible for solving the litter problem by regulating their industries. That concern was the catalyst for founding KAB. The organization launched its first campaign theme, "Every Litter Bit Hurts" and the most visible environmental organizations joined KAB's war on litter.

"People start pollution"

In the early 1970's KAB mounted a splashy new campaign aimed at making individuals responsible for cleaning up litter that was a blight on parks, playgrounds, country roads and city landscapes. The now legendary image of the Native American with a tear angling down his face caught the attention of the public, but many environmental organizations serving as advisors to KAB were offended by the "People Start Pollution, People Can Stop It" theme.

Environmentalists thought the theme implied that individuals were solely responsible for pollution. Environmental organizations including the Sierra Club, National Audubon Society and National Wildlife Federation wanted KAB to join them in working for strategies such as bottle bills, that focused on preventing litter and making producers responsible for their packaging waste. But the industry backers of the KAB strongly objected.

KAB publicly opposes bottle bills

In 1972 Oregon and Vermont enacted the nation's first bottle bills requiring a 5-cent deposit on beer and soft drink containers. By 1974, when the California legislature began to debate whether to enact a container deposit law, KAB made a strategic decision to publicly oppose the bottle bill. Roger Powers, President of KAB testified against the California bottle bill before the state legislature in Sacramento.

Some Advisory Committee members saw this public opposition to bottle bills as an indication that KAB was serving its own interests and not those of the broader environmental community and as a result threatened to quit the advisory board. In order to keep the environmentalists on board KAB, agreed that it would not take a position, either for or against deposit legislation.

As public support for bottle bills grew and aggressive bottle bill campaigns were waged in Maine and Michigan, the brewers needed an alternative response to litter, otherwise more states might soon adopt bottle bills. In 1975 the U.S. Brewers Association (USBA) developed a sophisticated campaign called the "Clean Community System" (CCS), which they touted as an alternative to bottle bills. As the parent organization, KAB kicked off the new Clean Community Campaign at its annual meeting in 1975.

In a memo several months later, the US Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Thomas Williams explained the underlying purpose of the CCS. It is a public relations campaign, he wrote, used by the industry " in an attempt to focus the attention of hundreds of communities on anti-litter campaigns . . . When successfully inaugurated, it tends to abort any local efforts to institute beverage container deposit systems, placing emphasis on street-cleaning and other litter control activities."

The final blow to environmentalists was dealt during a speech at a July 1976 KAB Board of Directors meeting at the Biltmore Hotel in New York, when American Can Company chairman William F. May labeled bottle bill proponents "Communists" and called for a total KAB mobilization against the four bottle bill referenda on the ballot in November. Present during the speech were KAB's Advisory Committee members, many of whom were the subject of May's attack.

The story was picked up by Jack Anderson and aired on his national television show. On August 12, 1976, the EPA resigned from KAB's board and by October 1976 more than a dozen environmental and citizen groups, including National Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation, League of Women Voters and Sierra Club disaffiliated from KAB. In November of that year voters approved bottle bills in Michigan and Maine.

KAB proposes ineffective bottle bill alternatives

Industry opponents of deposit legislation recognized that simply 'opposing' legislation was not enough. Since 1976 hundreds of CCS and similar KAB programs have been proposed in cities and counties across the U.S. as a direct alternative to local container deposit ordinances. Funding, however, has strings attached, as one environmental group in New York discovered. In New York City, the Environmental Action Coalition (EAC) received $350,000 in support over three years from Pepsi-Cola, the Can Manufacturers Institute and the Aluminum Association for anti-litter education. EAC lost industry funding in 1975 when it endorsed the proposed New York bottle bill.

The most effective statewide strategy used to convince legislators that bottle bills are not needed has been litter taxes. These alternatives generally involve a small annual tax on all manufacturers and retailers. The taxes are then used to create a government agency that addresses litter issues. Litter taxes were passed in Colorado, Kentucky, Arkansas, Connecticut, California, Ohio and Virginia as alternatives to bottle bill proposals.

Bob Warrick, farmer and President of the Nebraska chapter of the Sierra Club said of KAB's programs, "I'm tired of pumping money into front organizations whose goal is to educate and plant flowers. My ditch is filled with cans and bottles. Legislation mandating deposits would stop litter before it starts, but KAB never supported a bottle bill."

Warwick's disappointment echoes that of Newark's Mayor, Sharpe James who said of the KAB program, "The Clean Communities alternative to a bottle bill offered by the industry in New Jersey has been a failure."

With increased public interest in recycling and waste reduction in the 1980's, KAB's emphasis shifted from litter cleanups to recycling. KAB's Clean Community Systems grew to more than 400 local groups and its list of financial supporters expanded to include a broader range of manufacturing industries and companies in the waste disposal industry such as Waste Management, Inc and Browning Ferris.

In the 1990's, KAB adopted yet another campaign slogan - "Let's not waste the 1990's" - which stressed the need to encourage citizens, municipal officials and civic leaders to "re-examine recycling's capabilities and limitations." The new campaign presented a 5-pronged solution to solving the problem of solid waste - source reduction, recycling, composting, incineration and sanitary landfilling.

KAB's 1990's slogan was new, but the message had changed little since Iron Eyes Cody warned that "People Start Pollution - People Can Stop It." The promotional materials made no mention of policies such as recycled content requirements, mandatory recycling rates, bottle bills or other measurers that shift the burden of waste management and waste reduction from government to the producers of waste.

KAB alienates other environmental groups

On April 5, 1993 KAB hosted a nationwide videoconference "Recycling Realities: A National Town Meeting." In announcing the conference, KAB President Roger Powers said, "While recycling can be an important method of dealing with our waste in some communities; it is not the only option. In order to safely and effectively manage trash, the public must be informed of every alternative." Powers was of course referring to the waste management options of landfilling and incineration.

More than a dozen environmental and public interest groups, in a letter to KAB President Roger Powers, charged that the panel of waste experts addressing the videoconference was void of representation from the environmental community. The groups wrote, "It is clear that the perspective of your corporate members will be effectively articulated by such panelists as Jane Witheridge of Waste Management, Inc. and Melinda Sweet of Lever Brothers Company. We are dismayed that you have chosen to exclude advocates and experts on successful source reduction and recycling initiatives."

Rick Hind, Executive Director of Greenpeace and one of the co-signers of the letter said, "KAB continues to put the blame for waste generation and the responsibility for waste management on the public sector, when the real polluters are the industries that manufacture, sell, bury and burn the waste."

At least one local KAB organization broke ties with Keep America Beautiful as a result of the videoconference. The board of directors of Arlingtonians for a Clean Environment (ACE) voted to disaffiliate with KAB after ACE director Steve Coffee attended KAB's Recycling Realities Meeting in April 1993. Coffee was dismayed to find no environmental groups on the panel and turned off by what he believed was a deliberate effort on the part of KAB to avoid questions on deposit legislation.

When Powers was asked why no environmental groups were members of KAB, Powers said he had "no idea." "Our members are a good cross-section of the Fortune 500 corporations. They are working on enlightened self-interest. We are helping to educate 495 American communities on what the options are. I don't go hat in hand seeking out environmental groups."

Eighteen months after the videoconference KAB funded a report titled "The Role of Recycling in Integrated Solid Waste Management to the Year 2000". The $400,000 report concluded, among other things, that "recycling and composting as currently practiced have limits that will be reached in this decade." The study drew fire from recycling advocates and environmentalists who felt that it painted recycling in a negative light, focusing on the limits of curbside recycling and advocating alternative waste management technologies such as landfilling and incineration.

At KAB's annual meeting in December 1994, Mark Lichtenstein, President of the National Recycling Coalition (NRC) told KAB meeting attendees, "After reading the study and talking with many respected leaders in our industry, I find myself asking what exactly is the agenda of the KAB national office? I have to ask. . . can the NRC count on the KAB national to help in our mutual war on waste?"

In an article in Biocycle , Former President of NRC and Manager of Market Development for Weyerhaeuser Recycling, Pete Grogan, wrote, "I find myself questioning the agenda behind the study. . . The report reminds us that it is 'cheaper' to send solid waste to the landfill. Well, I can easily argue that tossing solid waste in the river is even cheaper."

In the spring of 2000, Keep Washington Beautiful (KWB) sponsored a cosmetic cleanup in Anacostia, a densely populated community in Washington, DC. Volunteers biked and cleaned up trash at four predetermined sites. The sites included two parks, an area along the Anacostia River and a mini dump that had grown up beside a short stretch of railroad track. During the four-hour cleanup, volunteers working with members of the newly formed Keep Washington Beautiful -- a KAB clone -- culled tires, miscellaneous litter and lots of beverage containers from the four sites. Beverage containers accounted for fifty per cent of the collected materials.

Keep Washington Beautiful is one of the newest big-city KAB affiliates. Like most other KAB affiliates, KWB grew out of industry opposition to a proposed bottle bill referendum.

Labels: ,


Friday, October 19, 2007

Imperial Entropy - America's Impending Collapse

It is quite ironic: only a decade or so after the idea of the United States as an imperial power came to be accepted by both right and left, and people were actually able to talk openly about an American empire, it is showing multiple signs of its inability to continue. And indeed it is now possible to contemplate, and openly speculate about, its collapse.

The neocons in power in Washington these days, those who were delighted to talk about America as the sole empire in the world following the Soviet disintegration, will of course refuse to believe in any such collapse, just as they ignore the realities of the imperial war in Iraq. But I think it behooves us to examine seriously the ways in which the U.S. system is so drastically imperiling itself that it will cause not only the collapse of its worldwide empire but drastically alter the nation itself on the domestic front.

All empires collapse eventually: Akkad, Sumeria, Babylonia, Ninevah, Assyria, Persia, Macedonia, Greece, Carthage, Rome, Mali, Songhai, Mongol, Tokugawaw, Gupta, Khmer, Hapbsburg, Inca, Aztec, Spanish, Dutch, Ottoman, Austrian, French, British, Soviet, you name them, they all fell, and most within a few hundred years. The reasons are not really complex. An empire is a kind of state system that inevitably makes the same mistakes simply by the nature of its imperial structure and inevitably fails because of its size, complexity, territorial reach, stratification, heterogeneity, domination, hierarchy, and inequalities.

In my reading of the history of empires, I have come up with four reasons that almost always explain their collapse. (Jared Diamond's new book Collapse also has a list of reasons for societal collapse, slightly overlapping, but he is talking about systems other than empires.) Let me set them out, largely in reference to the present American empire.

First, environmental degradation. Empires always end by destroying the lands and waters they depend upon for survival, largely because they build and farm and grow without limits, and America’s is no exception, even if we have yet to experience the worst of America’s assault on nature. Science is in agreement that all important ecological indicators are in decline and have been for decades: erosion of topsoils and beaches, overfishing, deforestation, freshwater and aquifer depletion, pollution of water, soil, air, and food, soil salinization, overpopulation , overconsumption, depletion of oil and minerals, introduction of new diseases and invigoration of old ones, extreme weather, melting icecaps and rising sealevels, species extinctions, and excessive human overuse of the earth's photosynthetic capacity. As the Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson has said, after lengthy examination of human impact on the earth, America’s "ecological footprint is already too large for the planet to sustain, and it is getting larger." A Defense Department study last year predicted "abrupt climate change," likely to occur within a decade, will lead to "catastrophic" shortages of water and energy, endemic "disruption and conflict," warfare that "would define human life," and a "significant drop" in the planet's ability to sustain its present population. End of empire for sure, maybe end of civilization.

Second, economic meltdown. Empires always depend on excessive resource exploitation, usually derived from colonies farther and farther away from the center, and eventually fall when the resources are exhausted or become too expensive for all but the elite. This is exactly the path America is on-peak oil extraction, for example, is widely predicted to come in the next year or two-and the US economy is built entirely on a fragile system in which the world produces and American’s, by and large, consume (U.S. manufacturing is just 13 per cent of the US GDP). At the moment US sustains a nearly $630 billion trade deficit with the rest of the world-it has leapt by an incredible $500 billion since 1993, and $180 billion since Bush took office in 2001-and in order to pay for that US has to have an inflow of cash from the rest of the world of about $1 billion every day to pay for it, which was down by half late last year. That kind of excess is simply unsustainable, especially when you think that it is the other world empire, China, that is crucial for supporting it, at the tune of some $83 billion on loan to the U.S. treasury.

Add to that an economy resting on a nearly $500 billion Federal budget deficit, making up part of a total national debt of $7.4 trillion as of last fall, and the continual drain on the economy by the military of at least $530 billion a year (not counting military intelligence, whose figure we never know). Nobody thinks that is sustainable either, which is why the dollar has lost value everywhere-down by 30 per cent against the euro since 2000-and the world begins to lose faith in investment here. I foresee that the days of the fiat currency are coming to an end effectively making the US bankrupt and powerless, unable to control economic life within its borders much less abroad.

Third, military overstretch. Empires, because they are by definition colonizers, are always forced to extend their military reach farther and farther, and enlarge it against unwilling colonies more and more, until coffers are exhausted, communication lines are overextended, troops are unreliable, and the periphery resists and ultimately revolts. The American empire, which began its worldwide reach well before Bush II, now has some 446,000 active troops at more than 725 acknowledged (and any number secret) bases in at least 38 countries around the world, plus a formal "military presence" in no less than 153 countries, on every continent but Antarctica-and nearly a dozen fully armed courier fleets on all the oceans. Talk about overstretch: the U.S. is less than 5 per cent of the world's population. And now that Bush has declared a "war on terror," US armies and agents will be on a battlefield universal and permanent that cannot possibly be controlled or contained.

So far that military network has not collapsed, but as Iraq indicates it is mightily tested and quite incapable of establishing client states to do American bidding and protect resources the US needs. And as anti-American sentiment continues to spread and darken-in all the Muslim countries, in much of Europe, in much of Asia-and as more countries refuse the "structural adjustments" that American IMF-led globalization requires, it is quite likely that the periphery of the US empire will begin resisting their dominance, militarily if necessary. And far from having a capacity to fight two wars simultaneously, as the Pentagon once hoped, the US is proving that it can't even fight one.

Finally, domestic dissent and upheaval. Traditional empires end up collapsing from within as well as often being attacked from without, and so far the level of dissent within the U.S. has not reached the point of rebellion or secession-thanks both to the increasing repression of dissent and escalation of fear in the name of "homeland security" and to the success of the US modern version of bread and circuses, a unique combination of entertainment, sports, television, consumption, drugs, liquor, and religion that effectively deadens the general public into stupor. But the tactics of the Bush II administration show that it is so fearful of an expression of popular dissent that it is willing to defy and ignore environmental, civil-rights, and progressive groups, to bribe commentators to put out its propaganda, to expand surveillance and data-base invasions of privacy, to use party superiority and backroom tactics to ride roughshod over Congressional opposition, to use lies and deceptions as a normal part of government operations, to break international laws and treaties for short-term ends, and to use religion to cloak its every policy.

It's hard to believe that the great mass of the American public would ever bestir itself to challenge the empire at home until things get much, much worse. It is a public, after all, of which, as a Gallup poll in 2004 found, 61 per cent believe that "religion can answer all or most of today's problems," and according to a Time/CNN poll in 2002 59 per cent believe in the imminent apocalypse foretold in the Book of Revelation and take every threat and disaster as evidence of God's will. And yet, it's also hard to believe that a nation so thoroughly corrupt as this-in all its fundamental institutions, its boughten parties, academies, corporations, brokerages, accountants, governments-and resting on a social and economic base of intolerably unequal incomes and property, getting increasingly unequal, will be able to sustain itself for long. The upsurge in talk about secession after the last election, some of which was deadly serious and led on to organizations throughout most of the blue states, indicates that at least a minority is willing to think about drastic steps to "alter or abolish" a regime it finds itself fundamentally at odds with.

Those four processes by which empires always eventually fall seem to me to be inescapably operative, in varying degrees, in this latest empire. And I think a combination of several or all of them will bring about its collapse within the next 15 years or so.

Jared Diamond's recent book detailing the ways societies collapse suggests that American society, or industrial civilization as a whole, once it is aware of the dangers of its current course, can learn from the failures of the past and avoid their fates. But it will never happen, and for a reason Diamond himself understands.

As he says, in his analysis of the doomed Norse society on Greenland that collapsed in the early 15th century: "The values to which people cling most stubbornly under inappropriate conditions are those values that were previously the source of their greatest triumphs over adversity." If this is so, and his examples would seem to prove it, then we can isolate the values of American society that have been responsible for its greatest triumphs and know that Americans will cling to them no matter what. They are, in one rough mixture, christian fundamentalism, capitalism, individualism, nationalism, technophilia, and humanism (as the dominance of humans over nature). There is no chance whatever, no matter how grave and obvious the threat, that as a society that Americans will abandon those.

Hence no chance to escape the collapse of empire

Labels: ,