Thanksgiving Chant: “We. Are. The 1%!”

I like Thanksgiving. It’s a day when I’m briefly thankful for what I have, instead of obsessing about what I lack.

One of my Happy Places on Thanksgiving is globalrichlist.com. I started a Thanksgiving tradition a few years back of annually visiting this site to remind myself of how I stack up against other humans on the planet, as opposed to other humans on the cul de sac.

It’s an eye opener. For instance, globalrichlist.com will tell an American who earns $50,000 per year that he is in the top 0.98% richest people in the world.

In other words, if we were thinking globally, some of us should realize: “We. Are. The 1%.” “We. Are. The 1%.”

Occupy that thought for a while. Continue reading

Occupy Arden Hills!

The high likelihood that Zygi Wilf’s dream of a taxpayer-funded stadium will go to the legislature next month amid still-growing protests against the immunities of gilded wealth is almost … almost … enough for me to feel sympathy for the guy. I interviewed him last summer for a magazine piece and — major news flash here — the development around his Arden Hills plan is everything. Zygi, who by the way does have a sense of humor and occasional flashes a side other than the highly disciplined business automaton, is first, second, third and probably fourth through twentieth a developer. After that he’s a football fan.

Wilf owns the Vikings because falling in with the loony Reggie Fowler scheme gave him access to assurances that the state’s political leaders — if that’s what you dare call Tim Pawlenty — would throw their weight behind something for the Vikings once the Twins had their deal done. Shockingly, Pawlenty kept spooning out the bullshit even as he left office, dropping the stadium ball (and everything else) in the next guy’s lap.

The next guy, Mark Dayton, may not be the slickest operator around. But like any politician with a head for the twists of history he knows with some certainty that no matter how much caterwauling and venom ricochets around prior to the deal getting done, the guy in office at the time the damned thing is built is a hero among the sports hagiographers — crusty old sports columnists, radio jocks with hundreds of hours to burn and fat cat sources to fellate with at least intermittent enthusiasm — when the gates open and the gawking public takes their $150 seats.

But this is 2011, and nothing at all like 2006. Five years post-bubble, as we see now in virtually every city of the western world, people, some maybe even pro football fans, are demonstrating that they are not only hip to the fixed game if casino-style financialization and the client-employee relationship between Wall St. and DC, but they’ve had enough of it. Damn it, and thank you.

So here’s Zygi, as I say, a pleasant enough guy who followed in his Holocaust-survivor father’s footsteps (the old man is still alive and sharp) and built quite a nice business for himself. He was thinking he’d do a bit more business in Minnesota by throwing up some shops and hotels around this football team he happens to own. Having done his savvy developer homework prior to buying in to the Vikings Wilf had every reason to believe that his Minnesota adventure would go down pretty much like every other owner’s (save a notable few), with the local fan base rallying/shaming their politicians into jacking up common rube taxes to have something as pretty from the Good Year blimp as they have in Denver and Dallas and Phoenix.

But no. Instead, Zygi has to figure out a way for an oddball DFL governor to lead the pro-tax charge … in the face of a $5 billion deficit that wasn’t really resolved last year, another deficit projected for this year, and while surrounded by Tea Party anti-tax zealots who might normally consent to a small-ish tax on the rabble if it meant protecting the plutocrats probably won’t dare pull anything like that in an election year, what with this “Occupy” crap going on and their approval ratings already in the toilet.

I loved the bit the other day from the state’s GOP leadership, demanding that Dayton guarantee X-number of DFL pro-tax votes to give the Republicans cover in exchange for them voting pro-tax. Christ. But you gotta give ‘em points for their craven candor.

Dayton’s argument will of course be that a billion-dollar stadium is a hell of a lot jobs when the construction industry is in a depression. But the obvious — and certain to very loud rejoinder to that argument — is that there is no end of heavy-duty infrastructure work that needs to be done around the metro, if not the state, that would put the same crews to work and return far greater value to the broader public — small businesses, big businesses and private citizens — than (another) football stadium. Moreover, where the anti-tax zealots are forever shrieking that the government doesn’t have the assets to fund … schools, roads, bridges, you name it … the Vikings have an entity with ample resources to — at the very least — loan them the cash to build the stadium. And by that I mean of course the NFL. (One of their former Goldman Sachs suits was in town earlier this week pressuring Dayton to, you know, move the ball up the field, taxpayer-wise.)

It would of course be a terrible precedent, a fabulously profitable sports league, underwriting capital investments in its network of teams. But I suspect the NFL’s credit rating is better than Minnesota’s, and what with TV networks willing to pay virtually any figure the league lays down when it comes time for their next TV contract, collateral would hardly be a problem.

I know the Kurt Zellers and Amy Kochs of the world profess to be confused by this OccupyWall Street/Minnesota/Duluth/Berlin/London nuttiness. “Why do they hate the job creators”? But wait and see what happens in St. Paul if this stadium tax thing looks like it has legs.

The Truth Smells

A Fox News commentator the other day said of the Occupy Wall Street protesters — “They smell.”

The New York Times on Saturday quoted a hedge-fund manager calling the protesters “a ragtag group looking for sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.” Another bank exec was quoted: “It’s not a middle-class uprising. It’s fringe groups. It’s people who have the time to do this.”

In the Sixties, protesters for Civil Rights, Women’s Rights and an end to the Vietnam War were called all kinds of derogatory names. Communist was the most-common, all-purpose epithet. “Dirty hippie” was one I heard protesting in Florida against Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew in 1968. Women’s Rights protesters were “dykes” or worse. Black protesters had the worst names, along with bricks and bottles and bullets, flung at them. All of us were bums, unAmerican, worthless.

So marginalizing the Other 99 Percent protesters by calling them unemployed smelly bums is an old trick of the status quosters. Demean them with language. They’re beneath you. Beneath contempt. They wouldn’t look right in the obscenely expensive Manhattan restaurants the Wall Street pirates frequent. They’re not our kind dear.

The wealthy have always looked down on the rabble. Built fortifications of contemptuous slurs to block out the unsophisticated words conveying the unvarnished truth.

As Ellen Mrja pointed out in the previous post, those most hurt by this rich-rigged economy aren’t just the kids. It’s all ages. And in a photo essay in today’s New York Times, five people or groups are shown. Of course this is no scientific survey, but it’s a slice of the protesters on Wall Street — one is a WWII vet, one a teacher, one a retired teacher, one a homeless young man, and one photo has no indication of employment. None of these people is a bum. None should be dismissed with foul names. All should be listened to. They are America.

In 1972, on Christmas Eve, my father joined my brother Michael and me at the Capitol in St. Paul to protest the Christmas bombing of North Vietnam. Michael and I had been against that endless war for years, and had protested some and argued a lot with our dad and mom at the dinner table. My dad, of the World War II generation, had trusted the government and supported the war. Until it wouldn’t end. When dad joined us in the snow, I wanted to call over the TV cameras and say “look, a vice president of General Mills, an adult, not a fuzzy kid. Can you dismiss him?”

Insult the protesters all you want, greedheads. It won’t make them go away. And it won’t make the truths they speak less true. Americans may finally be realizing who’s picking their pockets. And they’re pissed. If some are aromatic because they have the guts to camp out in the park for their beliefs and can’t get up to the showers in your private bathrooms in your lovely executive offices, well, General Washington’s troops at Valley Forge were pretty ripe too. So were the Freedom Riders. And the brave people in Tahrir Square.

God bless them every one.

BTW, hedgefundhog, remind me. What’s wrong with sex drugs & rock ‘n’ roll again?

– Bruce Benidt
(photo from rollingstone.com)

OWS: These Kids Are Not All Right

Those who view Occupy Wall Street protesters as nothing more than simpering, petulant children just don’t get it.

They’re adults we marginalize with the sobriquet “kids”. And these kids are not all right.

Take a look at this graph illustrating unemployment for those aged 15-24 in 15 industrialized nations, (cf. 2008 to Q1 2011):

Graph of youth unemployment industrialized nations

The chart is not provided by some liberal site but by the staid The Economist.

Or see the depressing round-up of unemployment surveys for youth in the Middle East and Africa from Bloomberg BusinessWeek.com. It’s obvious the rage that finally propelled young people into Middle Eastern streets in the fall of 2010 and into the “Arab Spring” earlier this year was economic as well as political. What difference does it make if the foot on your throat is wearing a fascist boot or squared-toe Berluti?

The situation has become so serious, it’s now being likened to a ‘time bomb’:

While the details differ from one nation to the next, the common element is failure—not just of young people to find a place in society, but of society itself to harness the energy, intelligence, and enthusiasm of the next generation. Here’s what makes it extra-worrisome: The world is aging. In many countries the young are being crushed by a gerontocracy of older workers who appear determined to cling to the better jobs as long as possible and then, when they do retire, demand impossibly rich private and public pensions that the younger generation will be forced to shoulder.

In short, the fissure between young and old is deepening. “The older generations have eaten the future of the younger ones,” former Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato told Corriere della Sera. In Britain, Employment Minister Chris Grayling has called chronic unemployment a “ticking time bomb.” Jeffrey A. Joerres, chief executive officer of Manpower (MAN), a temporary-services firm with offices in 82 countries and territories, adds, “Youth unemployment will clearly be the epidemic of this next decade unless we get on it right away. You can’t throw in the towel on this.”

Closer to home, economic demographers say the huge increase in the number of Minnesotans in their 50s and 60s who will be retiring will create an unsustainable situation; we’ll be siphoning the state budget off for entitlements and programs for health and aging while economic growth through 2020 will be half of what it was. Barring a miracle, we’re unlikely to see a growth in revenue again. Attempts to discuss tax increases will continue to be protested by tea-types who, nonetheless, are happy to line up for their state aid.

I don’t believe there’s a disconnect between members of this younger generation and their own parents and grandparents; they wouldn’t want to deny their elders any social benefits.

However, the young feel no loyalty to the noblesse oblige or the mystical market to which so many others swear allegiance.

And now I’m one of those gerontological messer-uppers who’ll soon need Social Security much more than social networking. But in my heart, I’m a closet protester, someone born to root for the underdog, who believes in comforting the afflicted but also afflicting the comfortable (with credit to Finley Peter Dunne) when necessary.

The current demonstrations remind me this nation was founded on protest and that no good idea since has been sanctified except through protest. They also call to mind the hyperbolic but thrilling end to the popular film “‘V’ for Vendetta.” Shortly before his death at the hands of a totalitarian police force, V instructs his protege: “Governments should be afraid of their people.”

It appears neither our government – nor our corporations – are there yet.

SPOILER VIDEO of “‘V’ for Vendetta.”

As for Our Confederacy of Louts …

After roughly a month of Occupy Wall Street demonstrations and week or so of OccupyMinnesota, there is one thing we can conclude with certainty. And that is that the Tea Party movement truly has nothing … whatsoever … to do with correcting economic malfeasance. Judging by the reactions of Tea Party Express spokes people and the stable/ward of GOP candidates cravenly pandering to the Republican party’s new core, the Tea Party movement has fully acknowledged that the “populist” Tea Party movement is exactly what we always assumed it was — namely, the conservative fringe’s latest manifestation of the Culture Wars with no focused, much less any sincere interest in attacking or addressing the root causes of American middle class frustration.

Frankly, I’m astonished it took until September of 2011, three entire years after the Great Derivatives Meltdown of September 2008 to see people in the streets demanding legal action against Wall Street, which of course is shorthand for the calculated, heavily-lobbied, institutional system wherein middle class assets are legally looted by those with full and unimpeded access to political power. Given the spectacular nature of the collapse, with very little confusion over the “who”, “why” and “how”, I would have expected riots on Wall Street in the spring of ’09. But no. Instead, the Tea Party, ostensibly outraged over taxpayer bail-outs of too big to fail giant banks (and the possibility of bail outs of other homeowners) bought in — wholly and utterly — to the counter theory sold by establishment Republican politicians and media leaders that the Crash of ’08 was the consequence of liberal meddling with free markets (the Barney Frank/Fannie Mae canard) and pandering to no-goods (most of them minorities) who had no business owning property.

Here’s Bryan Shroyer of theteaparty.net: “The motivation between Occupy Wall Street and the motivation from the tea party are completely different. From their signs, speeches, and websites, they want to continue this push of America down this road of increased government involvement and increased socialism. The tea party is simply a collection of patriots from across the nation who want to get our country back to its capitalist roots.”

And this from the Tea Party Patriots website: ” ‘For two years now, tea partiers have stood firmly on principle and helped shape the political debate in this country. They believe in time-honored American values, principles and systems including the freedom to innovate and employ people to implement and distribute one’s ideas to the public. They believe freedom from government allows entrepreneurs to try new things, see what works and discard what doesn’t. By contrast, those occupying Wall Street and other cities, when they are intelligible, want less of what made America great and more of what is damaging to America: a bigger, more powerful government to come in and take care of them so they don’t have to work like the rest of us who pay our bills.”

And this from Amy Kremer of the Tea Party Express via a piece in The Guardian: “Kremer, who lives in Atlanta Georgia but spends much of her time travelling across America with the Tea Party Express battle bus, accepts that there is a shared anger at the core of both phenomenon: disapproval of the way the banks were allowed to get away with it after the 2008 financial melt-down. But she thinks the OWS organisers are going after the wrong target. ‘This isn’t Wall Street’s fault. It’s Washington’s fault – and that’s where they should focus their efforts’.

She is also scathing about the loose political aims of the protesters. ‘You’ve got to be realistic in your demands and efficient in how you set about achieving them. Holding rallies doesn’t do anything other than attract people to the movement. “The question is what do you do then? How do direct all that support and energy towards action, towards influencing legislation’?

Or .. opposing legislation … in the case of Tea Party leaders and politicians, as they continue to obstruct and dilute any form of serious financial regulation and oversight.

It strikes me as a monumental waste of time trying to figure out how anyone, much less someone capable enough to lead a national protest movement looks at the Crash of ’08 and absolves the giant banks, hedge funds and AIG from complicity, and instead focuses the full force of their fury on … a guy who wasn’t even in office at the time. But then the allure of a sinecure and status — underwritten by personalities integral to Wall St. function — always has away of re-directing antipathies.

The real question that continues to fascinate me is this: What is the best tactical response to what I prefer to call our Confederacy of Louts? This latest outbreak, the Tea Party, is more virulent than the John Birchers of the 1960s and the mega-church evangelicals of the late ’90s. Their demographics (largely white, aged, dis-enfranchised) and underlying antipathies are nearly identical. But today’s “movement” is a far more serious threat to middle-class retrenchment than ever before. Left unchallenged they have the clear and present potential to deliver the fate of the American middle class into the hands of our corrupt system of mega-finance and political cronyism for decades to come.

The Merriam Webster definition of “lout” is “an awkward, brutish person”. And for my purposes here, that’s close. But in terms of rhetoric the messaging, while brutish is often slick and compelling. “Awkward” in terms of factual accuracy and intellectual honesty, to be sure. But “compelling” in terms of eliciting the intended response. Which usually involves an appeal to the more loutish aspects of human nature. By example, I give you most any cities’ most popular morning drive radio show: A carnival of loutishness banking a small fortune for a one of a handful of major media conglomerates by routinely pilloring anything too “nuancy”, sensitive to minority interests, and “liberal”. Then you move on to the usual suspects of
political talk radio, FoxNews and on and on.

“Loutish” pretty well describes it, and liberals don’t do “loutish” very well. They/we don’t have much of a stomach for aggressive, middle-class, middle-brow messaging. It all seems so … boorish.

In Princeton philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt’s classic essay, “On Bullshit”, he makes the point that out-right liars, because they respect the truth enough not to speak it, are actually less dangerous than bullshitters, who may or may not speak the truth but really don’t care one way or another, since their only intention is to, in effect, close the sale. I don’t doubt for a second that there are some diabolically clever minds pushing and nudging and encouraging the Tea Party movement. They would be the liars. The face of it though, the crowd allegedly inspired to action by the Wall St. meltdown of ’08 and now throwing up a protective cordon around our “entrepreneurs” and “job creators” is, we can now say with complete certainty, a portrait of vaporous, loutish bullshit. It is raw say-anything know nothing-ism in pursuit of personal gain (media personalities, Sarah Palin, etc.) and settling age-old social grudges against … well, uppity minorities and “elites” however they define them.

The point being the liberal counter message — which now has a viable vehicle in the Occupy Wall St. demonstrations — has to convince the middle class, in middle class language and imagery, that the refortification of the middle class is its primary concern, and that the Republican party of 2011 is the Tea Party and the Tea Party is nothing but a collection of credulous chumps, loutish bullshitters, playing foot soldiers for the same forces that corrupted our financial and gridlocked our political systems.

We’ve lived through The Attack of the Louts. It’s way past time to attack back.

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