Friday, July 21, 2006

The machine we are part of hums a death song
Written by Jan Lundberg
Culture Change Letter #106 - July 27, 2005

The upcoming breakdown and subsequent reconvergence of human society have only certain features in common with the 1960s turmoil and enlightenment. The vaunted/feared '60s were part of the Age of Exuberance -- as William Catton described our expenditure of nonrenewable energy. I would say, as an observer of the Counterculture, that the reason the "'60s Revolution" failed was because one of its main premises was enjoying petroleum vinyl musical records -- significantly, protest music -- powered overwhelmingly by "unlimited" fossil energy!

I was so enamored with the music of my generation that I worried how it could be preserved and heard into the future if technology and resources did not forever accommodate. This occasionally concerned me as much as even the war, although the U.S. was finally getting kicked out of Indochina. All through this way of living I was not aware how mechanized the greater surrounding culture was. The hippies and various writers tried to oppose it and live differently, but today we all find ourselves part of a bigger, faster machine. It is more out of control today than decades ago, yet almost the entire segment of the intelligentsia that is aware, i.e., not anticipating a new-fangled energy panacea to perpetuate the machine, is willy-nilly waiting for collapse as the reason to live within Earth's limits.

The '60s activists and hipsters and today's concerned progressive citizens don't seem to question the technology that uses up nonrenewable resources and pollutes the fragile world. The result is that they inadvertently tried (and are trying) to save the system, in effect, by hoping it would clean up its act as global policeman and grossest polluter of the planet.

Yet, it would be vintage '60s for someone to say today, "How can you dare destroy the Earth?" But: through it all, our noisy culture and the dead artifacts we treasure, the mechanized and electrified population hums like a machine. We surely know it's not voices or human sounds when we hear the din of the petrocity.

The 20th century was fueled primarily by petroleum, the number one energy source in the U.S. today. Although there is a lot around, petroleum has long since peaked in extraction in North America. The world peaked in oil discoveries in 1965, resulting in today's mirroring of global peak extraction. If a billion barrels of oil were suddenly added to world reserves today, this would push back the time of global peak extraction by only five and a half days.

The size of today's cities is mind-boggling, with over a dozen exceeding 12 million people. Two of those are in the U.S. The U.S. is the third largest populace in the world, and the huge majority is urban, when we keep in mind that only 2% of the population lists farming as its vocation. About 90% of the food produced would not be possible without petroleum-oriented farming. Far more than 90% of the food is provided via oil fuels for transport. A majority of the average North American's food is refrigerated or frozen at some point, involving massive amounts of energy.

To most folks, whether urban or rural, the mental association with the city is positive in many respects. People's feelings are by and large more than tolerant about civilization and machines, especially refrigerators which are supposedly entirely benign, This testifies to the power of socialization, propaganda, and corruption of one's ability to think honestly and independently, when we admit that mass urbanization and energy gluttony are a disaster barely felt thus far. The amenities of the modern city are attractive, but are about as relevant to long-term survival as whether this year's fashion in skirts is short or long.

Being part of the speedy machine

The speed of modern living is still accelerating. Our pace and so-called obligations steal our time to relax and pay attention to things that matter more to the soul than, say, paychecks from the rat race. Peace is absent from our minds and bodies the more we speed through our days. Some cope via a little meditation, although almost no modern American dares take a few days to slow down to fast with just water in order to heal and reflect. Ironically, the number one illicit drug is speed (methamphetamine), and as with the milder form of speed, coffee, the abuser is trying to function or react according to society's speedy demands.

One way to understand the reasons for our relentless speeding is to compare modern individuals to parts of a machine that we usually call The City. If we identify ourselves as such, perhaps the constant, self-destructive, immediate pressure to make the dollar can receive stronger critical attention. We can rebel, which seems unlikely now, or just wait for unprecedented force of social change triggered by strained resource limits and accelerating climate distortion.

Overpopulation is a primary cause, but growing population serves as a moving target that society is totally unwilling to act on. More machine parts, or more fuel for the machine -- more of us -- is quite desirable to the respected maniacs of growth and unlimited profits. Making more people is still encouraged even though it has been unnecessary and detrimental for hundreds of years since "exponential growth" began.

Meanwhile, the massive ignorance is staggeringly sad when it could be remedied immediately: The average North American motorist is only driving 5 MPH (five miles per hour) based on the total time required to be in, support and maintain the car. Therefore, the roughly one hundred million cars in the U.S. are simply revving the urban machine in an illusion of speed. If people abandoned this illusion and started quietly walking the 5 MPH instead, or bicycling at 20 MPH, improving their health and awareness, they would be most of the way along to realistically remaking their lives and extricating themselves from the maw of the machine.

The bicycle is not just unappreciated; it is targeted by some misguided police departments who want to get in on the growth industry of Homeland Security funding while at the same time persecuting folk who don't support the full-blown consumer economy as exemplified by car culture. New York City has cracked down on large group bike rides as if they threaten Americans like the London bombers threatened transit riders. It is important to keep in mind that the machine known as the city is a police state, a natural consequence of overcrowding.

It is said that fish don't realize they're in water. We are likewise connected to the always humming city-machine, and we are always in the environment of the machine but for momentary escapes via automobile. I would like people to understand what they are surrounded by, and that today's city be acknowledged not just as noisy, dirty and unhealthful, but also as an unfriendly entity using us up as if we are pellets of machine fuel. The city consumes land just around it like a cancer, but even greater is the "ecological footprint" of the average U.S. city: 19 times the city's own area due to distant resources appropriated by empire and corporate colonialism.

"Though we may be part of a machine system..."

We do not have to deny our nature-selves and write off living close to the land as some forgotten primitive dream. We will continue experiencing the city-machine hum until we again have silence we have not known for many decades. The skies were quiet over the U.S. after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Picture the same thing applying to ground transportation as well, day after day, indefinitely, all over the world. Could this presage the universal and possibly permanent return to nature, as despoiled as it is?

The city actually hums in a dull and smoggy roar similar to distant surf. Some of the frequencies are off the human charts but affect us nonetheless, whether they be industrial or secret/government generated. But the fact that the city hums -- this deserves the duck test: Does it walk like a duck, talk like a duck... It must be a (machine).

We have established that the city is a machine, and plugged-in human city residents are machine parts or machine fodder. But this does not mean we are literally machines, yet: some corporate institutions and their scientists are working on it. If we don't want to be a part of such a mechanized, technological culture without a future, we must actually unplug our noisy, costly refrigerators (oh my gosh, the barbarity!) and live as the world has always lived prior to recent industrialization. Where futurists disagree is whether we have a choice in ending up in or escaping a diabolical nanotech world of domination.

Our having become little machines also means that with machinery, many things are accomplished much quicker than without machinery, and machine (technological) dependency has led to an addiction to faster living and the creation of tremendous stress. The stress is in part due to the never-ceasing hum of the machine and society's inhumane demand to have the citizen perform as a machine instead of as a tender being in need of love, hospitality and understanding.

Although "The Machine" is going to sputter and die, there is rebirth as part of the inevitable passing of an inaminate, cold entity that took up space, time and energy.

Awareness of our machine existence seems to be absent among people who see little problem with the rapid paving of the Earth, the roads and cars, the airplanes, the proliferation of monstrously large buildings, the massive wiring and cellularizing, the hum of the city machine, etc. Or, if people are aware, they don't care -- as long as they can get their gasoline and food, not to mention other more tantalizing goodies.

Some of us are aware of the system we have erected as a machine needing to be dismantled or changed into a living organism -- for the sake of our common survival and the health of the biosphere -- but we are all part of the system. A general is more part of it than a fruit-stand entrepreneur, but we are all mixed in or plugged in.

An illustration of that idea that's closer to home: I have been invited to give a speech at Congressman Roscoe Bartlett's energy conference this fall. What we are all starting to learn is that it doesn't matter if someone is more tied to the system than someone else when we have to come together to deal with an unprecedented crisis. We have to start redefining success and change the culture, as Congressman Bartlett says.

The positive, don't forget!

Just knowing we have built a machine that's humming along, one that is opposed to nature and our own needs as sensitive beings, is a start toward dismantling negative structures. Humans are clever and diverse, and a small number are speedily working on a non-machine approach to daily living. As they are outside the machine to a significant degree, their ways are not entirely workable according to the rules of the machine and those who serve it.

However, as an investment in the future, sustainable living and social tools for survival are to be valued as better than gold. Our next essay is on just this question: how do we behave and change our ways in order to achieve sustainability, simplicity and slower living? Please write in your suggestions for a fun concept: What would you like to see practiced on a "Petrocollapse Rehearsal Day"? I have selected Sept 21, the fall equinox, as the Beginning of (the) Fall. Obvious ideas include using no cars, electricity, running water or plastic. Perhaps such a day will even be observed, and the public will create notes and share the experience.

Being at one with the Earth has gone out of style according to modern society, as if manufactured contraptions and accelerated entropy are fair trade offs. However, there are some hard-core nature lovers who live close to nature, and their articulate expressions for their preferences and ethics may become all the rage -- at least in the hopes of this columnist. This is yet another area of inquiry that can use input from the Culture Change readership. Your comments are welcome. Look forward to another Culture Change report on returning to our hunter-gatherer roots despite the impending wreckage of petroleum civilization that has given us consumer convenience such as the cancer epidemic.

If the machine is humming its death song, we should recognize it and not just cover our ears. "Destroy what destroys you" is the response of anarchists promoting their own bravado, and it is unfeasible as well as uncompassionate. So, what to do? Gandhi's principles of noncooperation and nonparticipation, with village crafts for self-sufficiency, may still be the best strategy -- updated, of course, to our era of maximum pavement and machine domination. Monkey-wrenching the machine can be as simple as not buying a new car, if enough people participate consciously, or will come to pass soon enough: Financial meltdown of the economy and/or petroleum supply failure will hoist corporate globalism on its own petard. The machine paradigm will be its own undoing.
How To Save The World

By Dave Eriqat

10 April, 2006


Awakening as the day’s first rays of sunlight brighten my bedroom, I dress hurriedly and run downstairs. Even though it’s a Saturday, I’m eager to get to “work.” Passing through the kitchen on my way to the back door, I notice that my wife, Anna, has already made some coffee. Pouring myself a cup, I take it with me as I head out the back door on my way to my workshop. My workshop is where I work. I’ve been self employed as a furniture maker for a couple of years now, and presently I’m working on a fine dresser for my neighbor, Sam. As I cross the yard on the way to my workshop, I see Anna tending our garden. Our young son William is feeding our small flock of chickens and other animals, intermittently playing with our two beautiful dogs.

We’ve had so many tomatoes this year that we’ve been trading them to the neighbors for their surplus produce. It’s been absolutely marvelous to enjoy such a variety of fresh, organic produce in this abundant year. I still recall the tasteless, wax-like produce we used to buy in the commercial grocery stores years ago, thinking that was normal. I’d never shop in another grocery store for produce after tasting what I and my neighbors can produce.

In addition to tomatoes, our garden produces several dozen other types of fruits, vegetables, beans, and herbs. Besides corn that we acquire from local farmers, we feed our chickens food scraps that we would otherwise throw away. In return our chickens produce the best tasting eggs imaginable, their poop is a surprisingly good fertilizer, and they are effective pest controllers. In all, our plot of land produces about half our food. The other half comes from my talent as a furniture maker. The dresser I’m making for Sam will provide us with meat from his farm for several months.

I used to work in Manhattan as an accountant for a large firm, where I was paid a large salary. My wife and I owned a great condo, a nice car, and had all the trendiest gadgets. We dined in the finest restaurants, went to Broadway shows, and occasionally flew first class to Europe. We really thought we were “fulfilled.” One day, while reading about the “downshifting” trend in Europe, I realized just how unfulfilling our life really was. I also came to appreciate how little control we had over our lives. I was totally dependent on my employer to maintain our precarious existence. Without my high paying job, we’d promptly be forced to give up our nice condo, car, and luxurious living. I discussed these thoughts with my wife, but it took many months for the truth of my words to sink in to both of us. We weren’t “living” in any real sense; we were existing. Worse, we were not in control of our lives, but existed at the whim of the executives controlling my firm. After much talk, we sold our condo and car, moved to rural Kentucky, and bought an old house with some land. It was a major transition for us, especially since we didn’t know a soul there, but the lifestyle quickly grew on us. The most surreal thing about our new life was the absence of stress about finances, job security, noise, crime, etc. I daresay, we had unwittingly found paradise. While we never thought about having children when we lived in Manhattan, somehow, living in the country made childrearing seem like the most natural thing in the world, and it wasn’t long after we moved to that paradise that Anna became pregnant with our first child.

Today we largely support ourselves. We produce much of our own food. My talent is in great demand. I currently have orders for half a dozen pieces of furniture from my neighbors, all in exchange for products of their labor. I no longer have any fear about my job security.

Moreover, we’ve shunned much of the materialism we once regarded as essential to living. We don’t subscribe to cable television; our television is used only for watching movies on DVDs which we share amongst our community. We got rid of our fancy car and bought an old pickup truck, but we rarely even drive that because pretty much everything we need is near enough that we can use our bicycles. We have no technological gadgets, not even a mobile phone. We have a computer and a dialup Internet connection, which we use for e-mail and reading news online. Our life is much simpler than it was, but we are happier. Looking back, it’s surprising how much stress came from having to acquire and maintain all those gadgets we thought were so vital. Besides working, we spend a lot of time talking to each other, visiting with our friendly neighbors, playing cards with them, and reading books that we also share amongst our community. Even our limited dependence on our neighbors has reintroduced us to the concept of tolerance for others’ differences. Anna is now learning to knit sweaters from one of our neighbors, whom in New York we would have considered too odd to associate with. And now my brother, who is worried about his own job security, has decided to move here. We’re looking for a house for him now, and it will be wonderful to have him and his wife living near us.


Responding to my essay titled “The End of Civilization”, some people suggested I should write about the solutions I referred to in passing. The foregoing fiction is meant to introduce readers of this essay to what I see as one solution to the many crises facing humanity and our planet. In a nutshell, my solution to what ails us and our planet is this: reject consumerism, globalization, corporatism, and government, and return to localized, productive, community-oriented, sustainable living. The purpose of this essay is not to condemn, criticize, or judge anyone, but to get people to open their minds to the possibility of a different way of living than what they’ve been taught to pursue. Although I frequently refer to the United States, much of what I have to say applies to the whole industrialized world.

Production Versus Consumption

The United States economy today largely revolves around consumption. Everywhere one turns in this country they are bombarded with messages telling them to consume, consume, consume. One can even see such advertising today on the risers of steps in subway stations! And we have responded as prodded, consuming to no end. But are we happy? I don’t think so. In fact, it seems that the people I’ve known to consume the most are the least happy. It’s as if their consumerism is a surrogate for happiness.

By contrast, enormous satisfaction comes from producing something, especially if the product embodies one’s own special talent or skill or is inspired by one’s own initiative. This, of course, is the opposite from conditions in the United States today. Listening to people talk about their jobs, it seems that most people in this country hate their jobs. Can you blame them? They are not actually producing anything of value, unless one considers working as a retail sales clerk, serving food in a restaurant, or riding telephones on a cube farm to have great value. In order to produce something of real value, one needs a skill, and possessing such a skill affords one a sense of self worth and job security. I’ll bet plumbers enjoy more job satisfaction than stock brokers.

Although people consume and consume, few, it seems, question whether their consumption is making them happier, or whether it might actually be making them unhappier. For example, you buy a mobile phone and it comes with an allotment of minutes each month and a two-year contract. Now, in order to get the maximum value out of your purchase, you feel pressure to use your full allotment of minutes, but at the same time you fear exceeding that allotment because you’ll get reamed. Later you decide you want to get a different mobile phone service, but too bad, you’re trapped in a two-year contract. Mobile phones are certainly convenient, but think back before we had them. We also didn’t have to worry about receiving phone calls at unappreciated times, getting work-related calls at home, remembering to pay another monthly bill, using up our allotted minutes, or being locked in a contract. Or take that latest trendy gadget you bought. Did it work perfectly, or did you pull your hair out trying to get it to work satisfactorily? And how did you feel when, right after you spent your hard-earned money on that gadget, a better model came out at a lower price? Six months later, was it sitting dormant on a shelf in a closet? Might you have been happier if you simply hadn’t bought it in the first place? Consider that if you had not bought that gadget, you might have experienced less stress and have more money in the bank or less debt on your credit card today.

Obviously, we need to consume some things, such as food, in order to survive. Clothes to wear are nice too. But needless consumption, either because we’re programmed by advertising to consume or because we’re searching in vain for something to make us happy, merely increases our debt and depletes our planet’s vital resources. If instead of indiscriminately consuming everything in sight, we consumed only what we really needed, and then produced ourselves that which we consumed, we’d be a lot happier and wealthier, and our planet would thank us for it.

Local Versus Global

I’m not suggesting that we should each manufacture everything we use. What I’m saying is that we should look to ourselves first; if we cannot provide what we need, then we should look to our neighbors; then our town; then we should reconsider if we really need the thing; finally, and only as a last resort, look outside our local community. Imports should be the exception, not the norm. Some people might argue that imports result in cheaper products. This is precisely the problem with our way of life. Because everything is too cheap we consume and consume. If things cost more, we’d consume only what we needed, and when we did consume locally produced products, it would benefit our families and neighbors, not faceless corporations in faraway lands.

Twice in the last year I’ve seen in local grocery stores garlic from China for sale! Think about that for a moment. This tiny bag of garlic, which is being sold for about one dollar, traveled more than five thousand miles from China to California. Does that make sense, especially when the town of Gilroy, California, just four hundred miles away, is a major producer of garlic? This is an example of what’s so terribly wrong with globalization. It may well be cheaper in the cold, hard accounting of dollars and cents to farm garlic in China and ship it all the way to California, but what about the precious oil consumed and extra pollution generated by shipping it? What about the jobs lost in the United States? Just because we don’t have a good way to quantify these costs doesn’t mean that their cost is zero, that we can simply ignore them. I think most people would intuitively agree that shipping garlic from China to California makes no sense. This story about garlic is a trivial example, but multiplied by thousands of other products being shipped and sold in fantastic volumes and the problem becomes considerably more serious.

Imagine, on the other hand, that you exchanged some tomatoes you grew in your yard for garlic that your next door neighbor grew in his yard. How much more efficient and sustainable is this hypothetical scenario, compared to the absurd real-life scenario described above?

One of the greatest tragedies of modern America is the decimation of its small town “Main Streets” through globalized competition. It used to be that a small business owner would set up a business in their local community, the employees of this business would be family members or neighbors, the profits would be reinvested in the local community. The prices might have been higher than those of globalized businesses, but a higher level of service would have been provided as well. Such businesses fostered community stability and created a decent standard of living for generation after generation. Many of the people who once owned their own small businesses in such small towns now work for the very globalized corporations that helped put them out of business. In our consumerist frenzy to find the lowest prices we have unwittingly put ourselves out of business, so to speak.

We could return to the days where we shopped in local stores, owned by our neighbors, and which sold locally manufactured goods. We can afford to pay higher prices to local merchants by shopping more judiciously, by recognizing that there is intangible value in dealing with someone we know, and by appreciating the benefits afforded to our communities by such local businesses: community stability, increased standard of living, educating our young about responsibility. It’s our choice.

Community Versus Selfish Isolation

For the last century our technological innovations have helped increasingly isolate us from one another. Automobiles have afforded each person a private protective cocoon, shielding them from having to learn to interact civilly with others, as one must do on public transit. Video and music players have permitted people to enjoy movies and music at home instead of having to be respectful of and courteous to others at the theater. Telephones and e-mail have made it possible for people to avoid face-to-face communication, or confrontation, as the case may be. I have to confess that I’m guilty of excessive reliance on some these modern technologies myself. I use e-mail extensively, and for years I have preferred to watch movies at home. In my defense, however, e-mail is more efficient for transmitting and receiving detailed information, such as work specifications, and my preference for watching movies at home is due to the exorbitant cost of movie tickets compared to the low price of DVDs, not to mention the barrage of advertisements I’m forced to suffer in the movie theater. I would, however, happily give up these technologies in exchange for being a member of a real community.

These technologies have insidiously undermined our sense of community, without which there can be no tolerance, empathy, sharing, or charity. Indeed, for the last century what we have seen in our society is a gradual erosion of these traits of civil society. Instead of making “community” our personal responsibility, we’ve “outsourced” it to the government, relying on government to establish and enforce our moral boundaries, negotiate and mediate our relationships, and provide support to those members of society who need help. But can government really do as good a job at these things as a genuine community comprised of compassionate and engaged people?

Communities come in may forms. Some are geographical – that’s what most people think of when they think of the word “community” – and some are abstract, such as the “gay community” (I’m still trying to figure out what this is, by the way, as well as what is this “gay agenda” I keep hearing about). But the essential characteristic of a community is that it’s a group of people who voluntarily choose to associate with one another and work together, whether as a town, a neighborhood, a multi-generational family, or a hippie commune. Human beings are social creatures. We should want to associate with each other, and we are more productive and strong when we work together. That so many of us, myself included, elect to isolate ourselves is a symptom of the toxic and unhealthy social environment that we live in today. I blame this toxicity on our lazily substituting government, corporations, and consumerism for actual community, which takes hard work and a willingness to compromise to maintain.

Should we choose to return to a genuine community-oriented way of life, I think we’d all be a lot happier. In order for this to work, however, we also need to be willing to be more tolerant of each other, especially those of us who are the most different; it’s easy to tolerate those who are like you. Not only does diversity make life, particularly our social life, more interesting, but an outgrowth of tolerance is peace and harmony, something we desperately need today.

People Versus Government and Corporations

Governments and corporations seek only to dominate, control, and exploit people. Governments do it for power, while corporations do it for profit. Either because of forethought or spontaneous discovery, governments and corporations have for a century-and-a-half been wed in a symbiotic relationship that serves the principal goals of each, at the expense of people and the environment. It could be said that governments and corporations are the antithesis of life.

Today the governments of several of the world’s most industrialized countries are running amok, terrorizing their citizens, trampling their rights, seemingly desperate in their pursuit of power. As our own tolerance for each other has diminished, government has happily assumed the role of brutal enforcer in our “zero tolerance” society.

Similarly, corporations are engaged in a free-for-all exploitation of the planet and its people, aided and abetted by governments, for the profit of a few corporate executives and wealthy shareholders, and most seriously, without any regard to the future of our world. The problem with corporations today is that they no longer seem to have any restraint. The attitude seems to be not just that “greed is good,” but that if they aren’t as rapacious as they can possibly be, then one of their competitors will be. It’s almost as if corporations are in a war with one another to see which can be the more exploitative.

What can we do about this state of affairs? I really don’t know. Governments and corporations hold all the cards today. For now, though, we still own our own minds. The first step in restoring the preeminence of life over government and corporations is to recognize how much they control us. As I alluded in the preface above, when we buy into the “American Dream,” we actually become subservient to the government and corporations. We don’t need a fancy house, a fancy car, or a mobile phone with a built-in camera and Internet access to be happy. Sometimes, less is actually more.

Once we recognize that we’re being programmed to behave in ways that benefit governments and corporations, to the detriment of our very selves, and honestly address the question of what would truly make us happy, maybe then we can start taking steps in the right direction. Timothy Leary once said, “turn on, tune in, drop out.” This maxim is amazingly relevant today, and is the first step toward a healthier tomorrow.

Even if you are not willing to “drop out,” or live “off the grid,” simply examining how much governments and corporations control your daily existence will be instructive. For example, how much time do you spend in any given day complying with government rules or dealing with corporations? Just yesterday I spent about three hours preparing my income taxes, on top of the ten hours I had previously invested in that task. I also had to obtain a loan from a corporation to pay my income taxes to the government (Alas, I poorly managed my finances last year). And, in the past week I’ve had to pay bills to six different corporations. In light of all that utterly unproductive effort, I ought to be asking myself if what I’m getting in return is worth the effort.

It would be nice if we could “opt-out” of supporting the government through paying taxes. Unfortunately, the government is probably not going to go along with that idea. But we can look for legal ways to reduce our taxes. For example, by living a simpler lifestyle and augmenting our income by growing our own food, we can take a job that pays less and thereby pay less tax, while increasing our independence and sense of self-efficacy. Bartering with your neighbors is a good way to avoid taxes too, as there are no practical means for the government to tax bartering. Sharing things with your neighbors, besides fostering a sense of community, reduces spending and hence, sales taxes.

“Participation” in the political process through voting is a facade. Not only are some elections in the United States blatantly rigged today, but it really doesn’t matter who you elect to office anyway. Once in office, a politician is beholden to those who pay his or her campaign bills, which are primarily corporations and their lobbyists, and they are always working behind the scenes, pushing their agendas, not just on election day. Thus, regardless of what platform a candidate runs on, once in office, their platform quietly shifts to that which best serves their corporate sponsors. It’s a waste of time to vote. People who vote are consoling themselves with a false sense of participation, when in fact, their votes are irrelevant. If you want to participate in the political process, then give money to organizations that will lobby continuously on your behalf. Recognizing this reality of American politics, I stopped voting a decade-and-a-half ago and have since given money to organizations, such as Greenpeace, the NRDC, the NRA and the ACLU, to lobby on my behalf. Not playing the government’s election game is wonderfully liberating. Perhaps if enough people stopped “participating” in the political system, the mere lack of participants would send the loudest message of all.

I used to ridicule home schooling as quackery or paranoid anti-government posturing. Today I’m an ardent fan of home schooling. Besides the now obvious failure of public schools to actually educate students – the United States is nearly last among industrialized countries – it’s clear to me now that public schools are increasingly used as a vehicle for inculcating in young minds conformity, as well as devotion and obedience to the state. If I were to have children, I would absolutely school them at home. In fact, collective home schooling of several neighborhood children would be a great example of a community working together. As an interesting aside, governments seem to be waking up to the threat posed by free-thinking graduates of home schools, and are now starting to impose oppressive regulations on home schoolers, apparently with the hope of driving them out of “business.”

As for rejecting corporate influence from your life, it’s easy: simply don’t give them your money. Before spending money, ask yourself if you really need the thing or service you’re contemplating buying. When you do spend your money, spend it at local businesses as much as possible. In cases where you are forced to give your money to corporations – such as by laws requiring you to buy automobile insurance – then find a way to minimize the amount of money you give them. Buy a cheap car for which you can skip the comprehensive and collision coverage.

Sustainable Versus Unsustainable

Throughout time and place, indigenous people have usually developed the wisdom to live in harmony with their world. Most likely this wisdom ensued from their observation over a long period of time that communities that failed to live within their means perished. Our world today is much bigger than the confining worlds that indigenous people lived in long ago. Thanks to globalization, today it’s possible to create the illusion of limitless bounty. If we live beyond our means in America, we can simply import more resources from elsewhere on the globe, and never mind the impact outside our borders. Out of sight, out of mind. We live here in blissful ignorance.

Few people are aware when they buy a neat technological gadget, that toxins from the factory in China that manufactured that gadget pollute the river that the local people get their drinking water from. Rural people in China are suffering more and more to fuel our consumptive way of life. Yet because we don’t see these costs, we don’t realize that our way of life is not sustainable. One of the benefits of a localized economy, versus a globalized economy, is that it’s far easier for people to do a cost-benefit analysis of their systems of production.

Of course, in so many ways our exploitation of our environment is unsustainable. We are obviously overly dependent on fossil fuels, which are rapidly being depleted and which produce a lot of pollution. We can reduce our consumption of fossil fuels by traveling and transporting less, which implies more localized living, working, and production. Consuming fewer manufactured goods also reduces consumption of fossil fuels. Our oceans are dying from pollution, but mainly from overfishing. Fishing methods, such as rapaciously destructive bottom trawling and the use of indiscriminately lethal drift nets are killing the oceans. While such efficient fishing methods may make a corporate accountant’s heart jump with joy, how long will it be before the oceans are devoid of life? People have to eat, but they need to do so in a way that can be sustained. We burn down Amazon rain forests to make way for cattle ranches so that fast food restaurants can manufacture cheap, toxic burgers. What if we obtained beef from a local farmer instead and ground it ourselves to make burgers? Would that not be cheaper overall, more healthful, and more sustainable? Would that not benefit our local community? Would that not have a less adverse impact on our planet?

If we grew produce in backyard gardens instead of importing it from abroad, it would obviously be far more efficient energy-wise because we would not have to ship that produce all over the world, nor even make trips in the car to buy it. What’s more, grown without pesticides, such produce would be more healthful. It would be tastier and probably more nutritious, as well. By recycling organic waste in a compost pile and combining it with waste from small animals, such as chickens, we can create a perpetually sustainable ecosystem in our own backyards. Replicating this model over the entire planet would substantially improve our harmony with our world, and go a long way toward making our existence sustainable.


I hope the foregoing essay has slightly stimulated the imagination of some readers. Obviously, my point of view is biased by my negative view of government and corporations. I didn’t always harbor such negative biases, but over time I have seen the light.

Do I practice what I preach? Well, I’m working on it. Being a product of the very world I inveigh against, it’s hard for me to simply change overnight, but I am working on it. I am self employed as a craftsman of sorts: I make a comfortable living at home as a computer programmer writing software for a local company that manufactures air pollution monitoring equipment. I do own a house in rural Kentucky and I plan to set up a backyard garden and try to become as self sufficient as possible. I’m always looking for ways to minimize my impact on the environment (see for my tips). I do minimize my association with government and corporations to the extent possible. I do try to shop at local businesses instead of stores belonging to globalized corporations. I do have a mobile phone, but it has no camera or Internet access, it’s a prepaid phone which I bought for emergencies, I hardly ever use it, and I would not miss it if I got rid of it. And I do shun consumerism, except for my fondness for DVDs, but as I said, I could live without even those.

What about people in far off places, such as Africa? What can be done to help them survive? I don’t know. I don’t have all the answers. Perhaps if we just quit meddling in the affairs of such people and magnanimously assisted them when they asked for assistance, they could figure out their own solutions.

Dave Eriqat can be reached at
The Corporate Control Of Society And Human Life

By Stephen Lendman

25 April, 2006

Large transnational corporations are clearly the dominant institution of our time. They're preeminent throughout the world but especially in the Global North and its epicenter in the US. They control or greatly influence what we eat and drink, where we live, what we wear, how we get most of our essential services like health care and even what we're taught in schools up to the highest levels. They create and control our sources of information and greatly influence how we think and our view of the world and them. They even now own patents on our genetic code, the most basic elements of human life, and are likely planning to manipulate and control them as just another commodity to exploit for profit in their brave new world that should concern everyone. They also carefully craft their image and use catchy slogans to convince us of their benefit to society and the world, like: "better things for better living through chemistry" (if you don't mind toxic air, water and soil), "we bring good things to life" for them, not us), and "all the news that's fit to print" (only if you love state and corporate friendly disinformation and propaganda). The slogans are clever, but the truth is ugly.

Corporations also decide who will govern and how. We may think we do, but it's not so and never was. Those national elections, especially the last two, only looked legitimate to most people, but not to those who know and understand how the system works. Here's how it really works. The "power elite" or privileged class C. Wright Mills wrote about 50 years ago in his classic book by that title are the real king and decision makers. He wrote how corporate, government and military elites formed a trinity of power after WW II and that the "power elite" were those "who decide whatever is decided" of importance. The holy trinity Mills wrote about still exists but today in the shape of a triangle with the transnational giants clearly on top and government, the military and all other institutions of importance there to serve their interests. These corporations have become so large and dominant they run our lives and the world, and in a zero sum world and the chips that count most in their stack, they do it fortheir continuing gain and at our increasing expense. Something is way out of whack, and in this essay I'll try to explain what it is and why we better understand it.

The Power of Transnational Corporations and the Harm They Cause

As corporations have grown in size they've gained in power and influence. And so has the harm they cause - to communities, nations, the great majority of the public and the planet. Today corporate giants decide who governs and how, who serves on our courts, what laws are enacted and even whether and when wars are fought, against whom and for what purpose or gain. It's for their gain, who else's, certainly not ours. Once we start one, they can even make profit projections from it like on any other business venture. For them, that's all it is - another way to make a buck, lots of them.

The central thesis of this essay is that giant transnational corporations today have become so dominant they now control our lives and the world, and they exploit both fully and ruthlessly. While they claim to be serving us and bringing us the fruits of the so-called "free market," in fact, they just use us for their gain. They've deceived us and highjacked the government to serve them as subservient proxies in their unending pursuit to dominate the world's markets, resources, cheap labor abroad and our own right here. And they've done it much like what happens in the marketplace when a predator company attempts to take control of another one that prefers to remain independent. They launch a hostile takeover, going around or over the heads of the target's management, their employees and the communities they operate in. They go right to the target's shareholders and promise them a better deal, meaning a premium price on the stock they hold.

They do this, as in a friendly merger, for a variety of financial and strategic reasons, but essentially it's to achieve any possible immediate gain as well as over the longer term greater market dominance that will build future profits. But what happens in the wake of a takeover. Assets get stripped, spun-off and/or sold-off. Plants are closed. Jobs are lost. And all this is done for the primary bottom line goal - "the bottom line," higher profits, whatever the cost to people, communities or society.

Think of it this way. Large corporations today everywhere, but especially the largest ones in the Global North, are a destructive force, hostile to people, societies and the environment. They're nothing less than legal private tyrannies operating freely with virtually no restraint. Everything for them, animal, vegetable or mineral, is viewed as a production input to be commodified and consumed for profit and then discarded when no longer of use. And to achieve maximum profits, costs must be rigidly controlled. That means the lowest prices paid for goods and services, the lowest wages paid to workers (below privileged higher management who reward themselves richly), as little as possible spent on essential benefits like health care and pensions, and increasingly little or no concern about the long-term cost of exploiting, plundering or even destroying the natural environment and the future ability of the planet to sustain life. These issues, however recognized and grave, are for someone else to deal wih later.

For now all that matters is today, the next quarter's earnings and keeping the stockholders and Wall Street happy. They only understand numbers on financial statements and are blind, unconcerned and even hostile to human and societal welfare or a safe environment that will protect and sustain all life forms. They call it "free market capitalism." It's really the law of the jungle. They're the predators, we're the prey, and every day they eat us alive.

Does all this make sense? And do corporate chieftains who live in a community, love their wives and children, contribute to charities, attend church and believe in its teachings really go to work every day and think - "who and what can I exploit today?" They sure do because they have no other choice. No more so than breathing in and breathing out.

How the Law Affects Corporate Behavior

Publicly owned corporations are mandated by law to serve only the interests of their shareholders and do it by working to maximize the value of their equity holdings by increasing profits. That's it. Case closed. Think of these businesses as gated communities of owners (large and small), the welfare of whom is all that matters and the world outside the gates is to be used and exploited for that one purpose only. Forget about any social responsibility or safeguarding the environment. The idea is to grow sales, keep costs low, increase profits, and if you do it well, shareholder value will rise, the owners and Wall Street will be happy, and you as a CEO or senior executive will probably get a raise, good bonus and keep your job. Try being worker-friendly, a nice guy, a good citizen or a friend of the earth and fail to achieve the above objectives and you'll likely face dismissal and even possible shareholder lawsuit for not pursuing your fiduciary responsibility. Anyone choosing this line of work has n other choice. To do the job well, you have to think only of the care and feeding of your shareholders and the investment community, ignore the law if that's what it takes to do it, and obey the only law that counts - the one that helps you grow the "bottom line."

There's nothing in the Constitution, which is public law, that gives corporations the rights they've gotten. It never mattered to them. They just crafted their own private law, piece by piece, over many years with the help of corporate-friendly lawyers, legislators and the courts. And today it's easier than ever with both major parties strongly pro-business and the courts stacked with business-friendly judges ready to do their bidding. The result is big business is now the paymaster, or puppetmaster, with government and the halls of justice their faithful servants. There's no government of, for and by the people, no public sovereignty, no democratic rights or any choices but to accept their authority and bow to their will. It's a democracy for the few alone - the privileged elite. Our only choice is to go along to get along or get out of their way.

A Profile of the World's Largest 200 Transnational Corporations

In December, 2000 The Institute for Policy Studies released a report called "The Rise of Corporate Global Power." It was a profile of the 200 largest transnationals that showed just how dominant they are. A summary of their findings is listed below.

1. Of the world's 100 largest economies, 51 are corporations.

2. The combined sales of these 200 corporations (called "The Group" below) in 1999 equalled 27.5% of world Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and are growing faster than overall global economic activity.

3. The Group's combined sales exceed the total combined economies of all nations in the world except the largest 10.

4. The Group's combined sales are 18 times the income of the bottom one fourth of the world's population (1.2 billion people) living in "severe" poverty.

5. Despite their combined size and percentage of world economic activity, The Group employs only 0.78% of the world's workforce.

6. From 1983 to 1999 The Group's workforce grew only 14.4% while their profits increased by 362.4% or about 25 times as much.

7. The largest employer in the world, Walmart, employed 1,140,000 in 1999 (1.6 million in 2005) or 5% of The Group's total employment. It's also a model (and increasingly a target) for corporate union-busting, widespread use of part-time workers and a practice of avoiding giving its workers needed benefits like health insurance.

8. 82 US corporations are in The Group, twice as many as Japan with 41, the next highest contributing country.

9. 44 of the US corporations in The Group didn't pay the full 35% federal tax rate from 1996 - 1998. 7 of them paid no tax in 1998 and also got tax rebates, including Enron and Worldcom now exposed as corporate criminals.

10. The percent of The Group's sales from the service sector (not manufacturing) grew from 33.8% in 1983 to 46.7% in 1999. In the US, the service sector comprised 79% of the total economy in 2004.

How Corporate Behavior Affects the Public Interest

Big corporations have almost always thrived in the US. But a crucial, defining moment happened in 1886 when the Supreme Court granted corporations the legal status of personhood in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railway - a simple tax dispute case unrelated to the issue of corporate personhood. Incredibly it wasn't the Justices who decided corporations are persons, but the Court's reporter (J.C. Bancroft Davis) who after the decision was rendered wrote it in his "headnotes." The Court did nothing to refute them, likely by intent, and the result was corporations got what they had long coveted.

That decision granted corporations the same constitutional rights as people, but because of their limited liability status, protected shareholders from the obligations of their debts, other obligations, and many of the responsibilities individuals legally have. Armed with this new legal status corporations were able to win many additional favorable court decisions up to the present. They also gained much regulatory relief and favorable legislation while, at the same time, being protected by their limited liability status. As a result, corporations have been able to increase their power and grow to their present size and dominance.

Although corporations aren't human, they can live forever, change their identity, reside in many places simultaneously in many countries, can't be imprisoned for wrongdoing and can change themselves into new persons at will for any reason. They have the same rights and protections as people under the Bill of Rights but not the responsibilities. From that right, corporations became unbound, free to grow and gain immense power and be able to become the dominant institution that now runs the country, the world and all our lives. Most important, they got an unwritten license from all three branches of the government to operate freely for their own benefit and others of their privileged class and do it at the public expense everywhere. They've exploited it fully as they're grown in size and dominance, and the result has been lives destroyed, the environment harmed and needless wars fought on their behalf because they open markets and grow profits. It's no exaggeration to say these institutions today are rea "weapons of mass destruction."

In the early days of the republic it all might have been different had Thomas Jefferson and James Madison prevailed over Federalists John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson and Madison believed the Bill of Rights should include "freedom from monopolies in commerce" (what are now giant corporations) and "freedom from a permanent military" or standing armies. Adams and Hamilton felt otherwise, and the final compromise was the first 10 Bill of Rights amendments that are now the law but not the other two Jefferson and Madison wanted included. Try to imagine what this country might be like today had we gotten them all.

We didn't, of course, so the result, as they say, is history. It allowed small corporations to grow into giants and so-called "free market capitalism" to become the dominant state religion of this country and the West. We may say it's free, but it only is for those own and control it, and notice we never hear the system called "fair." That's because in most key industries a handful of corporate giants dominate and now work in cartel-like alliance with their "friendly" competitors here and abroad to control (read: exploit) the markets they serve. They're also able to co-opt the leaders and business elites of countries in the developing world, or work in partnership with them in the larger ones like China, India and Brazil, to allow them market entry. As an inducement, they offer to invest their capital and offer their technology in return for a business-friendly climate and access to the host country's cheap labor. It's an alliance based on pure exploitation for profit at the expense of people who are sed, abused and discarded when they have no further value.

This essay is mainly about how these same corporate giants dominate and exploit here in the US. They can't get away with the flagrant abuses commonplace in sweatshop labor countries, but they're moving in that direction. It's no longer like the past in this country when I was young and beginning my working life (a distant memory of better times) when manufacturing was strong, jobs paid well and had good benefits, and workers were protected by strong unions that served their interests even while partnering with management and willing to do the bidding of government.

I still remember well an incident early in my working life when as a newly minted MBA I worked as a marketing research analyst for several large corporations prior to joining a small family business. At one of those companies in the early 60s, my boss called me into his office on my first day on the job. He jokingly told me he was so happy with my work he was giving me a raise. We both chuckled, and he then explained on that day everyone in the company got an inflation-based increase. It was automatic from the lowliest worker to top management because the unions (then strong) got it written into their labor contract. In that company, everyone got the same benefits as union members. Try finding anything like that today even for union members alone. It's almost unheard of.

Today, the country is primarily dominated by service industries many of which require little formal education, only pay low wages and few if any benefits, and offer few chances for advancement. The US Department of Labor projects that job categories with the greatest expected future growth are cashiers, waiters and waitresses, janitors and retail clerks. These and other low wage, low benefit jobs are what many young people entering the workforce can look forward to today. You don't need a Harvard degree for them or even one from a junior college - and for the ones listed above, no degree is needed, not even a high school one.

The continuing decline of good job opportunities is a key reason why the quality of education in urban schools has deteriorated so much in recent years and school dropout rates are so high. In my city of Chicago, half of all students entering high school never graduate and of those who do 74% of them must take remedial English and 94% remedial math at the Chicago City Colleges according to a report published in the Chicago Sun Times. The situation isn't much better in inner cities throughout the country, nor is the level of racial segregation that's grown to levels last seen in the 1960s according to Jonathan Kozol in his new book The Shame of the Nation. Again in Chicago, a shocking 87% of public school enrollment was black or Hispanic, and the situation is about as bad or even worse in most other big cities.

The lack of good job opportunities for a growing population of ill-prepared young people is also a major reason for the growth of our prison population that now exceeds 2.1 million, is the largest in the world even ahead of China with over four times our population, and is incarcerating about 900 new prisoners every week. I wrote a recent heavily documented article about this called The US Gulag Prison System.

The US Has Always Been the Unthinkable and Unmentionable - A Rigid Class Society

The US has always been what the "power elite" never admit or discuss - a rigid class society. But once there was a thriving middle class along with a small minority of rich and well-off and a large segment of low paid workers and the poor. That majority in the middle could afford their own homes, send their kids to college and afford many amenities like new cars, some travel, convenience appliances and decent health care. I can still remember buying a health insurance plan while finishing my graduate work in 1959 that cost about $100 and change total for respectable coverage for a full year. Honest, I'm not kidding.

Fewer people each year can afford these "luxuries" now, including decent health care coverage, because of the hollowing out of the economy, stagnant wage growth (to be discussed below) and skyrocketing costs of essentials like health insurance, prescription drugs and college tuition for those wanting a higher education. Services now account for nearly 80% of all business while manufacturing has declined to about 14%, and total manufacturing employment is half the percentage of total employment it was 40 years ago and falling. Also, financial services of all types now comprise the largest single sector of the economy at 21% of it. But most of it involves investment and speculation running into the hundreds of trillions of dollars annually worldwide (and the US is the epicenter of it all) just for transactions involving currencies and so-called over-the-counter and exchange-traded financial derivatives. It's not the purpose of this essay to explain the nuts and bolts of this kind of trading except to say hey produce nothing anyone can go in a store and buy or that enhance the well-being of the majority public that doesn't even know, let alone understand, that this kind of activity goes on or what the inherent dangers from it may be.

The dismantling of our manufacturing base, however, is a subject that should make daily headlines but is seldom discussed in the mainstream. It's crucially important because one has to wonder how any nation can avoid eventual decline when it allows its manufacturing to be done abroad, reduces its need for a highly trained work force and ends up destroying its middle class that made it prosper in the first place. There are distinguished thinkers who believe as I do that the US has seen its better days and is now in a downward trajectory economically. Unless a way is found to reverse this destructive trend, the US will be Number One only in military spending and waging wars. And no nation in history based on militarism and conquest has ever not failed ultimately to destroy itself.

I'd like to quote two distinguished thinkers who've addressed the issue of growing inequality in the US. On most social matters they'd likely disagree, but not on this one. One was former liberal Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis who explained: "We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, but we can't have both." The other was distinguished "free market" economist and Nobel laureate Milton Friedman. In his view: "The greatest problem facing our country is the breaking down into two classes, those who have and those who have not. The growing differences between the incomes of the skilled and the less skilled, the educated and the uneducated, pose a very real danger. If that widening rift continues, we're going to be in terrible trouble.....We cannot remain a democratic, open society that is divided into two classes."

The Downward Trajectory of American Workers

Over the past generation working people have seen an unprecedented fall in their standard of living. In the past (except for periods of economic downturn), workers saw their wages and benefits grow each year and their living standards improve. Today it's just the opposite. Adjusted for inflation, the average working person in the US earns less than 30 years ago, and even with modest annual increases is not keeping up with inflation. In addition, the federal minimum wage is a paltry $5.15 an hour and was last increased in 1997. That rate is now at the lowest point it's been relative to average wages since 1949. It's incentivized individual states to raise their own which they have the right to do, and, as of mid-year 2005, 17 of them and the District of Columbia have done it covering nearly half the US population. That helps, but not enough.

Some of the world data is especially shocking, appalling and indicative of the economic trend in the US. According to the UN 2002 Human Development Report, the richest 1% in 1999-2000 received as much income as the bottom 57% combined, over 45% of the world's population lived then on less than $2 a day, about 40% had no sanitation services and about 840 million people were malnourished. In addition, 1 in 6 grade school children were not in school, and half the global nonagricultural labor force was either unemployed or underemployed. Most shocking and disturbing of all is that many millions (likely tens of millions) of people in the less developed world die each year from starvation and treatable diseases because of abuse and/or neglect by rich nations that could prevent it. And these numbers reflect the state of things at the end of a decade of overall impressive economic growth. But it shows how those gains went mainly to a privileged upper class who got them at the expense of the majority below them especially the most desperate and needy.

The same trend is evident in the US although not as stark as in the less developed world. Except for the mild recession in 2001-2002, overall US economic growth for the past 15 years has been strong and worker productivity high. But the gains from it went to the privileged at the top and were gotten at the expense of working people who saw their wages fail to keep up with inflation and their essential benefits decline. In 2004 the average CEO earned 431 times the income of the average working person. That was up from 85 times in 1990 and 42 times in 1980. It's hard to believe and even harder with the real life example below.

I'd like to nominate a "poster executive" who for me symbolizes classic gross corporate excess and greed. He's the chairman and CEO of Capital One Financial, the giant credit card company that's awaiting the finalizing of its acquisition of North Fork Bancorp. At completion of this deal, the Wall Street Journal reported on March 24 this lucky fellow will realize a gain of $249.3 million from stock options he exercised last year. That's in addition to the $56 million he earned in 2004. What on earth will he spend it on, and how many less fortunate ones will have to ante up to pay for this in the de rigueur job cuts that always follow big acquisitions.

And what will all those other lucky CEOs and top executives spend theirs on as well. If you're not already gagging, let me make you choke. According to a study just released by two Ivy League academics based on interviews with CEOs and top managers of the largest 1,500 public US companies, the top five executives collectively at those companies pocketed $122 billion in compensation from 1999-2003 plus at least $60 billion more in supplemental benefits from SERPs (Supplemental Executive Retirement Plans). Also, other data show average annual CEO pay rose from about $1 million a year in 1980 to an estimated $14.4 million in 2001 and rising - plus all those juicy benefits. I repeat - what on earth can they spend it on. They could never even count it.

Reasons for This Unabated Downward Trajectory

The reasons for this decline were as follows:

The shift away from manufacturing to services.

The growth of so-called "globalization" sending many jobs abroad including high-paying ones.

The decline of unions to levels last seen before the mass unionization struggles of the 1930s because of government and corporate antipathy toward them and corporations using the threat to close plants and move jobs offshore to force workers to take pay cuts and accept lower benefits. And then they still move jobs abroad.

Deregulation of key industries including transportation, communications and finance, which opened these industries to low cost competition that put pressure on unions and forced workers to accept lower pay and benefits to keep their jobs.

The growth of high technology allowing machines (mainly computers) to do the work of people, thus reducing the need for them.

The effects of racism and sexism (in a society with deep-rooted racism, sexism and classism) as seen in the data showing 30% of black workers and 40% of Latino workers earning poverty wages with women in both categories most affected. And the average black family owns only 14% as much as the average white family.

The unabated downward trajectory of workers' real income already discussed. The only family income gains have come from two income households, in many cases because wives were forced to enter the workforce out of necessity.

Statistics Documenting the Decline

Hot off the press from the latest US Federal Reserve triennial survey (and most comprehensive one of all) of household wealth published in late February, 2006:

--Median American family income grew a paltry 1.5% after inflation between 2001 and 2004, but there was a widening gap between upper and lower income households.

--While the richest 10% rose an inflation adjusted 6.5%, the bottom 25% fell 1.5%.

--Stephen Brobeck, Executive Director of the Consumer Federation of America, explained - "While the typical American household basically ran in place, less affluent households actually lost ground."

Even hotter off the press, the US Department of Labor and Congressional Budget Office reported in late March that in the last 5 years ending year-end 2005, inflation adjusted GDP per person rose 8.4% but the average weekly wage fell 0.3%. Following a long-term trend since the 1970s, those in the upper income percentiles gained the most while those in the lower half of them lost the most. And the income gap between rich and poor continued to widen.

--The racial disparity was especially dramatic. The median white family's net worth in 2004 was $140,700 compared with $24,800 for the typical nonwhite family.

According to the 2005 Federal Poverty Guidelines, 12.7%, or 37 million people, lived in poverty in 2004. However, because of an acknowledged flawed model to measure poverty, the true number is far higher - at least many millions more and increasing even in times of prosperity.

In December, 2004 the New York Times reported the US ranked 49th in world literacy, and the US Department of Labor estimates over 20% of the population is functionally illiterate (compared to about 1% in Venezuela and Cuba, two of the countries we demonize the most). It's also true, as discussed above briefly, that the quality of public education has been in decline in urban schools for many years. In addition (also mentioned), the extent of racial segregation is now as great as in the 1960s, despite supposed but unrealized gains from the civil rights legislation of that time. Further, state and local education budgets aren't keeping up with a growing need or are being cut. It's also no better for those needing college aid as federal Pell grants have been frozen or cut for three straight years, and it was just reported in late March by public college finance officials that state higher education funding has fallen sharply from $7,121 per student in 2001 to $5,833 in 2005. It means a growing number of lwer income students are now deprived of a chance for higher education - and it's getting steadily worse.

The World Health Organization ranked the US 37th in the world in "overall health performance" and 54th in the fairness of health care. And in 2004 about 46 million people had no health insurance and millions more were underinsured. These appalling numbers are in spite of the fact that the US spends far more on health care per capita than any other country. And all developed countries in the world, except the US and South Africa, provide free health care for all its citizens paid for through taxes.

The European Dream reported US childhood poverty ranked 22nd or second to last among developed nations.

The US ranked last among the world's 20 most developed nations in its worker compensation growth rate in the 1980s with conditions only slightly better in the 1990s.

The New York Times reported 12 million American families, over 10% of all households, struggle to feed themselves.

The NYT also reported the US ranks 41st in world infant mortality.

All this and many more depressing statistics are happening in the richest country in the world with a 2005 Gross Domestic Product of $12.5 trillion.

The dramatic effects of social inequality in the US are seen in the Economic Policy Institute's 2004 report on the State of Working America." It shows the top 1% controls more than one-third of the nation's wealth while the bottom 80% have 16%. Even worse, the top 20% holds 84% of all wealth while the poorest 20% are in debt and owe more than they own.

Corporate Gain Has Come at the Cost of Worker Loss

Not coincidentally, as workers have seen their living standards decline, transnational corporations have experienced unprecedented growth and dominance. And that trend continues unabated. How and why is this happening? Begin with the most business-friendly governments the country has had over the last 25 years since the "roaring" 1920s when President Calvin Coolidge explained that "the business of America is business." He, and two other Republican presidents then did everything they could to help their business friends. But they were small-timers compared to today, and the size, dominance and global reach of big business then was a small fraction of what it is now. And back then, job "outsourcing", GATT and WTO type trade agreements, and the concept of globalization weren't in the vocabulary. Now they're central to the problem as they've put working people in corporate straightjackets and created a severe class divide in the country (not to mention the developing world where it's far worse) that keep widening.

How World Trade Agreements Destroy Good Jobs and the American Dream

World trade between nations is nothing new, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) has been around since it was formed in Havana, Cuba in 1948. But with the signing of NAFTA that went into effect on January 1, 1994, the notion of so-called globalization emerged big time. NAFTA brought Mexico into the 1989 Canada-US Free Trade Agreement as part of a radical experiment to merge three disparate economies into a binding one-size-fits-all set of rules all three had to abide by regardless of the effect on their people. To sell it to each country's legislators and people, NAFTA's backers made lofty pie-in-the-sky predictions of new jobs that "free trade" would create. They never were nor was this a plan to do it. It was a scam to outsource jobs and thus eliminate many others, enrich the transnationals and make working people pick up the tab and take the pain.

NAFTA was just the beginning. It was planned as a stalking horse and template for the World Trade Organization (WTO), that replaced the GATT one year after NAFTA went into effect. The WTO along with an alphabet soup of trade agreements (passed and wished for) like GATS (covering all kinds of services), TRIPS (for intellectual property), MAI (on investments and most all-encompassisng and dangerous one of all if it ever passes even in separate pieces) and all the regional agreements like CAFTA and FTAA are intended to establish a supranational economic "constitution." It's to be based on the rules of trade the Global North nations want to craft that would override the sovereignty of all WTO member nations. In other words, the plan was and still is for the US primarily, along with the EU, Japan and other dominant Global North countries to establish a binding set of trade rules (a global constitution) they would write for their benefit for an integrated world economy and then force all other nations to abideby them. NAFTA, and what was to follow, were and are not intended to create jobs and raise living standards in the participating countries, despite all the hype saying they would and will. These agreements are solely plans to benefit big corporations, legally allowing them the right to dominate world markets, override national sovereignty to do it, and exploit people everywhere for their gain. Bottom line - these "agreements" mean big corporations win and people everywhere lose.

So far the jury is very much out on whether the grand plan will succeed as key countries in the Global South have caught on to the scam and aren't buying it - Brazil, India, Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia and others. And China is big enough to be a club member, agree to the rules, and then bend them at times to protect its own interests.

But if NAFTA was a template to disguise a WTO attempted world "hostile takeover," look at all the carnage it's created so far. Instead of creating jobs in all three countries, it destroyed hundreds of thousands of them. In the US alone it's responsible for the loss each year of many thousands of high paying, good benefit manufacturing jobs now exported to low wage countries like Mexico, China, India and many others. And most of the workers losing them only are able to find lower paying ones with fewer or no benefits if they can find any job at all. This is an ongoing problem in good as well as poor economic times and gets worse every year. It's also led many older workers, who wish to work but can't find jobs, to drop out of the work force or take lower paying part-time ones when they can find full-time ones.

The result has been a huge shift upward in income, wealth and power in the US (and in Canada, Mexico and all other WTO member countries) benefitting the business elites and corrupted politicians. And it's cost working people billions of dollars, many thousands of good jobs and a permanent drop in the average American worker's standard of living. It's also created an enormous migration problem all over the world comprised of desperate people looking for work because there's none at home. I wrote at length about this in the US in my recent article called The War on Immigrants. The problem gets worse every year including in the US. And here a low unemployment rate hides the fact that many workers have dropped out of the work force or must take whatever part-time jobs they can find because they can't get full-time ones as mentioned above.

I'm now working on a new article in which I discuss the view of some US economists who explain that if the unemployment rate today was calculated the same way it was during The Great Depression when it rose to a peak of 25% of the working population, the true current figure would be about 12% instead of the reported 4.7%. The current calculation method includes part-time workers who work as little as one hour during the reporting period. It also excludes discouraged workers who wish to work but who've stopped looking because they can't find jobs.

One might logically wonder why big US corporations run by smart people wouldn't be trying to ameliorate this problem to build rather than weaken the purchasing power of people in their home country - the ones they need to buy their products and services. It's not just for their obvious need to control or reduce costs to enhance profits. It's because these companies are only nominally US ones. They may be headquartered here, but they could as easily be home based anywhere. The US may be their biggest market and most important source of revenue and profit, but their operations and markets span the globe. If they desired, they could pick up and leave and set up shop in Timbuktu or Kathmandu. That's why they're called "transnationals."

Once Our Government Protected Working People

At one time US governments had a social contract with its citizens, imperfect as it was. Most governments in Western Europe still do, although they're being weakened. But since the 1980s and especially after the election of George W. Bush, that contract here is being dissmantled, program by program, year after year with the ultimate goal of making every one self-sufficient with little or no safety net for protection. The most vulnerable poor are hurt most and their numbers grow each year, but the middle class is suffering too as those in it are declining as a percent of the total population. And the very definition of a middle class is changing as the wealth gap keeps widening between top and bottom along with the hollowing out of the middle.

Bush and his cabal of acolytes are so intent on destroying the US social contract with its citizens that their motto might as well be: you can have anything you want - as long as you can afford to pay for it. If not, you're on your own.

The Balance Sheet Documenting Corporate Gains

Worker loss has been corporations' gain - big time. In 2004 the world's largest 500 corporations posted their highest ever revenues and profits - an astonishing $14.9 trillion in revenue and $731.2 billion in profits. And top corporate officials, mainly in the US, are raking it in, rewarding themselves with obscene amounts of salaries, bonuses in the multi-millions and lucrative stock options worth even more for many of them. That level of largesse is only possible at the expense of working people here and everywhere. Oliver Stone may have been thinking of them when he made his 1980s film, Wall Street. In it was the memorable line spoken by the character portraying the manipulative investor/deal-maker when he explained that "greed is good."

Except for two brief and mild recessions, corporations in the US have prospered since the 1980s in a very business-friendly environment under both Democrats and Republicans. The result has been rising profits to record levels, enhanced even more by generous corporate tax cuts (and personal ones as well mostly for the rich), especially after the election of George Bush. Under this president, one of their own in the White House, US corporations have never had it better. It's been so good that 82 of the largest 275 companies paid no federal income tax in at least one year from 2001-2003 or got a refund; 28 of them got tax rebates in all 3 of those years even though their combined profits totaled $44.9 billion; 46 of them, earning $42.6 billion in profits, paid no tax in 2003 and got $4.9 billion back in tax rebates. And the average CEO pay for these 46 companies in 2004 was $12.6 million.

Along with big tax cuts and generous rebates, big corporations are on the government dole big time in the form of subsidies, otherwise known as "corporate welfare." It's also known as socialism for the rich (and capitalism for the rest of us). In 1997 the Fortune 500 companies got $75 billion in "public aid" even though they earned record profits of $325 billion. They got it in many forms - grants, contracts, loans and loan guarantees and lots more. Today there are about 125 business subsidy programs in the federal budget benefitting all major areas of business.

Some examples of this government largesse include:

Selling the rights to billions of dollars of oil, gas, coal and other mineral reserves at a small fraction of their market value.

The giveaway of the entire broadcast spectrum to the corporate media, valued at $37 billion in 1989 dollars.

Charging mostly corporate ranchers (including big oil and insurance companies) dirt cheap grazing rates on over 20 million acres of public land.

Spending many billions of dollars on R & D and handing over the results to corporations free of charge. "Big Pharma" is notorious for letting government do their expensive research and then cashing in on the results by soaking us with sky-high prices and rigging the game with through WTO rules that get them exclusive patent rights for 20 years or longer when they're able to extend them through the courts.

Giving the nuclear industry over $100 billion in handouts since its inception and guaranteeing government protection to pick up the cost in case of any serious accidents that otherwise might cost the company affected billions and possibly bankrupt it.

Giving corporate agribusiness producers many billions in annual subsidies.

You and I, the individual taxpayers, pay the bill for this generosity. But we actually pay these corporations twice - first through our taxes and then for the cost of their products and services. And they don't even thank us.

The Biggest Recipient of Government Handouts

In the old game of "guns vs. butter", guess who wins? Clue - they have shareholders, and their chiefs are called CEOs. Guess who loses? You know that answer chapter and verse by now.

The Wall Street film character who explained that greed is good might have added war is even better. Call it greed made easy or without even trying. Since WW II the Pentagon and military-industrial complex have always been at the head of the handout queue to get their king-sized pound of flesh in appropriations. The amounts gotten varied in times of war and peace or with the whims or chutzpah of a sitting president, but they're always big. The Pentagon, defense contractors and all the other many and varied thousands of parasitical corporations servicing the defense industry are umbilically linked. All these corporations profit handsomely in our military-industrialized society that takes our tax dollars and hands them over to them by the hundreds of billions annually. Their gain is the public's loss. If the process were audible we'd be able to hear a "giant sucking sound" of public resources wooshing from our pockets to theirs. It's also the sound of our lifeblood being sucked away as we have to pic up the tab and give up our social benefits as well.

Once the cold war ended after the Berlin wall came down and the Soviet Union became 15 independent republics, there was some hope for a peace dividend - meaning less for the military and more social spending. That wasn't what the first Bush administration and Pentagon had in mind as they frantically searched for and easily found new potential enemies as a way to make the case for continued militarized state capitalism. Our language manipulation experts came up with and sold to the Congress and public the threat of "growing technological sophistication of Third World conflicts" which "will place serious demands on our forces" and "continue to threaten US interests," even without "the backdrop of superpower competition." Our defense strategy would thus be based on maintaining global "stability" (more code language meaning assuring obedience to US dominance).

In the 1990 National Security Strategy, the Pentagon presented its defense budget to the Congress using the above stated pretext to justify what they wanted. It called for strengthening "the defense industrial base" (code language for the high-tech industry in all its forms) through generous subsidies as incentives "to invest in new facilities and equipment as well as in research and development." They got what they wanted, and it set off the high tech stock market boom that lasted until the speculative bubble burst in March, 2000 when the economy slowed and slipped into recession. Three years later in a post 9/11 environment, the economy was again growing as was annual defense spending, and the stock market began another ascent that's so far continuing.

The many corporations now benefitting from Pentagon largesse are so addicted to it that they become the main promoters of and cheerleaders for conflicts or preparations for them because they guarantee bigger handouts that are so good for business. It's a dirty business, but isn't that the fundamental predatory nature of large-scale capitalism that relies on a state policy of imperialism to thrive and prosper. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge explained it in 1895, in an unguarded moment, when he said "commerce follows the flag." He might have added that the flag also follows commerce. The great political economist Harry Magdoff, who died this year on New Year's day, also explained it well in his 1969 book The Age of Imperialism when he wrote: "Imperialism is not a matter of choice for a capitalist society; it is the way of life of such a society." And historian Henry Steele Commager wrote about how a national security police state and its bureaucracy lends its great talents and resources "not to devising ways f reducing tensions and avoiding war, but to ways of exacerbating tensions and preparing for war." I guess the conclusion is that in a capitalist society dominated by big business this "bad seed" must be in our DNA and we can't help ourselves as a result. In another article I'm working on I refer to our addiction to war. So far we haven't found an effective antidote.

The reason, of course, is because war is so good for business. In the last 6 years alone, and especially since 9/11, along with all their other largesse and waste, the Pentagon outsourced on average $150 billion a year in work to corporations. Almost half of it was in no-bid contracts and three fourths of that was to the five largest defense contractors headed by Lockheed Martin and Boing. L-M is the undisputed king of contractors. They literally run the enterprise of empire from the inside and out. They're not only its biggest beneficiary, they also help shape the policy guaranteeing it - to the tune of $65 million every day (from our pockets into theirs). And they collect their loot even when their killing machines don't work right.

Then, of course, there's Halliburton and Bechtel. They're always big time winners in the handout sweepstakes. These two well-connected companies have been at the head of the queue in the looting of Iraq and the US Treasury. They've gotten huge no-bid contracts worth many billions which they then freely supplemented with gross (read: criminal) overcharges and gotten away with most of it. And we can't ignore the notorious Carlyle Group, the nation's largest privately held defense contractor with the tightest of ties right to the Oval Office. They practically sit in the traditional Kittinger chair there, or whatever other brand George Bush may prefer. His father, and former president, of course, is on their team (and payroll), and they use him as needed as their main "door-opener" and "wheel-greaser" (especially in the lucrative Middle East). And the old man reportedly earns a hefty half million dollars for every speech he makes on behalf of his generous employer. At that pay scale he must be hard-presed to keep his mouth shut.

Guess How Big Funding National Defense Really Is?

The Center for Defense Information reported that since 1945 over $21 trillion in constant dollars has been spent on the military. And it's been done largely to benefit US corporations even though the country had no real enemies all through those years - except for the ones we attacked with no provocation or invented to scare the public so they'd buy into the scam that we needed industrial strength military spending for national security. Ronald Reagan was very adept at scare tactics and duping the public. He fathered the Contra wars in the 80s in Nicaragua and scared half the public into believing the ruling Sandinista government was a threat to invade Texas and threaten the whole country. He tried and failed to get Mexican president Miguel de la Madrid to go along with him. The Mexican president said if he did 70 million Mexicans would die laughing. It's hard to believe the US public could ever fall for a threat about as great as I'd be (all 120 lbs. of me) in the ring against Mike Tyson in his prime But although there was none and the nation was at peace during his tenure, Reagan expanded the military budget by 43% over what it was at the height of the Vietnam war (and ran up huge budget deficits doing it). The public suffered for it with the loss of social benefits, but business loved it and him, and the stock market took off on an 18 year bull run.

But after the 9/11 attack, the floodgates really opened wide. In fiscal year 2000 the military budget was $289 billion, but up it went steadily after that reaching $442 billion in 2006 and currently is requested to increase to $463 or higher in 2007. Add to that over $41 billion for Homeland Security in 2006 (another public rip-off as part of a move toward a full-blown national security police state) and annual multi-billions in funding off the books for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars that in fiscal 2006 alone amounts to about $120 billion now and may increase. Add it up and the current budget for the military, 2 wars off the books and Homeland Security, and it comes to over $600 billion this year. That kind of spending, with billions more available at the drop of an add-on presidential emergency request gives a whole new meaning to the term "war profiteer." And while the big defense contractors reap the biggest benefits, many thousands of US corporations are in on the take as the Pentagon is a big buyerof everything from expensive R & D and high tech weapons to breakfast cereals and toilet paper. Using the false Bush slogan about leaving no child behind for his failed education program, the Pentagon for sure leaves no corporation behind in its generosity. Corporations wanting a piece of the action need only remember and abide by the scriptural message from John 16:24: "ask and you shall receive." And probably a lot as the Pentagon is notorious about being sloppy, "spilling" more than many good sized corporations earn.

Here's the 2 key questions to ask. Does anyone feel safer, and who'll pick up the tab? If you hadn't noticed, you, the average worker, didn't share in those big tax cuts, your income is losing the war to inflation, your benefits are eroding, and someone some day has to pay that $8.275 trillion national debt that keeps rising $2.2 billion every day. And along with that burden, we've never been less safe, and we, the public, have to pay the bill because corporate America never does. They're in another queue for more tax cuts, and we'll see more social benefits cut to pay for them too. In the political game of musical chairs, corporations get them all every time, and John Q. Public is always left standing (out in the cold).

How Did We Get Into this Mess, and How Can We Get Out of It

I've already explained what happened. As to how, it's because we let them. They delivered the message, and we bought it like lambs led to the slaughter or believing the "foxes" were really "guarding" us. Back in school we all learned and sang those lovely lyrics that began "Oh beautiful for spacious skies, For amber waves of grain." We believed it and most of us in our stupor still do. It's long past time we realized it was just a song intended to lull us into complacency to accept the message and go along with it. It was a false message, although there is an America the Beautiful, but only for the privileged few and no one else. And every year it gets worse - a race to the bottom with no end in sight until we either get there or wake up in time and do something about it. Unless we act to cauterize our collective wounds we'll never begin the healing process; in fact, we'll bleed to death. We have to find a way to reclaim the democracy we're always being reminded we have, but don't. If we reall had it, they'd never have to remind us about it.

People Power Is How We Get Out of It

It's not too late to turn it around - yet. And it's simple to know what we need to do but always hard knowing how to go about it - take to the streets, throw the bums out (we've tried that one before and only put in new bums). Anyone have some good suggestions? I don't have sure-fire ones, but I've got a piece of good wisdom based on the past and the present. History shows that when things get bad enough people first stir and then react. If nothing changes and the pain gets bad enough, then at some point down go the barricades, and people power steps into the breach. The many always win out over the few when they're fully committed to do it. I"ve quoted famed Chicago community activist Sol Linowitz before who understood it and once said "the way to beat organized money is with organized people." Three recent and current examples make the point and show us how.

All over France for two months up until April, millions of angry young people and union members mainly engaged in strikes, sit-ins and mass street protests to demand the revocation of the new First Employment Contract (CPE) for workers under 26 years of age. French youth refused to become what they called "a Kleenex generation" - to be used and thrown away at the whim of employers who want the "flexibility" to do it. The law was based on the insane notion that indiscriminate firing was a way to create more jobs and reduce unemployment. If it had gone into affect, it would have given employers the right to hire young workers on a two year trial basis and fire them at will at any time during that period. The protesters understood the sham and how it would hurt them and stayed out long enough to get the Chirac government to back down and effectively cancel this outrageous law.

A second example is now happening on the streets in Nepal as many thousands of people from all walks of life including professionals have been protesting since early April in a mass civil uprising against King Gyanendra demanding an end to autocratic monarchal rule and the restoration of democracy. At this writing they still don't have it, but the king was forced to go on national television and promise to meet their demands. At this writing the protests are continuing, and the people so far are unsatisfied with what their king has told them.

The third example has been happening here in the US as millions of immigrants and working people of all races have taken to the streets in cities all over the country. They've seen their rights denied or threatened, their jobs exported, unions weakened or destroyed, wages stagnated and essential benefits reduced, lost or never gotten. Their protests are continuing, and they demand equity and justice. Congress has already taken note and softened some of their hostile anti-immigrant rhetoric. But it remains to be seen how this will turn out. The Congress will resume its immigration legislation debate in its post Easter break session with a final resolution now unclear. What is clear is that if a final bill emerges it will be less harsh than the original House version that passed and the Senate one still being debated prior to and during the mass protests.

The lesson is clear. Mass people actions, if large and strong enough, get results. Lots of great thinkers through the years knew this and said it many different ways. I quote some of them often for inspiration, and I'll end by doing it again - 2 jewels from one of my favorites - the Mahatma. Ghandi wisely observed that "even the most powerful cannot rule without the cooperation of the ruled." He proved it. He also famously said - "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win." He proved that too.

Anyone ready for a fight? I hope you are, and if so, you and we too can win. And just in case I need to remind you what you're fighting for, it's for your future, the kind your parents hopefully had, the kind you want for your children, the kind where you know you live in a country with a real democratically elected government that works for all the people and one where there's equity and justice for everyone, not just for the privileged the way it is today. It's also to save the republic and reverse the present course we're now on that may destroy it. Think about it, and start fighting for it. Your future depends on it.

Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago and can be reached at Also visit his blog address at