Saturday, November 16, 2013

American Samizdat

Eighteen years after Robert Rubin took his seat as Secretary of Treasury I think it is safe to say he and his Goldman Sachs buddies have cemented the end of The New Deal. The open assault ongoing in DC, but almost exclusively there, against Social Security and Medicare, the last vestiges of an eclipsed era of progressive liberalism, will if successful finally remove the United States from the list of Advanced Economies. Beginning with the clever perversions of "economics" and "conservation" articulated by Milton Friedman and William Buckley in the sixties, a corporatist program codified by Lewis Powell in his infamous memo of 1971 has been assiduously pursued by the American rich that now verges on re-pinning the United States in the "middle income trap"(note that the Wiki entry ignores the centrality of social safety nets to all economies that have escaped the trap). This is a goal, not a failure: with finance as their van guard, corporatists have never liked the idea of a free American People, nor free people in general, and for the thirty years following World War II, from their point of view, Americans were dangerously so.

While I suspect Bill Clinton was a real populist, a man of the people, his personal ambition and real if opportunistic regard for the myth of a righteous America left him easy prey to the predators attracted by the pinnacles of finance. Mesmerized by the immediate results they promised and delivered, by unshackling Capital it was Clinton in his second term who de-criminalize the frauds and thefts financial
con-men had been successfully prosecuted for by George Bush Senior less than five years earlier. It had
come as a shock to them to be prosecuted as they had assumed the de-criminalizations of the Reagan Administration put their white collar thefts above the law: that had been the more or less stated intent. In 1995 they remained wrong in this assessment. The evidence now, five years into an Administration baptized in a global financial crisis wrought of successive de-criminalizations of ever more extravagant frauds across that 18 year span, is that the lawlessness is final and nearly complete, that banks in The United States, when big enough, are now well and truly above the law. 

At the Minsky Conference in 2011, after Steve Randy Waldman observed that Jamie Diamon and Lloyd Blankfein were the two best paid public employees in the world, both of their institutions having been bought several times over by the Fed in the preceding years without the Fed ever taking proper title, I asked Joe Nocera, who was on the panel with Waldman, why it was that the New York Times did not state this so clearly: he told me "that is what TBTF means". This is when I realized America had entered its Samizdat phase. The simple reality that the Fed through its various channels made available $29 trillion to the financial services industry, both here and abroad, is a generally unreported fact. And one that has fallen into the same information hole into which all information that threatens the predations of our financial class falls (make no mistake, it is now a class unto itself that only the most occasional and exceptional real entrepreneurs ever enter and one bereft of legal constraints except when one member comes into conflict with another). These two men operate banks that would not exist without having been given unlimited access to the full faith and credit of the United States, and yet they pay no penalty for the systemic looting of the American people through the institutions they control.

I've had a subscription to the Times, for whom Nocera writes, since 1984 when its editors where openly at war with its reporters for writing up the atrocities of the Reagan Administration in Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador, not to mention the Editorial backlash to the papers own reports of the horrors of Sabra and Shatila. The struggle between Editorial and News was obvious to anyone who paid attention. No such struggle remains: Editorial has won and News is something found elsewhere (on line, where the hope is to build pay walls around it). When I took my high school journalism class we were instructed in how to present a lede: a succinct description of who, where, when, what and how, followed by the consequences and for whom: this was the essential form of journalism. The lede now begins on a typical Times front page story in the sentence that hits the fold: everything above is framing to make sure the full horror of what the corporation, U. S. Government, or other object of framing, has become is cropped out of the picture. This is not the work of a "free press", this is marketing. I single out the Times only as a representative of what passes for our elite press. But is it really a news paper any more? It has mutated from free press to press release: sort of the same, but entirely different. And I pick on Nocera because he does understand and there remains some hope he may risk his position to state his views clearly when they might help. 

Lord knows there is a news worthy world of man made tragedy out there to report, but its tragedy to which our rich, and their agents at such institutions, are perfectly willing to let the rest of us succumb to so long as it preserves the profit flows of the now Royal financial services industry: finance can not commit a crime because when it does, by divine right, its not a crime. How else do we account for the embarrassment of riches amongst those who directly caused the financial crisis, the circumscription of all government retribution to "civil" charges that hold no one personally to account (except for the half dozen tokens like Steve Cohen currently under threat, but a piker compared to the major bank CEOs)? Of the fines that amount to maybe a month's profits at worst, even these are paid by shareholders rather than the executives so richly rewarded for their frauds, now completely insulated. This would indeed be news if there existed a real journalism interested in selling salient information to readers rather than advertising to corporate account managers. And such information, if distributed, is quite actionable. That it is quarantined is as clear a statement of what our news papers have become as can be made.

That the oceans are dying, that there is a garbage island about to wash ashore in California the size of Texas, that jelly fish are regaining eco-system dominance simply doesn't warrant prominent coverage because such information doesn't suit an adequately large bottom line somewhere. That our current economic system threatens to starve us and our children to death, maybe quite soon, is not news worthy in precisely one way: those who pay for the news don't want us to pay attention, they profit by the debasement of our shared habitat and expect we will shield them from the debasement from which they profit, with our lives if necessary, cheap to them. When stories like these get so big the framing mechanism can't crop them out, those who profit see to it the story is clouded by manufactured controversy, like that tobacco is not harmful and no one can prove that it is, that global warming is a hoax, or not man made, or a blessing in disguise. Estrogen mimicking compounds and fracking promise to permanently poison our human habitat for generations if not Millennia, but there is no obvious income in reporting it, while in fact exposure of either would pose an immediate threat to advertising revenue. So long as the only institution with the scale and muscle to resist the individuals who benefit from these corporate depredations remains in their pay, government, the only social force with such potential reach and power, is a tyranny of "public relations", supporting extractive messaging while devouring the very citizens that supposedly constitute its body.

What needs to be said will not be said by the "press". Look elsewhere and look past the frame. See things for what they are and people for what they do, because this is the only socially salient indicator of who they really are. Look for chances to take to make things better: take them. But most importantly, watch those around you and when you see them taking chances help, encourage them, engage. Samizdat by definition can not be institutionalized, but when institutions are systemically corrupt this becomes a virtue. Corruption is inevitable, but it is not eternal. While there are always evil people, they do not always dominate the public institutions of civilization as they do now. And those institutions do not need to collapse to be rid of the predators who distort their meaning and function. Pay attention, speak up and act when you can. And again, most importantly support others when they do. It is only when we believe we can mostly trust each other that as a group we can identify and constrain those we can't. So long as they keep us fearing one another, they keep corrupt control.

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