Monday, September 23, 2013

Abhorrent Anniversary Gifts

Chances are you forgot to buy a present again this year, after all, anniversaries are hard to remember. What with the aftermath of that whole another former Disney girl goes off the rails thing, the release of another copy of a phone that'll make your life better and the anticipation of another brown people massacre, you could be forgiven for forgetting given the buzz surrounding Miley's strange twerking, Apple's chain jerking and Obama's postponed berserking. As if that weren't enough, there's always America's monthly mass shooting, the release of a video game glorifying said killing while looting or some kind of sporting event featuring flag saluting or home team rooting. Yes, it seems the official narrative of the Great Recession has sanctified September 15th, 2008 as the day the GFC (Global Financial Crisis) began with the failure of Lehman Brothers. On cue, the distraction industry inundated those still paying attention with a slew of stories to perpetuate this myth, ranging in theme from the horror of the meltdown to how it couldn't have been predicted to hagiographies of those who saved us from even greater disaster and how the world of finance has changed since, thus ensuring it couldn't happen again. Nearly all miss the point and couldn't be more wrong as all we had to do was open up the newly released Fortune 400 list of richest Americans to see the cause, how nothing's changed and that the worst is yet to come.

Though many will be cheered and applaud the newest Fortune list, the inequality in wealth that it illustrates was not only the disease at the root of the crisis but a sure sign that like a malignant cancer it is metastasizing. Hooray! Bill Gates is still the richest man in America and passed Carlos Slim to reclaim the #1 slot in the world. Mark Zucherberg's wealth jumped almost $10 billion to get him back into the top 20 so you can rest easy, all those hours you've spent on Facebook weren't wasted. Warren Buffet, the Oracle of Omaha, had the biggest dollar gain while some schmoe named David Duffield, co-CEO of some outfit called Workday had the biggest percentage rise. All told, the wealth of the richest 400 in America climbed from $1.7 trillion to $2.02 trillion in a single year making them worth more than such economies as Canada, Mexico and Russia. Hooray that is until you realize where this mind-boggling wealth is coming from and for that all you had to do was notice what stock prices did this September 18th when the Fed announced it was going to continue its $85 billion monthly bond buying program, AKA quantitative easing 3, AKA printing money to buy assets from banks at book value instead of  market value, AKA providing a massive tax payer subsidy to the stock market.

Fortunately for the attention span challenged, the past couple of weeks have also seen a couple of other reports highlighting the financial situation of the rest of the country. The US census bureau's report on income and poverty was full of sobering stats, but the most telling were regarding poverty and median income leaving people angry, disgusted and frustrated. Now, I'll grant you the fact that these statistics are subject to manipulation and often don't compare well over time, but the raw numbers are shocking in themselves. The poverty rate remained above 15%, some 46.5 million people; meanwhile children are the poorest group, 21.8% (the highest in the industrial world) or 16.1 million children under 18, and the younger, the poorer as 25.1% of kids under 5, the years of greatest brain development, were poor. Meanwhile, the median household income was unchanged from the previous year, not so bad in itself until you notice this means the household that falls in the exact middle of the income range, with half the families in the country earning more and half less, earns less than they did in 1989, a quarter century of stagnation.

These details are important when one wants to discuss inequality as many free market believers will close their ears upon hearing the word as visions of Marxist hordes coming to take away their money flash before their eyes. Ironically, the previous two paragraphs illustrate Marx's theories to a tee as the former shows how well capital is doing while the latter paints a grim picture of labour's situation. As America's 2nd richest man, the aforementioned Oracle, said "[t]here's class warfare, all right, but it's my class, the rich class, that's making war, and we're winning." It's not my purpose today to get into the nitty-gritty of this war, you can check out how it was waged here, here, here, here, here or here, but to look at the conscious choice we made five years ago to continue the slaughter along with how and why things will continue to get worse if nothing is done to stem the tide.

Back to our anniversary. It's five years ago and we've been told the financial world is on the verge of collapse with the implication that there will be mass panic as bank machines refuse to spit out cash, credit lines seize up and pension plans crumble. Not only were bankers and brokers about to start jumping off window ledges, supermarkets soon to run out of food and grandma sure to freeze to death, but horror of horrors, we wouldn't be able to get the new iPhone 2.0! If anybody was to blame besides bankers it was Bush; Dubya had messed up the country and it was time for a change, brand America was due for an overhaul. Lo and behold, there was an election coming, contested between an old white guy who wanted to bomb Iran and a young, black, hip, handsome, debonair, peace loving constitutional law professor. Many (myself included) were blind to the fact that Obama was just another marketing stunt that changed the packaging but not the substance. At the same time he was surrounding himself with an economic team sure to carry on past policies favouring Wall Street and the rich, men such as Emanuel, Geithner, Bernanke and Summers, he had an all-star marketing team including a Facebook founder, a social secretary and David Axelrod who ensured the public wouldn't notice that Goldman Sachs was his campaign's biggest private contributor. Every tool in the marketing arsenal was used to create and sustain the Obama brand from the perfectly calibrated logo to viral marketing, product placement, infomercials and brand alliances.

Yes we can hope and change was nothing but cover for the great con job of the past five years. Sure, My administration," the president added, "is the only thing between you [bankers] and the pitchforks." Yes, the new president would be the greatest reformer since Franklin Roosevelt, the press sold it and the public bought it. Obama the socialist was coming to take away not only the wealth of the rich but everyone's, a fear so strong it spawned the Tea Party. The ultimate irony though is that despite all the noise, vile and bile directed against him by the rich, Obama left their great money making machine pretty much intact as he told the bankers behind closed doors "[y]ou guys have an acute public relations problem that’s turning into a political problem. And I want to help…I’m not here to go after you. I’m protecting you…. I’m going to shield you from congressional and public anger." Help and shield he did, enabling the greatest transfer of wealth, from the bottom up, in history.
Obama played the populist card when he had to with the help of the star-struck press. Stories of the president hauling in the heads of the 13 largest financial institutions to explain their actions and justify their sky-high salaries and bonuses were peppered with quotes to justify our faith: "

While millions were losing their homes and jobs, trillions were pledged to prop up the rich, the banks and corporations. TARP's $700 billion was quickly followed by trillions in loans and guarantees to the likes of McDonald's, Harley Davidson and UBS, $1.75 trillion in bond purchases in 2009 for QE1, $600 billion more the following year in QE2, another $400 billion of mortgage purchases in 2011 during 'Operation Twist' and of course the now-always-taper-threatened-in-order-to-allow-insiders-to-profit QE3, the monthly $85 billion in purchases. This back door bailout also includes six years of artificially low, near zero interest rates and the implicit guarantee that the government will step in and save them if necessary. Meanwhile, while the government plays back door man to the rich, we play the cuckold, getting screwed over, footing the bills and getting left out in the cold, some literally, thanks to the never-ending debt ceiling budget battles this profligacy along with Dubya's wars and 30 years of tax cuts for the rich have led to. The enormous shift in power away from labour has allowed capital to further squeeze jobs and wages from the lower and the middle classes. As late as 1980, economists believed labour's share of national income was pretty much fixed, but since that time it has slowly dwindled (not just in America). More money is flowing to corporate profits (and thus shareholders, ie. capital) than ever before while an ever larger slice of the smaller pie left to labour is being served to those at the top of the income scale. The result is obviously growing inequality.

Which brings us to another recently released study of note, Emmanual Saez's 2012 US inequality report, Striking it Richer: The Evolution of Top Incomes in the United States. Sadly, it brings no surprises, only confirmation of the suspicions of those paying attention; inequality is getting worse, itself no surprise as inequality feeds on itself in a vicious circle. After a brief drop immediately following the GFC, thanks in large part to policies that could have no other result, the top 1% of income earners have captured 95% of the income gains in the first three years of the so-called recovery, leaving America's income distribution more unequal than any time since records have been kept. The proportion of income going to the richest decile broke through the 50% mark for the first time ever while that going to that top 1% increased from 19.65% to 22.46% in just one year. In case you're wondering, the share going to the top 0.01% jumped from 4.32% to 5.47%, the largest percentage increase since 1927-1928. However, this inequality is dwarfed by that of wealth, perfectly encapsulated by this video. But wait, so what, right? Some people win, some lose, that's the way capitalism works.

Right. But wrong. Huh? Well, the thing is, capitalism and thus society works better when inequality isn't so severe as can be seen in many ways. The first and most obvious is to look at the history of income distribution, the chart above that practically forms, in the words of Robert Reich, a suspension bridge. Before a new standard was set last year, inequality had peaked in 1928 and then again in 2007. It's no coincidence the Great Depression followed the former in 1929 and the GFC followed the latter in 2008 as the majority of the population simply don't have enough purchasing power necessary to maintain a consumer economy. Worse, epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pinkett convincingly demonstrated the link between inequality and a wide range of social ills such as teenage births, homicides, obesity, lower educational achievement, drug use, mental illness and infant mortality rates in their book The Spirit Level. Not only do they show the link, they dispell the "correlation is not causation" complaint by showing the same effects between countries as well as within countries finding the same correlation among the 50 US states.

Perhaps most ironically of all, as America moves its way up the inequality charts, the most American story of all, the rags to riches, Horatio Alger, land of opportunity parable, slowly dies. As "The Great Gatsby Curve" illustrates, the more unequal the economy, as measured by the GINI index, the more closely children's income is tied to that of their parents. The US already has one of the lowest earning elasticities (how much a father's income affects their offspring's) in the developed world, and as it becomes more unequal this affect will only worsen. Social mobility has become a thing of the past in much of America, the chances of someone born into the lowest economic quintile in Atlanta has a 4% chance of reaching the top 20%. One study suggested that the loss of life from income inequality in the US in 1990 was the equivalent of the combined loss of life due to lung cancer, diabetes, motor vehicle accidents, HIV infection, suicide and homicide.

The reason for the negative economic and social effects of inequality is bundled up with why the phenomenon seems to feed on itself, getting worse and worse. Inequality increases economic insecurity for those at the bottom while transforming wealth into political power for those at the top. The proletariat, er, the 99%, er, well, the majority of us are forced to fight for fewer jobs, which pay less and offer less security, thus upping the stress. The official unemployment rate may be down but the labour-force participation rate is also down, at a 35 year low, as new jobs haven't kept up with population growth. The jobs created are paying less on average, with less hours than those lost in the GFC. Those who kept their job have most likely had their hours and benefits cut and are probably earning the same or less as five years ago but are happy now just to have a job. If you don't have a job you are shamed as being lazy, someone gaming the system, a taker (or skiver for you Brits) coasting on the beneficence of the rich. These makers (yeah, there's a British version too, strivers), ensure the only legislation that passes protects their power and/or expands GDP, like blowing brown people up, creating a crazy health care system centered on insurance or passing new free trade deals such the upcoming TPP which will lower wages for 90% of workers.

There were of course a couple other significant anniversaries that have passed in the past couple weeks that illustrate the corrosiveness of inequality on empathy and imagination: 9/11, both the 12th and the 40th and Occupy Wall Street's 2nd. Whether created or not, the only answer to the fear that was produced by the terrorist strikes in America a dozen years ago could ever be blowing stuff up as not only does it enrich those buying the election but also because those at the top are no longer able to understand the Other. Mirror neurons, which allow us to get into the heads of others, seem to reflect better for the powerless but much worse for the powerful. In simpler terms, the rich and powerful have less empathy helping explain the results of a study last year showing the rich are more likely to lie, cheat and even take candy from children. Amassing great wealth breeds an arrogance made even more harmful given the with us or against us atmosphere of the GFC and war on terror. Worse, those in power thanks to their wealth know they won't need to sacrifice anything as only poor people's children fight and die in wars. Thus the public ignores both the epidemic of returning GI suicides and the near doubling of suicide rates in the past 10 years for the general public aged between 50 and 59; used up by war and used up by the GFC.

The CIA helping Pinochet take out Allende in Chile in 1973 turned another possible socialist success story (I know there haven't been any yet) into a laboratory for the Chicago Boys to study free market economics. Ever wonder where economists got their field research to test and try to prove their wacky theories? Chile was the real ground zero. Allende's mistake was trying to give the wealth of the nation back to the people when everyone knows mulinational corporations are the only actors rational enough to control it properly. Er, wait, that's right, thanks to folks like Gary Becker, people are rational actors constantly making rational economic choices in a world of equal knowledge and power as we make our way through a world filled with attempts to alter our decision making process, ie. advertising. How is that supposed to work again? Wouldn't it be great if we all really did have equal information and power to make this fiction possible? Oops, that sounds like socialism, sorry guys. By the way, why didn't many people notice that John Kerry met with Henry Kissinger, a man intimitately involved with the events of September 11th, 1973, on September 11th this year to discuss Syria?

In What Money Can't Buy, Michael Sandel puts forward the argument that without realizing, debating or noticing it we have drifted from having a market economy to being a market society. What was once a tool for organizing productive activity has become a way of life allowing market values to usurp moral values. Particularly in America, but more and more around the world thanks to austerity, market values have penetrated every part of our world, from education to politics, health to war. Students are paid to get good grades, admissions to elite universities are auctioned and the whole idea of education has been transformed from gaining knowledge into job training. The arts, philosophy and non-financially lucrative scientific fields are shunned in favor of finance, public relations and programming. With student loan debt of almost $30,000, the average graduate can't afford to believe in anything that won't get them a well paid job. Seems like slavery to me but instead economic freedom is being able to bet on people dying by buying people's life insurance; the gamble lies in the higher payoff the sooner the insured die.

Obscene wealth and growing inequality have separated us from each other creating an ever growing empathy deficit. It's not only gated communities, private beaches and exclusive restaurants anymore as barriers are being thrown up all around us. Sports have traditionally been about competion but also about bringing people together, be they teams, cities or nations, societies large and small. As recently as 1980, we'd go to a ball game at a stadium named for a public figure where one would rub shoulders with Joe Six pack and Richie Rich as tickets prices ranged from a couple of bucks for bleacher seats to a few dollars for the best seats in the house and root for our home town heroes. Today we go to InsertCorporation Stadium, segregate ourselves according to wealth to the bleachers, box seats or luxury boxes, to cheer for a team threatening to change cities if their owners aren't granted more public concessions, made up of free agents who change teams for raises of tens of millions. While there, we're as likely to be discussing transfer fees and salary cap restructuring as we are ERAs or wins and losses. An institution that was a source of civic pride and social glue has been transformed removing a bond that held us together, in the words of Sandel -
In fact, for most of the twentieth century, ballparks were places where corporate executives sat side by side with blue-collar workers, where everyone waited in the same lines to buy hot dogs or beer, and where rich and poor alike got wet if it rained. In the last few deades, however, this has changed. The advent of the skybox suites high above the field of play has separated the affluent and the priviliged from the common folk in the stands below.
As for Occupy, another potential source of human contact and feeling of community, well thanks to the wilting of the collective imagination, how you view it solely depends on where you get your news. They might have just been a gang of smelly hedonists looking for a good time as evidenced by their lack of a coherent message or the nudge that awoke a glimmer of public consciousness to the problems of inequality. The reason for the ferocity of both the media propaganda machine and the coordinated nationwide military style attacks on the movement was the importance of convincing people, particularly those who would be activists, that there's no hope to change anything, thereby creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Rather than entering the humanities to expand their minds, today's youth, the imagination of tomorrow, are streaming into the indoctrination machine. In 2006, just before the GFC, 25% of graduating seniors at Harvard, 24% at Yale and a mind blowing 46% at Princeton were starting their careers in financial services. The creation and maintenance of a reality where everything is only about profit and there's nothing else to believe in.

No wonder wealth reduces compassion. The self interest needed to survive in a system of such extreme inequality not only drives financially measurable crimes from petty theft to hiding $32 trillion in tax havens forming a fraction of the tax evasion industry or pseudo-financially-measurable-for-bank crimes such as laundering terrorist money and world wide interest rate manipulation, it rips at the fabric holding societies together. Gun nuts are right, it's not just guns that kill people, it's a system that glorifies greed driving people over the edge. American exceptionalism in terms of inequality is becoming as dangerous to itself as their military version is to the world yet strangely much of the world seems to want to emulate their uniqueness. Chilean economist Manfred Max Neef has claimed that "[t]his economy can go on no longer…because it has become absolutely criminal…this economic model is killing more people in the world than all the armies put together" and has proposed an economic crimes tribunal to mete out justice. He's also part of the King of Bhutan's General Assembly working to develop a new economic paradigm based on well-being, happiness, ecological stability, adequate distribution of wealth and intelligent use of natural resources. Basically, the opposite of what we do now so it must be worth a shot. 

Chances are, however, nothing much will come of it as most people are trapped in a never ending cycle, forced to work to simply survive and are voiceless in a world where power only listens to money. We were given the opportunity five years ago to change the world for the better but were instead fed a pipedream of hope and change. It seems a type of madness to try sustain a broken system, our current suicidal economic model of infinite growth, in a manner that seems designed to fail, but that's just what's happening. Budgets need to be cut when it's spending that goes to the needy, yet the US government continues to subsidize the rich to the tune of over $1 trillion per year. Capital is winning the struggle with labour, whose spending drives the economy. Left with so little, labour can simply survive, not thrive. In 1947, labour's share of US nonfarm business income was 65%, in 2000, 63%; in 2013 it's 57%. This shifts about $750 billion annually from the workers to the rentiers. The age of austerity offers little hope for today's youths, burdensome tuition indebtedness, worklessness, homelessness and powerlessness, virtually guaranteeing mass shootings will become a daily occurrence, in fact America's almost there already. If only this infection was contained to the US it may not be so bad but in a study of 22 other advanced countries it was found labour's share of income fell from 73% in 1980 to 65% in 2011, a trend occurring in poorer countries as well.

Perhaps the decades of shared prosperity in America from WWII until the late 70's that created a thriving middle class was simply a historical fluke due to unique circumstances, after all, most of human history has featured but two classes, the aristocracy and the peasants. We've forgotten the battle that took place in order to create the institutions that enabled this historical anomaly known as the middle class and are passively allowing the system to be dismantled as we stare blankly into our propaganda screens, be they TV, tablet or telephone. The tension is all around us; politically, partisanship rules the day as the likes of Citizens United has made the voice of the few louder than the many; economically, finance rules the day as the rentiers extract rents from the rabble; socially, we've become zombified by those aforementioned screens, disillusioned by a dollarocracy masquerading as democracy and indebted by an economic system that forces you to borrow to eat, sleep, learn or even get sick. The World Economic Forum (you know, those rich guys who meet in Davos every year) listed severe economic disparity at the top of their Global Risks 2013 report. President Obama was forced to admit that "[t]he folks in the middle and at the bottom haven't seen wage or income growth, not just over the last three, four years, but over the last 15 years," only to have it suggested later in the same interview that "[m]aybe a president just can't stop this accelerating inequality?".

This is exactly what the elite want us to believe, that no one can do anything about inequality, that it is a natural occurrence that 'incentivizes' effort. What if we could show them that even their lives would be better in a more equitable society? Woah! Wait, if you could do that what would the cognitive dissonance of working against their own self interest do to their brains? The same thing that should happen to the rest of us when we realize the neoliberal fairy tale of supply side, trickle down economics is just that, a fable, and scream the emperor has no clothes. Bankers shouldn't earn more than teachers and nurses, four members of one family shouldn't have more wealth than the combined wealth of just under the 50 million poorest American families and resources need to be allocated to those who are forced to start behind others. Intuitively, absolute poverty causes negative health and social outcomes, but unfortunately it is slightly less so regarding inequality leading to the 'so what' attitude of so many. Yet, 'status anxiety' or insecurity seems real enough in a society that places people in a hierarchy which increases competition for status and causes stress, leading to poor health and other negative outcomes such as the falling life expectancy of poor white women in the southeast of America, surprise, where inequality is highest. Too bad we seem to have lost our empathy, otherwise we might try to do something about it. Well, at least tell your friends to go see this movie -

Thursday, September 5, 2013

That Time of Year

Since fleeing North America more than a decade ago I've lost touch with most everything back home, from friends and family to TV and celebrity culture to Kraft Dinner and maple syrup. Sure, there's Facebook and Skype, the odd movie and cartoon as well as the occasional Big Mac and peanut butter sandwich, but the most solid connection that's kept me plugged into the rhythm of American life is the NFL. Along with relaxed vacation days and weeks of August always comes the current of training camp preparations for fantasy drafts and opening day. This year's no different, though the NFL marketing gurus will once again mess with my internal clock by starting the season on Thursday night as the Baltimore Ravens open up their Super Bowl defense against the Denver Broncos September 5th. With May Day's illegitimate propaganda offspring Labor Day falling on the 2nd this year I suppose they had no choice but it still messes with my vacation. Don't they know it's hard to write a proper post from the beach? There's no time, but while I've been a most inconsistent blogger, I've managed to maintain a biannual NFL posting tradition with a preseason and pre-Super Bowl post for four years running and this year's no different, so let's get down to it.

AFC North

Every year brings something new, this one not only a new format (running through divisions starting with the Super Bowl champs' along with a hit or miss quick team take) but also a new defending champ. Yeah, the Ravens gutted out the silverware last year, outlasting the upstart 49ers in a good, if not epic, Superbowl. No better place to start really as the AFC North really exemplifies American smashmouth football and looks to be as competitive as any this year.

Cincinnati Bengals - 10-6
Hit - WR AJ Green and rookie TE combine for over 20 TDs while rookie RB Giovani Bernard subpoenas, er, supplants the Law Firm at RB and the defense continues the play that has carried the team to back-to-back playoff appearances.
Miss - QB Andy Dalton plays like the ginger he is and the team's long term contract negotiations with the league's best 4-3 defensive tackle, Geno Atkins, fall apart.
Baltimore Ravens - 9-7
Hit - Ed Dickson becomes Joe Flacco's new Dennis Pita, Jacoby Jones' proves his playoff heroics weren't a one-time wonder, Ray Rice morphs into a part-time slot receiver giving Bernard Pierce more reps while newcomers Elvis Dumervill, the Ravens' first four draft picks and Terrell Suggs and Lardarius Webb returning all the way from injury keep the Ravens D as scary as ever.
Miss - The loss of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Bernard Pollard, Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pita prove too much to overcome.
Pittsburgh Steelers - 8-8
Hit - Rookie RB Le'Veon Bell is the bruising hurdler he was at Wisconsin and Ben Roethlisberger stays rape and injury free while the defense finds a way to make it six years running being among the top five yards against teams without James Harrison.
Miss - Without WR Mike Wallace to stretch opposing defenses, the offense collapses on itself, Ben finds himself in another bathroom bar with another chick and Troy Polamalu can't suit up for half a dozen games.
Cleveland Browns - 6-10
Hit - Trent Richardson becomes Jim Brown and rookie defensive end Barkevious Mingo beats out teammate D'Qwell Jackson for world's dumbest name.
Miss - Soon-to-be 30-year old 2nd year QB Brandon Wheeden keeps throwing pitches into defensive linemen's arms and WR Josh Gordon keeps spending more time getting high than going high.

Yep, the past five years have seen five different Super Bowl winners and February 2, 2014 will bring a sixth. We've mentioned it before but it's worth harping about again as the reason for the competitive nature of the NFL is the ironic fact that America's favorite sport is its most socialist. Through salary caps and redistribution the NFL has achieved a Marxist sporting utopia. Joe Flacco led his team to a championship so the team had to pay to keep him, and by giving him what was the largest contract in league history (since surpassed by Aaron Rogers) they were forced to cut back elsewhere. Strangely enough, thanks to loopholes and crypic clauses, the Ravens weren't forced to make so many of the cuts to save money this year, but they'll pay the price in the future, a story that may seem familiar to folks from Detroit to Greece.

This is of course not to say the system doesn't have it's problems, after all it exists within the realm of America's broken crony capitalist system. In the classic Horatio Alger rags to riches, er, make that modern-day American Dream of winning the genetic lottery, Cleveland Brown's owner Jimmy Haslam was born the son of 'Big Jim' Haslam, founder of a single gas station that grew into Pilot Flying J, the largest truck-stop chain in North America. Jimmy's brother Bill grew up to be governor of Tennessee in 2011. Anyway, Jimmy's chain was running a rebate scam on their customers and the feds are moving up the management chain trying to pin the blame. Meanwhile, another trust fund baby, Minnesota Viking's owner Zygi Wilf, has just been found liable for breaking civil state racketeering laws and in the judges words had used "bad faith and evil motive" in keeping separate accounting books to fleece former business partners of shared revenue.

Now no one's claiming Jimmy's been screwing over Brown's fans (well, any more than they're used to at least) or that Zygi's been hatching nefarious plots in the land of 10,000 lakes (well, ok, maybe when it comes to funding the new stadium) but anything that may tarnish the NFL image is frowned upon by the commissioner and owners. Have no fear, however, at this point it appear neither case will have any effect on the day-to-day operations of the teams. After all, it's not like they killed anybody. Oops, getting ahead of myself...

AFC South

In the south the song remains the same, though more likely something with a Texan twang. Many will jump on the Colts bandwagon forgetting they've got a new coach and not realizing the huge role luck, along with Luck, played in their success winning so many close games last year. Meanwhile, the Titans seem destined for perpetual mediocrity while the Jaguars will remain declawed until they find a QB not named Blaine or Chad.

Houston Texans - 10-6
Hit - Rookie WR DeAndre Hopkins compliments the Andre Johnson and Brian Cushing comes back completely from his torn ACL.
Miss - Arian Foster's NFL leading 1,061 carries over the last three years catch up to him and JJ Watt is the only guy playing defense.
Indianapolis Colts - 9-7
Hit - Free agent RB Ahmad Bradshaw can find running room without interior blocking and Andrew Luck turns Darrius Heyward-Bey into a reliable receiver.
Miss - Age finally catches up with WR Reggie Wayne and the defense without Dwight Freeney plays even worse than last year.
Tennessee Titans - 8-8
Hit - The improved offensive line bring the return of CJ2K and the young and talented WRs turn Jake Locker into an NFL quarterback.
Miss - Plodding free agent pickup Shonn Greene outgains Chris Johnson and WR Kenny Britt winds up in jail.
Jacksonville Jaguars - 4-12
Hit - A fully healthy Maurice Jones Drew racks up 1,500 rushing yards, Justin Blackman, Cecil Shorts and rookie RB/WR hybrid Denard Robinson combine for 150 receptions and 2,500 yards.
Miss - The QB is Blaine Gabbert so the above can't happen.

The division favorite Texans find themselves tied with the Rams at the bottom of the league in one category where it's good to be last - arrests since 2000. As the chart on the right shows, the flip side top spot is shared by the Bengals and the Vikings (nice infographic here breaking down the incidents, teams and resolutions). The division that leads the league is the AFC West while the NFC West seems to be the best behaved, indicative of the fact that the AFC is ahead of the NFC in this category.

Unsurprisingly, the league has its statisticians and lackeys working overtime to show that though there may be some arrests, NFL players don't get arrested any more than the general population. Well, not really general population but Americans, the most arrested people in the world, men the most arrested gender and young men, the most, well you know. Face it, the best football this summer came out of Florida where it was announced that the naming rights to the Florida Atlantic University football stadium had been awarded to the GEO Group. No, not a bank profiting off the debt slavery of the students but a private prison company, the second biggest in America, reaping the rewards of the new Jim Crow while violating their inmates' human rights. Unfortunately, the news led to protest by those bothersome students and the deal was nixed. No worries, the bigger fish in the game, Correction Corporation of America, is sure to be on the lookout for an NFL stadium to sink its teeth into.

AFC East

What was traditionally an ultra competitive division is beginning to look more and more like the NFC West circa-2009 as any team sporting better than a .500 record will win this division. The Pats should manage that and more while the Dolphins and Bills both could battle for mediocrity and the Jets continue to spiral down toward a crash landing.

New England Patriots - 11-5
Hit - It turns out Tom Brady doesn't even need anyone to throw to as they open the season minus their top 5 receivers from last year.
Miss - Tim Tebow takes more than 10 snaps at QB thus nullifying the team's advantage of being in the same division as his former team, the J-E-T-S, Jets!
Miami Dolphins - 8-8
Hit - Free agent speedster Mike Wallace gives 2nd year QB Ryan Tannehill the boost he needs and Cameron Wake keeps the defense strong.
Miss - I could try to write something here but why bother, so .500, plus it was done better here.
Buffalo Bills - 7-9
Hit - CJ Spiller gains 2,500 all-purpose yards and EJ Manuel grabs the starting QB spot and shines with two rookies at wideout while the defense gels.
Miss - The Bills are the Bills, after all, they haven't made the playoffs since 1999, the longest current streak in the NFL.
New York Jets - 4-12
Hit - Um, maybe Geno Smith is an RGIII type athlete and Chris Ivory becomes an every down RB.
Miss - The defense outscores the offense.

Hatin' on the Jets is fun. Hating on Jet rookie Oday Aboushi this summer was pure racism. See, he forgot that he plays in a major sports league in America, where they love Israel and hate Palestine because the TeeVee tells them to. Or, in this case, a rag called FrontPage Magazine reported that "NY Jets Player Speaks at Extreme Anti-Israel Conference" which is far less true than saying "US President speaks at Extreme Palestinian Killing Conference" seeing as the conference Aboushi spoke at was organized to promote inspirational Palestinian-American success stories while Obomber spoke to a group of people raising money to buy bombs to kill people.

Making matters worse, the story was picked up and the lies repeated by Yahoo! Sports and amplified when Major League Baseball's media coordinator who tweeted "The @nyjets are a disgrace of an organization. The Patriots have Aaron Hernandez, the Jets have Oday Aboushi", both of which have since been deleted but live on thanks to the intertubes. You'd think journalists would've noticed that a US Congressman, Nick Rahall, spoke at the same event as Aboushi and that a sports media coordinator would avoid equating success stories with murderers but that's the America of today, the same as that of yesterday.

AFC West

There were many Peyton doubters, myself amongst them, but seldom does one man change the fortunes of a team so quickly. Manning's Broncos are being picked by many to go all the way, while the Chargers continue to sink, the Chiefs look likely to start turning things around while the Raiders are still the same, with or without Al Davis.

Denver Broncos - 12-4
Hit - With so many targets, Peyton Manning miraculously avoids becoming a real-life bobblehead for another year while the defense led by Von Miller can thrive despite Elvis (as in Dumervil) having left the building.
Miss - Neither of the young RBs (rookie Montee Ball and 2nd year back Ronnie Hillman) can find holes in a suddenly porous looking centre of the offensive line or anything happens to Peyton and somebody named Brock or Zac wind up taking snaps.
San Diego Chargers - 8-8
Hit - With Norv Turner finally gone there's always hope I suppose.
Miss - Ryan Mathews finds a way to break his collarbone on the first play of the season, AGAIN, leaving Danny Woodhead as the team's most talented player.
Kansas City Chiefs - 7-9
Hit - Some see a worst to first turnaround as new QB Alex Smith and head coach Andy Reid turn elite RB Jamaal Charles and WR Dwayne Bowe into household names and the defense gets out of the league basement in takeaways.
Miss - Andy Reid's problems in Philadelphia were no fluke leading to a rash of parking lot suicides.
Oakland Raiders - 4-12
Hit -Sebastian Janikowski kicks a 73-yard field goal in the dying seconds of week 16 thus ensuring a .500 season.
Miss - Darren McFadden misses every other game with a pulled something or another and Matt Flynn stinks worse than their home Colosseum.

How does a guy making millions playing a game end up behind bars, accused of pumping bullets into his fiancee's sister's boyfriend instead of iron in the gym? Aaron Hernandez's murder charge was the most publicized of what will be around 50 arrests of NFL players since the end of the last regular season. It coulda been the angel dust, mighta been losing his dad at 16 or maybe the fact his mom then married an abusive coke dealer. Most likely though it was the cash, both what he earned and what he earned for others. This Rolling Stone article paints a portrait of a young man who not only, in his own words, "fell off especially after making all that money", but also blames a cast of shady characters for helping to cover up Aaron's past misdeeds. After all, he couldn't help Urban Meyer's Tim Tebow led Gators win college championships or make Robert Kraft millions rotting away in a metal cage. Oops, too late for that I suppose.

NFC North - Oh Canada!

That's right, the CFL invasion has finally begun. Ok, maybe not a full scale invasion but the Dolphins' Cameron Wake must be the best CFL import since Warren Moon and there's a new coach in Chi-town as the Bears try to salvage the train wreck that turned a promising 7-1 start to last season into a 10-6 playoff missing breakdown by bringing in former Montreal Allouette coach Marc Trestman from the CFL where he won two of the last three Grey Cups. Of course he'll find that while the Packers colours are quite similar to the Edmonton Eskimos, the similarities end there as the Detroit Lions ain't the BC Lions and there's no teams called the Roughriders, Blue Bombers or Stampeders.

Green Bay Packers - 11-5
Hit - A healthy Nick Perry compliments Clay Matthews on defense while Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson and James Jones each have 1,000 yards receiving and 10 TDs.
Miss -  Eddie Lacy continues the Packer drought at running back
Chicago Bears - 10-6
Hit - Trestman convinces Jay Cutler to finally have brain surgery and the defense dominates without the services of Urlacher and Idonije.
Miss - Brandon Marshall misses any time meaning they can't complete any passes. Seriously, the dude made every Bear reception last year.
Minnesota Vikings - 9-7
Hit - Three first round picks gives them a chance to continue the improvement they made a year ago going from a 3-13 disaster to a 10-6 wild card team especially if Cordarrelle Patterson can replace Percy Harvin.
Miss - Matt Cassels Christian Ponder
Detroit Lions - 7-9
Hit - Lion receivers stop falling down inside the 5-yard line (um, 23 times; Calvin Johnson was downed at the 1-yard line five times), their coach doesn't lose any more games throwing 'illegal' challenge flags and Reggie Bush is more Dolphin like than Saint like.
Miss - Ndamukong Suh keeps kicking QBs in the balls and Matthew Stafford's arm falls off on his 728th pass of the season.

Just a week ago it seemed the over/under (or in this case the before/after) bet on when the latest US bombing of a country run by some bad guy we don't like would have been an easy one had it been for the NFL's opening night though America usually prefers bombing countries closer to the Super Bowl. Obomber's sudden about-face decision to seek permission to blow stuff up from Congress not only achieves the goal of making him appear troubled by the decision but also provides more circus to distract the public. It's easy to confuse long bombs with exploding bombs when watching them on the TeeVee, cheering from the comfort of the couch.

Without permission, From Mexico courtesy of the comment thread at -
It’s quite amazing to witness this normally clandestine love affair between the Democrats and Republicans blossom into public view. This bursting into bloom only happens, though, when public opinion reveals the lovers’ hand, like what happened with TARP or the current advance on Syria. Both flowered into blitzkriegs on the American people, perpetrated by our newfound Romeo and Juliet.

Shakespeare’s inamoratos, in comparison to our stealth lovers, were harmless. The pairing of Democrats and Republicans looks a lot more like the will to power achieved in the marriage of Stukas and Panzers, Luftwaffe and storm troopers in Germany’s Wehrmacht than the tragic resolve of Shakespeare’s hapless duo.
NFC South

Not far behind, if not ahead, of the north in terms of competitiveness, the south boasts four great offenses so it'll be on the defensive side of the ball where the division is decided. I know, it's accepted wisdom that the Falcons coming off a 13-3 season and the Saints getting their head coach back will battle for top spot but I'm going out on a limb here and taking the Bucs. Something tells me Matty Ice used up his luck in beating the Seahawks in the divisional round last year and the 'aints 'll always be the 'aints in my book while the Panthers still don't have enough pieces around Cam Newton to push past to the top.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers - 11-5
Hit - Doug Martin ran like he did in his rookie season last year in which he picked up 1,454 yards and 11 TDs, only this time with two returning All-Pro offensive linemen in Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph who will also be protecting Josh Freeman giving him more time to find Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams.
Miss - Mike Glennon ends the year at QB and Revis Island sees more air traffic than Fantasy Island.
Atlanta Falcons - 11-5
Hit - They find a way to make me stop disliking them so much despite all their talent which is doubtful for a team that can managed to blow a 17 point lead in the NFC Championship.
Miss - Steven Jackson makes me stop disliking them and actively hating them.
New Orleans Saints - 10-6
Hit - The return of the bounty program overlord Sean Payton heralds the return of Breesus to the Super Bowl and the city residents are forced to attend mandatory speech therapy sessions; Who Dat, seriously?
Miss - Hiring Rob Ryan to fix the mess that is the Saints defense leads to them giving up more than the 15% more yards than the next worse defense they did last year.
Carolina Panthers - 7-9
Hit - First rounder Star Lotulelei becomes a defensive, well, star and 2013 DeAngelo Williams finds a way to become 2008 DeAngelo Williams.
Miss - Cam Newton takes another step backwards

The Atlanta Falcons were one of a group of teams who decided it was time to give their quarterback way more money than they deserve. Sure, it's become a quarterback's league but this summer saw some ridiculous pay days. One could argue that Aaron Rogers deserves his $130.75 million deal or maybe even Joe Flacco could be sold as meriting his $120.6 million after winning the Super Bowl (the Ravens have to be kicking themselves for not negotiating it earlier) but $119.5 million for Tony Romo, he of the 1-3 playoff record and 0-3 record when a playoff berth is on the line? $103.75 million for Matt Ryan of the 1-4 playoff record? $41.5 million in guaranteed money for the same Matthew Stafford who missed six games in 2009 and all but three games in 2010 due to injury?

Ah yes, that phrase, guaranteed money. In this age of salary caps NFL contracts have become as meaningless as the green pieces of paper they promise. They're backloaded in such a way as to guarantee they'll be renegotiated before getting close to the final year. Stafford's deal was made this summer well before his rookie deal was set to expire to free up salary cap space, thanks to signing bonuses, workout bonuses and other accounting tricks, Roger's salary-cap charge for this season in only $12 million, a figure that increases yearly before hitting $21.1 in 2019. What worries me isn't the whole kicking the can aspect of the contract game so much as the inequality it is creating. Sure, quarterbacks have always been the pretty boys, paid a bit better than the men paid to protect and make him look good but this trend is set to continue; imagine when the group of QBs now in their rookie deals come up for renewal. The more spent at this position, the less there is for elsewhere and we all know the problems inequality always seems to cause...

NFC East

Ah, the east, home to the bane of my football existence, my Dallas Cowboys. Saddled with them from childhood as my favorite team, I've enjoyed many highs but have of late suffered many more lows. Nevertheless, I'll be a homer and take them this year as Romo rises to silence his many detractors, all the more after his massive offseason deal, the Giants stumble and bumble there way to a 3rd consecutive 9-7 season, the Redskins ambitions pop with RGIII's knee and the Eagle's need a season under Chip to cleanse the stench left by Andy Reid.

Dallas Cowboys - 10-6
Hit - DeMarco Murray somehow stays healthy and DeMarcus Ware plays even better with his hand on the ground with the transition to the 4-3 defense.
Miss - The deafening offseason Buzz around Dez turns into screams from his mom, or mall security or some jeweler and Jerry Jones is, well, Jerry Jones.
NY Giants - 9-7
Hit - Eli gets hot and the friendly schedule maker's gift that sees them not need to get on a plane from October 11th to December 7th keeps nor even sleep in a hotel bed for 34 days keeps them fresh.
Miss - Jason Pierre-Paul's back and the absence of Osi Umenyiora tame the pass rush while David Wilson fumbles away the offensive ground game.
Washington Redskins - 8-8
Hit - Alfred Morris and RGIII avoid the sophomore slump
Miss - Off-season LCL and ACL surgery leaves RGIII running less than
Philadelphia Eagles - 7-9
Hit - Michael Vick takes a lick and continues to tick and the defense somehow manages not to really suck.
Miss - Chip Kelly's high tempo Duck offense doesn't translate to the NFL from Oregon.

NFC West

Seems like just yesterday that this division was a joke, Pop Warner quality and suddenly this year all the talk is Seahawks versus Niners being the new Steelers/Ravens rivalry. What happened to the old Sea Chickens? The Shithawks? Pity the poor Rams as they look better and even the Cardinals who might even compete in most other divisions as the NFC will be represented in the Superbowl by one of the west coast contingents.

San Francisco 49ers - 12-4
Hit - Colin Kaepernick's second time around the league is as successful as his first while Justin Smith returns healthy on defense making Justin Smith good again.
Miss - Jim Harbaugh spontaneously combusts following a missed call and the defense can't shake the nightmares of this happening.
Seadderall, er, Seattle Seahawks - 11-5
Hit - Russell Wilson really is the man, Marshawn Lynch is the beast (mode), Percy Harvin returns in late Nov/early Dec and the defensive secondary plays up to half its potential.
Miss - Refs start flagging the Seahawks at home for 12th man violations leading Pete Carroll to inexplicably announce all games will be played on the road.
St. Louis Rams - 8-8
Hit - Off their best season since 2006, 7-8-1, high expectations could be met if rookie Tavon Austin's can't-miss superstar label isn't a knockoff and new left tackle Jake Long turn QB Sam Bradford into something resembling the former #1 pick he should be.
Miss - Most of their wins come scoring 12 points (on four Greg Zuerlein field goals, one over 70-yards).
Arizona Cardinals - 7-9
Hit - New head coach Bruce Arians means Carson Palmer becomes Kurt Warner just like Andrew Luck became Peyton Manning, Patrick Peterson becomes a triple threat superstar and the Honey Badger sticks at safety.
Miss - When your running backs are Rashard Mendenhall and Ryan Williams you know you'll have injury issues and maybe that defense isn't as good as it seems on paper.

Seadderall, as in Adderall, the PED (performance enhancing drug) normally fed to kids by the bucketful to treat ADD (attention deficit disorder). Always on the lookout for an edge teams and players use anything, from Ray Lewis' deer antler spray to Alex Rodriguez's human growth hormone (HGH)  are always o one step ahead as they deploy an army of scientists to beat the testers. The Seahawks lead the league under Pete Carroll in suspensions for PED violations with six. By sheer coincidence, Carroll's college team, the USC Trojans, also seemed to have a little problem with PEDs. Feeding kids drugs, sounds about right in a country that glorifies torture, sanctifies killing and indemnifies those who do it. Guess it's no worse than feeding them the propaganda that passes for news and education.

Meanwhile, there's a substance that an unknown number (possibly a majority) of players are taking that makes them bigger, faster, stronger and helps them recover from injuries faster that isn't banned and another that may make them bigger bellied thanks to the munchies, and may help treat a variety of ailments which is. The players' union has been dragged kicking and screaming to the point where an NFL player “population study” to determine baselines for HGH is being done (a concept akin to using rock stars in a study to determine a baseline for recreational drug use) to make possible the testing for the use of HGH (human growth hormone), but penalizing is still a ways off while those caught smoking marijuana are seeing their careers thrown into jeopardy or destroyed. The smart GMs are beginning to see the opportunity such a ridiculous policy affords them as the Arizona Cardinals were able to nab Tyrann 'Honey Bear' Mathieu in the 3rd round of the draft thanks to his past 'problems' with weed.

Whatever it is they've been feeding the football team in the Pacific Northwest, it's not hurting their play on the field. As wildcard or division winner they're the team I'm picking to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl where they'll triumph over the Bengals, not the Broncos on February 2, 2014 in a snowstorm at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey.

Friday, August 2, 2013

We're Doing It Wrong

Chapter 9 Mile

Detroit is bankrupt. Or not. Or it is. Regardless, the city that provided the American Dream's 20th century engine has fallen victim to the 21st century version. By now you've likely heard most of the stats: it was the 5th most populous city in America in 1950 with over 1.8 million (and only a couple hundred thousand short of 3rd), today only about 700,000 remain, nearly a quarter million have left in the past decade alone; half the parks have closed since 2008; 78,000 vacant structures and 60,000 vacant land parcels; 40% of the streetlights are out and the city has just 36 ambulances, of which generally no more than 14 are in operation at any given time, and there about 12,000 fires a year to go along with the highest violent crime rate in the US (why not bust a cap in someone's ass for a few bucks when you can get a pizza delivered faster than it takes the cops to respond, about 58 minutes compared to the 11 minute national average and only 8.7% of the cases are solved compared to 30.5% nationwide); tax collections are down 20% over the past five years and the official unemployment rate stands at 18% which is misleadingly low as less than half of those over 16 are actually working. Oh, and there's $18 billion in debt growing by a few hundred million a year. You know the script by now, cue the neoliberal-agenda-advancing blame game chorus of big government, corrupt politicians, greedy unions and gold-plated pension plans because, as we know, this is an isolated incident that the free market will clean up with its invisible hand, just another black swan, nothing that even an awful Hollywood movie could've predicted:

Er, you mean..., no, it can't be so simp..., seriously? ROBOCOP 2! It couldn't have at least copied the script from the original? Is it really just a transparent attempt to sell off what remains of the commonweal and maybe establish an Ayn Randian tax-free "commonwealth" for our modern day John Galts on Belle Isle selling citizenship at $300,000 a head in hopes of becoming a 'Midwest Tiger' to compete with the Asian Tiger of Singapore? Wait, no, this just seems like a thinly veiled attempt to impose an anarcho-capitalistic future on all of us, after all, $37 million, that's just monopoly money, Omni Consumer Products (OCP) doesn't really exist and we all know there's no such thing as robocops to come and save the day! Alas, that's the point, science fiction isn't meant to read as an instructional manual but a warning. The dream has become a nightmare we must wake from and realize that Detroit is but a microcosm of the defunct American model that celebrates profitability rather than society, individuality over solidarity and conformity but not equality. Otherwise, they'll keep turning up the heat by adding zeroes to the bill, turn OCP into an acronym for Oligarch Controlled Polity while their semi-autonomous drones circle the skies keeping us in line.
What's Going On? First off, there is a lot of blame to spread around and it's easy to get lost in detail and fail to separate cause from effect, especially as so many of the latter are easily packaged and sold as the former. Corrupt politicians such as Kwame Kilpatrick taking kickbacks or a city run by a one-party government sure look like causes, but they're not. Even the more obvious culprits such as the '67 race riots and the resultant white-flight or the cities susceptibility to disaster due to the lack of economic diversity that comes with being a one-industry town were nothing but manifestations of the root of the problem. Ditto the city's 60% poverty rate for children and the 50% of the population reported to be functionally illiterate. No, we've gotta go way back, maybe not as far as Adam Smith or David Ricardo as it isn't capitalism itself we need to castigate nor even to Henry Ford's first assembly line to find the cause of Detroit's decline. It might seem a bit unfair and facile but let's simplify things and point the finger at poor old Simon Kuznets and his work developing the first comprehensive set of measures of national income, what we know today as GNP and GDP.

Wait, bear with me a moment as not only will it take at least that long to explain how something as mundane and seemingly practical could be the cause of Motown's meltdown but the reality is Simon saw the great danger of his work from the get go and therefore seems a very good place to start the explanation. In his first report to the US Congress in a section titled "Uses and Abuses of National Income Measurements" he warned:

The valuable capacity of the human mind to simplify a complex situation in a compact characterization becomes dangerous when not controlled in terms of definitely stated criteria. With quantitative measurements especially, the definiteness of the result suggests, often misleadingly, a precision and simplicity in the outlines of the object measured. Measurements of national income are subject to this type of illusion and resulting abuse, especially since they deal with matters that are the center of conflict of opposing social groups where the effectiveness of an argument is often contingent upon oversimplification. [...]

All these qualifications upon estimates of national income as an index of productivity are just as important when income measurements are interpreted from the point of view of economic welfare. But in the latter case additional difficulties will be suggested to anyone who wants to penetrate below the surface of total figures and market values. Economic welfare cannot be adequately measured unless the personal distribution of income is known. And no income measurement undertakes to estimate the reverse side of income, that is, the intensity and unpleasantness of effort going into the earning of income. The welfare of a nation can, therefore, scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income as defined above.
Pretty prescient stuff for an economist. Unsurprisingly, we failed to heed his warnings and this one number (well, two, GNP and GDP are different) and more specifically making sure it's constantly climbing has become the primary purpose of public policy. In fact, as economics and finance have come to completely rule our lives it's become an unhealthy obsession, the disease of our civilization.

Again, we need to pause and explain ourselves. Growth is good up to a point; there is no denying that life has been improved for billions thanks to the benefits accrued by advancements owed to growth. However,  we need to ask ourselves what is the point of growth if not to improve our quality of life? Now, there's a tricky term, "quality of life", how to measure growth against something so seemingly subjective? Living standards quickly devolves to "material living standards" and how many iPads everyone has. Happiness? Sounds good, but tough to quantify. Satisfaction? Ditto. All equally slippery. So let's start simple and graph the relationship of life expectancy versus per capita GDP in various countries. (More complete country chart can be found here.)

The first thing that jumps out is the near vertical rise on the left side as life expectancy quickly rises along with GDP. However, it's hard to miss the diminishing 'bang for the buck' we get from raising GDP, to the point that it seems to not have much effect after as little as $10,000 per head, hello Costa Rica. Interesting but so what, right? Well, we were originally trying to find the cause for Detroit's demise, but this is our first peek into the likely cause of not only the troubles there plus in Greece, Stockton, CA, Portugal, Jefferson County, Al, , Cyprus and those to come from Baltimore to California to Italy but also into what ails much of the west as efforts around the world for the past 75 years have focused on one thing: increasing GDP.

Us humans are amazing in so many ways but one of our biggest failings is the inability to let go of strongly held beliefs, especially when they've explained so much, and worked so well, for so long. GDP and economics is no exception as cognitive dissonance and groupthink combine to create blind spots. Especially in America where after first beginning to recover from the Great Depression and then emerging virtually unscathed from World War II to find itself the only running engine to power the world's economy, GDP continued marching upwards. A key to remember at this point is that much of this period of strong growth coincided with a huge reduction in income (and wealth) inequality as much of the fruits of growth was spread from the penthouse executive board room to the basement boiler room. Also worth noting are the words of the foremost economist of the era, John Maynard Keynes, who upon seeing the tremendous opportunities made possible by growth, predicted that the working week would be cut to perhaps 15 hours a week, with people choosing to have far more leisure time as their material needs were satisfied. Incredibly, his optimistic prediction that (material) living standards in "progressive countries" would be between four and eight times higher was made in 1930, a year into the Great Depression! Sadly, this latter prediction has proved true (living standard in developed western economies will have risen about eightfold by 2030) while the former has fallen flat on its face.

You're probably wondering what all this has to do with Detroit, right? One word, hyphenated or not, like Jay Z: neoliberalism. It has not only robbed us of real progress but also ensures there will be many more Detroits and Greeces to come. See, growth, like so much that tastes good at first but eventually turns poisonous, became addictive. All was good up to the 1970s when the United States' unchallenged position as the colossus of the capitalist world came under assault. Rising international competition (read: Japan) as other nations had finally recovered their industrial base after the war coupled with multiple oil shocks as the Arab world awoke to the rape of their resources in return for peanuts led to declining productivity and profitability along with rampant inflation and unemployment, stagflation. Oh, there was a little war they lost too. The corresponding loss in confidence in the dollar also forced Nixon to end its convertibility to gold and take the world into the little understood world of fiat currencies. About the same time as growth seemed to be stalling, the Club of Rome's The Limits of Growth was making Malthusian claims on the unsustainability of infinite growth. The US was ripe for a revolution and they got it in neoliberalism.

The popular myth is that Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher rode in to save the day. Of course they were nothing but marionettes and we all know that a marionette's puppeteer is called a manipulator and so it should come as no surprise that they also manipulated us. From neoliberal prophet Friedrich Hayek and his Mount Pelerin Society the poison oozed through Milton Friedman into the University of Chicago to spill out into the world via thinktanks spewing propaganda to be transmitted by their media lackeys and forced onto the rest of the world by the IMF, World Bank and WTO. America has the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and the American Enterprise Institute while the UK's versions include the Adam Smith Institute, the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Centre for Policy Studies founded in 1974 by Thatcher's mentor, Keith Joseph. Despite their benign sounding names, these are radical organizations with almost nothing to do with the likes of Adam Smith who understood something about Moral Sentiments and the dangers of private monopolies and everything to do with Hayek, Friedman and Rand and their belief in extreme individualism or social Darwinism. Freedom could only be achieved through economic liberalization meaning free trade, privatization, deregulation and relying on markets to provide public services.

No party on either side of the Atlantic has a monopoly on this evil. Democrat Jimmy Carter began the deregulation of the banking and transportation sectors. His party's Bill Clinton tag teamed with Labour's Tony Blair in devising the "third way" in a failed attempt to reconcile neoliberal economics with a commitment to social justice. This was always just smoke and mirrors to fool the unwashed masses as neoliberalism is inimical to the public good as it is always secondary to the market, an ideology wedded to the belief that the market should be the organizing principle for all political, social and economic considerations. As the benefits of citizenship are allocated on the basis of perceived economic utility to the state, corporations are considered the primary citizens while individuals are seen as consumers first and citizens second, peripheral ones at that. Corporations and those in the 1% are portrayed as job creators while the bottom 20% are framed as economic leeches siphoning off financial benefits they don't deserve when it is the opposite that is true as economic policy is designed to distribute wealth upward. Tax breaks and subsidies for corporations and the wealthy are called market incentives while benefits to the poor, aged or disabled are framed as entitlements. However, rather than withering away, as neoliberal theory would have it, the state has instead grown as it plays an active role in the introduction, implementation and reproduction of neoliberalism.

The Tracks Of My Tears
Yeah, yeah, you're still wondering what all this has to do with Detroit going from being the city with the highest median income to bankruptcy in half a century and what it means to America and the rest of us. History has already been rewritten to tell us high wages and benefits were Henry Ford's idea when in fact they were fought for and won through struggle and solidarity. World War II had cemented Detroit's industrial importance as the Arsenal of Democracy and it seemed a place which was proof of capitalism's ability to generate and maintain a large middle class. The illusion was short-lived as jobs were already flowing out of the city to the suburbs in the 1950s just as the migration of African Americans to the city was increasing, lured by the promise of freedom and opportunity denied to them in Jim Crow's last, desperate days. Instead they were welcomed by white flight, residential segregation and deindustrialization; rising racial tension, ghettoization and joblessness was a recipe for disaster which erupted in the 1967 rebellion. In addition to dollar loss this of course kicked white flight into high gear resulting in the loss of much of the city's tax base. Throw in the oil shocks of the early 70s and their influence on changing consumer requirement and the failure of the auto industry to adapt and you had a city that needed a saviour but instead got no succour.

It's no coincidence that Detroit's decline coincides with that of America as the US had the most wealth for the parasite of neoliberalism to feed off and Detroit was its richest and most vulnerable city. Back in 1960, GM was not only the city's but the nation's largest employer and paid an average hourly wage of $50 in today's dollars, including health and pension benefits; today Walmart has assumed the mantle and pays $8.81 and a third of the workers work less than 28 hours a week and don't qualify for benefits. The ratio of CEO-to-worker pay has ballooned more than 1000% since 1950, from around 20 to 1 to over 200 to 1 (1,795 to 1 at JC Penney). Not only that but the highest tax rate faced by those CEOs was 91%; today it's under 40%. It was those CEOs at the big 3 who made the decisions that sped the demise of Detroit (GM’s Geo Metro 40 miles/gallon for $9,740 in 1991; today GM offers the Volt for $39,145 that requires you to plug it in AND put gas in it to only get 37 miles/gallon) aided and abetted by the neoliberal policies of maintaining short term growth at the cost of long term prosperity. Specifically, it was the financialization of the economy, the pursuit of 'free trade' policies and the war on drugs which sealed the fate of the city.

Neoliberalism is predicated on decreasing the individual's reliance on the state thus increasing their initiative to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. The problem is it is impossible for those mired in poverty to do this when they don't even have any shoes - ie. education, healthcare, adequate nutrition, employment opportunities. Meanwhile, those with closets already overflowing with footwear have their shoes shod whenever they need it. Er, let's try to explain that a bit better starting with the election of Ronald Reagan and the belief that income inequality was a prerequisite to growth. Not only was it seen to provide incentive to work harder but it raised the savings rate at the top and as the rich have a lower marginal propensity to consume than the poor it would therefore accelerate investment. Additionally, demand for new products almost always emerged from among the rich and it was them alone who could afford the cost involved in research and development thus enriching them should augment innovation. In 1981, the Budget Reconciliation Act along with the Recovery Tax Act introduced across the board tax cuts favoring the redistribution of income to the rich, deregulated monopolistic industries and began the war on the poor by reversing many of the social gains made over the previous 50 years. The shooting war, however, came with his war on drugs.

War (What's it Good for?)
Sometimes numbers are staggering enough on their own and require no explanation. When the explanation is every bit as distressing, well, then you've got the American prison industrial complex. Only China comes close to the US in prison population and only Russia approaches them in percentage of the population incarcerated. Though only comprising 5% of the world's population, the US has 25% of the world's prisoners, about 1% of the population is trapped in the system and the total number has increased 700% since 1970. Yes, it's been a booming industry that's seen $300 billion spent since 1980 to expand the prison system. Not only does it provide employment for the gatekeepers, it reduces the eligible workers counted in the unemployment rate. The poor, worth almost nothing to our corporate masters on the streets, can generate revenues of $30-$40 thousand a year behind bars. Unsurprisingly, almost half of federal prisoners are in for drug related offenses. The bipartisan love of war is illustrated by Clinton's signing of the crack cocaine sentencing guideline bill which targeted the poor black community by making crack cocaine convictions exponentially longer than those for powder cocaine. It gets even worse when you realize it was the CIA who introduced crack into inner-cities to fund waging war in Central America. Prison privatization has brought the market into play with the law while prison labour is a pretty attractive alternative for those looking for a, um, captive work force.

We shouldn't ignore that more traditional method of sacrificing the money and lives of the poor for the glorification and enrichment of the wealthy. Much like neoliberalism, the idea that war is good for the economy and therefore beneficial is a societal sickness that has been perpetuated by myth makers who mysteriously profit from this delusion. Here we should pause once again to consider the suicidal tendency involved in believing that GDP growth is a good thing. Did you know for example that the Gulf of Mexico oil spill added about $300 to the average Americans income? The bloated prison system adds about $125. The US medical system isn't the most expensive in the world (while getting worse results than most of the 'advanced' economies) because they like having millions die for lack of basic care (we hope), but because it adds more zeroes to the bottom line and GDP. Add in a bit of conspicuous consumption, insanely priced education and the trillions wasted on war and suddenly it's pretty easy to understand why even though the size of the US economy has doubled since 1970, overall well-being has declined. Reagan pumped up the gravy train flowing from the public to the private purse, Bush the elder began the family tradition of bombing Iraq, Clinton, though he oversaw a reduction in military spending still indulged in some explosions, Dubya, yeah, he almost doubled the amount spent to kill people and Obama has put a smiley face on murder by remote control.

Signed, Sealed, Delivered
It was Bush the elder who got the NAFTA ball rolling and kept the Uruguay Round of trade talks alive but it was Clinton's signature that brought NAFTA and the WTO to life and sealed Detroit's doom. The agreement turned North America into a 'free' trade continent which Clinton promised would promote "more growth, more equality, better preservation of the environment, and a greater possibility of world peace". Oh, and it would create 200,000 jobs. Well, he was only a little over a million off as a report by the Economic Policy Institute documented that 879,280 jobs were "displaced" due to the deal. Thanks to it and other free trade deals pushed on the public to promote growth, the exciting game of labor arbitrage has been played for the past few decades, a game always won by big business as profits are padded at the expense of labor as salaries are slashed and jobs outsourced. While employment protections are rarely included in these deals, NAFTA provided a template for investor protections which effectively remove sovereignty from signing states.When you wonder why neither the public nor your government can ban Monsanto crops to prevent the loss of agricultural diversity or Bayer from killing the bees we depend on for pollination or Chevron from poisoning the water table by fracking you'll be sure to find a clause in one of the corporate written free trade deals one of your governments sold to you as necessary for economic growth.

As mentioned a few hundred paragraphs above, it's rarely those on the throne making the decisions; therefore, its the stories of those who do that make for the grist in this modern day cautionary tale. Clinton's Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin was one such Grima Wormtongue. Time Magazine would have us believe he was part of the Committee to Save the World (that's him on the left) when his face should have instead been pasted on a wanted poster. See, the crowning blow in this whole story was the financialization of the economy, a process that has allowed the illusion of economic growth to continue by simply feeding off existing wealth and borrowing from the future. For his service in the creation of the TBTF, TBTJ (too big to fail, too big to jail) bank, he was paid $126 million by the same financial institution whose very existence his policies made possible, Citigroup. Clinton's signing of both the Rubin championed Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act which repealed Glass-Steagall which had kept gambling separate from banking, and the Commodity Futures Modernization Act which prevented the regulation of financial derivatives delivered the coup de grace for Detroit and the rest of us leading us as they did directly to the 2008 financial crisis.

A spike in prices at the pump killing demand for the SUVs that had temporarily saved them combined with the financial crisis bankrupted two of the three Detroit automakers, GM and Chrysler. The same crisis collapsed the Ponzi scheme run by banks that relied on a constant stream of new mortgages to be bundled and securitized and left millions homeless. As this predatory lending targeted African Americans, both Detroit and its residents were among the hardest hit. With an ever-shrinking tax base to support an immutable city infrastructure, budgetary problems have plagued Detroit for the last 20 years. Besides a brief respite in the mid-90s when it was falsely believed that new casinos and stadiums could reverse the city's fiscal problems, the city has been burdened with a junk debt rating. In an attempt to balance the budget, the combination of rising taxes and cuts in services drives out residents and businesses while the erosion to basic social services leads to a drop in home values and rising crime. Desperate politicians become an easy mark for the wizards of Wall Street who seem to offer a way out, and besides, when the bills come due they'll most likely be out of office. While the sheer audacity of the fleecing of Detroit is dwarfed by that of Alabama's Jefferson County bankruptcy tale courtesy of JP Morgan, Detroit could have done without a $2.7 billion bill for borrowing $1.4 billion in 2005 thanks to bankster interest rate swaps and derivatives.

Here's where the morality tale gets good. This financing deal was needed to fill a gap in the city's defined benefit pension funding, the kind that provide a guaranteed annual income after retirement. Public employees paid for those pensions with lower wages while working; n other words they accepted less then to get some later. But get this: governments consistently underfund their pension plans. In Detroit, the gap's about $3.5 billion, but nationwide all levels of government are about $1 trillion short. Not so bad, as Paul Krugman would have us believe, until you consider to come up with this figure necessitates an 8% average return on invested pension assets. D'oh! Not that whole growth thing again. It gets worse. Listening or reading to much of the MSM hype (always stating the $9.2 billion shortfall which includes unfunded health care obligations) one could easily get the impression that there is a movement afoot to convince the public these pensioners are greedy bastards who don't deserve a dime. The bankruptcy process will determine which creditors get paid back and in what order, pension plans justifiably fear they may fall to the bottom of the pile, because you know, society thinks giving $19,000 a year to someone who picked up garbage his whole life isn't as important as paying off banks and hedge funds.

There's the rub. It's true. Go read the comment thread on any article about the Detroit bankruptcy and you'll soon see that Joe Sixpack has been convinced that bailing out banks is/was good as they add to the economy while pensioners are bad as they subtract. They wouldn't consider the continuing bank bailout, as in the quantitative easing program that sees the Fed give banks $85 billion a month in interest free green pieces of paper in exchange for other pieces of paper, could pay off Detroit's debt four times over each month. Nor do they see anything bizarre about a city entering bankruptcy subsidizing a billionaire's hockey team's arena that will see the city pick up almost half of the $650 million tab because corporate welfare is called market incentives and I'm sure that the money sucked out of schools, parks and you know, quality of life things to build Ford Field for the Lions and Comerica Park for the Tigers in the past dozen years has worked out great; a bunch of spanking new stadiums for those who fled to the suburbs and therefore not paying for them  to come in to the city and enjoy while the only chance to see the inside for those paying for them will be if they're selling foam fingers and foamy beers.

Money (That's What I Want)

The press reports unemployment is falling, which is true, but the warped measurement is meaningless as employment isn't rising enough to even keep up with population growth. It's not just an insufficient number of jobs, it's the kind of jobs being created; the low-paying, menial, dead end sort without any benefits. In fact, 60% of the jobs lost during the recession were classified as mid-wage while 58% of the job gains since are low-wage. This wage suppression is great for companies like WalMart who get to have their workforce subsidized by the government as most of their worker earn so little they often qualify for government assistance; tax payers pay on average almost $1 million per store. All this means wealth is flowing up at an ever-increasing rate; 121% of the income gains since 2009 have gone to the 1% (yes it's possible as they've scooped a portion of the rest of the population's pie) while corporate profits are at all-time record levels and wages are at all-time lows. Zooming out from America, the wealth gap between countries is also widening, globally the richest 300 people own more wealth than the poorest 3 billion; the richest 1% have accumulated some 43% of the world's wealth, while the bottom 80% of the planet's inhabitants have just 6% between them. Guess which group is stashing up to $32 trillion in tax havens, effectively removing wealth from circulation.

Cognitive dissonance seems to be hiding the realization that the American Dream is dead, at least in the old idea of each successive generation living better than the previous. This is because neoliberalism is great at pumping up bubbles upon which the rich float while the rest sink with the pop; it's no longer true that a rising tide lifts all boats. Privatization, deregulation, globalization, robotization, computerization and financialization have transformed western capitalism from industrial to financial. In other words we've moved from a system which produced nothing in itself but derived profit from the value created by the exploitation of labour to a system that simply squeezes profit out of existing assets. The former system was able to thrive using the old panem et circenses gambit but with the latter, present system, eventually they'll be no more crumbs to toss to the masses. Suicide rates are already skyrocketing among baby boomers as economic insecurity pushes people over the edge and now their pensions are being circled by the sharks. Meanwhile the young face the choice of fighting for a job at McDonald's or going to university so they can add to the $1.2 trillion in student loan debt and cross their fingers they can get an unpaid apprenticeship position when they're done.

Instead of realizing we're all in this together though, those manipulating puppetmasters will pull our strings using the old techniques of, among many others, media manipulation (I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine), fear (terrorists!), divide and conquer (it's those greedy unions and pensioners!), patriotism ('Murica, F#ck Yeah!) and of course debt servitude to maintain control of the flock. Lockeed was bailed out because they build stuff to blow people up, Chrysler's been bailed out a couple of times, GM once, they build Godcars don't you know, the airlines had to be because of, you know, terrorism and the banks, well, without the banks, we know the whole world as we know it would have ended. What about New York City's bailout in 1975? Well, that's different than Detroit, because, well, it would create moral hazard this time, or something. What's that? What about Mexico? No, they didn't bailout Mexico in order to save face after NAFTA was signed, did they? Yep. But not Detroit.

Solutions? Well, there's a few out there. The first step, however, is the realization that we're doing it wrong. An economy based on debt (issued by bankers, not government) inevitably collapses on itself. Henry Ford himself said "[i]t is well enough that people of the nation do not understand our banking and monetary system, for if they did, I believe there would be a revolution before tomorrow morning". New money is continually lent into existence at the push of a button so that existing debt can be repaid, but by necessity there is always more debt than money to pay it back. The dog chasing his tail leads to the need for infinite growth, an impossibility on a finite planet thanks to our enemy of diminishing returns, entropy. We've got to realize we already have enough known oil and gas reserves to kill ourselves and stop exploiting tar sands, shale gas and the Arctic. We need to refuse to pay a 280,000% markup for our most important resource, water. The purpose of economic policy shouldn't be to stimulate growth but to facilitate life. A transition to a steady state, non growth economy must eventually occur, the question is do we want to move that way gradually of our own choice or have it (or far worse) foisted upon us by the inevitable collapse of the system.

Alternatives to the constant drum beat of growth have been proposed such as Bhutan's Gross National Happiness, the New Economics Foundation's Happy Planet Index, and the Social Progressive Imperative's Social Progress Index. No growth or steady state economic policies need to be explored if we want to get off our suicidal treadmill. Perhaps once the US has been knocked off its perch atop the global GNP rankings by China sometime in the next decade we'll finally de-emphasize its importance. The chant of 'We're #2!" just doesn't have the same allure. America will still lead in such prestigious areas as anxiety disorders, obesity (well, Mexico might have passed them), incarceration rates, small arms ownership, health care cost, and energy use. Huh, taken together with the other effects of Detroit's problems mistaken for its cause, such as that 50% literacy rate and other societal diseases prevalent in America, one can make a case for simply finding a way to better spread the wealth than grow it. It seems we should take a lesson from the extreme wealth of Bloomfield Hills and Grosse Pointe and extreme poverty of most of Detroit co-existing in an urban metropolitan area. Yes, in fact if I remember right there's a chart that shows the relationship between income inequality and an index of health and societal problems constructed by a couple of epidemiologists. Yeah, perhaps we should look at this a little closer, or maybe we'll save that for next time.