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Debtors’ Prison & Ye Austerity Plan

Outside a Debtors' Prison in England

Outside a Debtors' Prison in England

You’ve probably heard of debtors’ prison, a prison where people who hadn’t paid their debts could be kept under lock and key until they paid their debt or got somebody else to pay for them. It was a dreadful system. Charles Dickens, whose father was housed in a debtors’ prison for a while, wrote eloquently about it.

We had similar prisons in this country until around 1831 when the United States government abolished imprisonment for debts owed to the federal government, and most states soon dropped the practice too. To imprison somebody for failing to pay a debt is fundamentally crazy – OK, let’s say it’s just fundamentally counterproductive – because it deprives the debtor of the ability to earn the money to pay off his or her debts.

What brings debtors’ prisons to mind in these paragraphs is the way debtor nations are treated these days. It’s called austerity. It’s equally counterproductive – or, in a simpler word, crazy.

A good example of the craziness is what’s happening to Greece. Greece has got some big, bad debts and hasn’t got the money to pay them. Now the grand institutions that can loan Greece money aren’t throwing the nation into debtor’s prison. But they are demanding ball-and-chain austerity. They won’t loan Greece anymore money unless that nation continues to fire thousands of state workers, cut the wages of thousands and thousands of others, drastically reduce workers’ benefits and slash their pensions.  Of course, when you do that to a nation, the entire economy declines, more and more people loose their jobs or have to take dramatic pay cuts. That’s what’s happening in Greece today.

As every taxpayer knows, the way a nation gets money to pay its debts is by taxing its citizens, the ones who are actually making money. But when the economy sinks and people earn much less or nothing at all, the tax revenue plunges. In other words, as the institutions that loan money to Greece insist on these austerity programs, the Greeks are less and less able to pay off their debts.

Republicans, who haven’t shown a deep grasp of economics over the past 100 years, are eager to have the United States immediately “put its fiscal house in order” and “cut the deficit.” This means slashing government payrolls and cutting or eliminating government programs – except those for sacred national defense, of course. But because we have a Democrat in the White House and because Democrats control Senate, Republican suitors haven’t been able to completely have their way with the economy.

Interestingly, the conservatives did win big in England and they immediately imposed an austerity budget on their fellow subjects. They believe it’s imperative that England immediately “put its fiscal house in order” and “cut the deficit.” As a result, the country has slid down and backward economically. But England, despite its grim stagnation, isn’t in the desperate situation that Greece is in. Greece is in the new version of debtors’ prison.

 

 

The Big Six

Book heap

A Variety of Old Books by a Variety of Publishers

Most readers believe there are a variety of well established and independent book publishers in the United States. Certainly,  it would increase artistic and intellectual diversity if there were a lot of different publishers. Actually, there are only six.  While it’s true there are many very small publishing companies,  six big ones dominate the US and in the publishing industry they are known as The Big Six.

Readers often think that the “imprint” under which a book is published is the name of a thriving, independent publisher.  Alas, the imprint is usually the name of a vanished publishing house — a publishing house that was bought  up by an international corporation — and the name of the global corporation, which owns many such imprints,  may or may not appear anywhere in the book.

The names of The Big Six may be familiar to you as distinguished old publishing houses. They are Simon and Schuster, HarperCollins, Random House, Macmillan, The Penguin Group, and Hachette. Only two of The Big Six are US companies: Simon and Schuster, and HarperCollins. The others are foreign: two are German, one is British and the other is French.

Simon and Schuster, for example, was established in 1924 in New York City by a man named Richard Simon and another named “Max” Schuster and it was one of many such unique, stand-alone publishing houses. Now the name is owned by CBS Corporation which under the Simon and Schuster name publishes over two thousand different books a year. Those books come out under 35 different “imprints.” Those imprints are what most people believe are the names of separate and independent publishing companies — which they may have been long ago.

HarperCollins looks, from its name, as if it were simply two well-known publishing houses side by side, a nice Anglo-American merger. Harper was founded in New York City way back in 1817 by the brothers James and John Harper. They prospered and in 1962, the company then known as Harper & Brothers merged with Row, Peterson & Company, and became Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. After Harper & Row went on a buying spree and acquired the publishing houses of Crowell, and Lippincott and Zondervan and Scott, Foresman, the Harper company was itself bought by Rupert Murdoch’s gigantic conglomerate, News Corporation Limited. Eventually, the company acquired the old British publishing house William Collins & Sons which was founded in 1819 by William Collins. The distinguished old name Harper was typographically joined to the equally distinguished old name Collins to make HarperCollins, a huge subsidiary of News Corp, the largest media company in the world. (more…)

The Super Bowl and Socialism

Here’s a dazzling video which makes a true point about the Super Bowl, economics and US politics — and does it in almost no time flat. The text comes from the mind of Bill Maher and is typical of his social and economic insights, his unfettered speech, and his humor. Maher’s short essay was animated from the audio recording of  The New New Rules: A Funny Look at How Everybody but Me Has Their Head Up Their Ass. It was originally performed on “Real Time with Bill Maher.”

Bill Maher – Irritable Bowl Syndrome from Fraser Davidson on Vimeo.

Forget 1984, Think 2015

Security cameraYou’re probably aware that as you drive through the city certain cameras, often mounted overhead at cross streets, record your car’s plate number and, in many instances, they record your face as well. And as you or park in a parking garage or enter a shop, security cameras continue to photograph you. And maybe you’re aware that if you walk with your cell phone on, your location is being pinpointed to within fifteen feet.

Maybe, like most people, you do feel a little uncomfortable about being kept under watch, but you shrug it off because you’re just one individual in a city of thousands or millions and they can’t keep track of every single one of us all the time. I mean, sure, they have the technology to listen to our phone conversations and the technology to photograph us as we move around, but how can they store that ocean of information? Besides, the cost of storing so much data would break the bank.

And you’re right. At least for three more years. But you do remember George Orwell’s 1984 and Big Brother. Back in 1984, it cost about $85,000 to store a gigabyte of data. Today it costs about five cents. That means it costs about 17 cents to store all the phone calls made by an individual over the course of a year. But the cost of storage is falling and by 2015 it will cost under 2 cents.

Cameras produce photos and photos have lots of pixels and that means a security camera generates a mountain of data. On the other hand, your phone, GPS and Wi-Fi connection give away your location but that information requires comparatively few ones and zeros. The data identifying the location of each of a million people every five minutes, 24 hours a day for a year, can be stored in 1,000 gigabytes. That would cost around $50 today.

It costs more to store all those pixels from all those cameras, but governments can afford it. In China,  a government “safety” project will use around 500,000 video cameras to keep watch in the city of Chongqing which has a population of 12 million — that’s one video camera for every 24 people.  Right now, it’s expensive to store that much high-quality video and they’ll have to use lower quality images. But in a few years, say by 2020, they’ll be able to store a year’s worth of high-quality video movies of every one of those 12 million people for about 25 cents per person.

These numbers come from a very interesting report produced by John Villasenor, a nonresident senior fellow in Governance Studies and in the Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings. He is also professor of electrical engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles. You may want to read the full report ; you’ll find it well documented. Professor Villasenor’s report is phrased in terms of how much it would cost a repressive regime, such as that in Iran, to keep a close watch on each of its citizens. Fortunately, we live in an open society where such issues as government surveillance and individual privacy are vigorously debated. Or, maybe we should say, ought to be vigorously debated.

Was It Worth It?

Flag of the United StatesOn December 15, 2011, the United States formally ended military operations in Iraq. After almost nine years this nation was able to extricate itself from a war in which over 1.5 million American served, 30,000 were wounded, and 4,500 died. Of the Iraqi population, military and civilian, it’s estimated that over 100,000 died, and no one knows how many hundreds of thousands were wounded. As for the ultimate financial cost to the US, it’s been commonly estimated as around $1 trillion, and that’s the figure used by the New York Times.  Others believe that it’s complete cost is actually around $3 trillion. (Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize winner in economics, has calculated the cost — check it out, if you wish.)

The fantasy of a quick and easy war was confected by President George W. Bush and his Vice President Richard Cheney along with a group of civilian neo-conservatives who had never experienced combat, but who wanted to throw their ideological weight around. Inebriated by this country’s overwhelming military power, they had dreams of establishing a “beacon of freedom” which would magically lead other Middle Eastern countries to democracy and a commitment to free market economics.

The Iraqi military machine had been reduced to near impotence by our previous invasion and was no threat to us. Indeed, we controlled Iraq’s air space, flew missions over Iraq daily and destroyed any anti-aircraft facility that touched our aircraft with targeting radar. This was not a justifiable pre-emptive war — that’s when you strike before an immediately threatening enemy can strike at you. No, this was an optional war,  a phrase as horrible as it is bizarre.

Despite what our vice president told us, there was no dancing in Iraq’s streets when we overthrew that nation’s despotic regime, and Iraqis didn’t greet us as liberators. Nor did Iraq’s oil revenue pay for our war, as the vice president had promised. On the contrary, we kept on paying and paying and paying to rebuild the Iraq we had destroyed. Very soon we were regarded as occupiers. When we handed their country back to them on December 15 they didn’t say thank you. That was the same December 15 when we learned from our census bureau that half the people in the United States now live in poverty or are barely getting by on earnings that are classified as “low income.” All that blood and all that treasure — No, it wasn’t worth it.

College Salaries: The Income Gap

Medieval illustration of a university

A Medieval University

In our free-wheeling capitalistic country with its ambivalent attitude toward intellectual activity and it’s slogan that “The business of America is business,” college administrators have come to think of colleges as business enterprises.  In this debased view,  administrators are the managers, professors  are the subordinate workers, and graduates are the product.  Thus, efficiency is the use of fewer professors working at lower pay to turn out more graduates.

The trustees of these enterprises often have the same attitudes and values as the trustees  of  large business organizations.  They endorse the salaries and bonuses paid to their college presidents as necessary to retain such wonderful talent,  though the talent isn’t obvious.  But if a college or university is really just another money making corporation,  then we shouldn’t be surprised by the avarice of the people at the top.

In the past ten years the salary of private-college professors has increased 14 percent while the pay for their presidents has shot up 75 percent.  The distinguished Chronicle of Higher Education recently noted that there’s a widening income gap between professors and the presidents of the colleges where they teach. The most recent figures are from 2009. Presumably things have gotten even more out of whack, but here are a few outstanding examples from two years ago.

Charles H. Polk, president of Mountain State University, took home a glorious $1,843,746. Haven’t heard of Mountain State? Mr. Polk’s salary used up 3.5 percent of the college’s entire budget. His college’s intellectual standing is such that it may soon lose its accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.

The President of Rensselaer  Polytechnic Institute, Shirley Ann Jackson, was paid more than eleven times as much as her professors, a nifty $1,771,877.   And according to the Times Union of Albany, her college is in the hole for $806 million and has fallen to 50th in the U.S. News & World Report ranking of colleges.

Then there’s Kevin J. Manning, president of Stevenson University, with a handsome $1,493,655 compensation package. That’s over sixteen times what his professors were making.

Benjamin Ginsberg, author of The Fall of the Faculty,  recently pointed out  that “between 1997 and 2007, the number of administrative and support personnel per hundred students increased dramatically at most schools—103 percent at Williams College; 111 percent at Johns Hopkins; 325 percent at Wake Forest University; and 351 percent at Yeshiva University, to cite some noteworthy examples.”

So forget about collegiality and the life of the intellect.  These college leaders have entered the big corporation candy store and they’re greedy, greedy, greedy.  We’ve wandered a long way from the day when a graduate of Williams College said of it’s president, Mark Hopkins, “The ideal college is Mark Hopkins at one end of a log and a student at the other.”

A University Classroom in the 14th Century

The scene above is a Medieval depiction of a classroom in the 14th century.  Scan the young scholars sitting on the benches and you’ll see that student behaviour hasn’t changed much in six  or seven hundred years. That fellow at the far end of the second row is about to nod off and the poor guy in blue at this end of the third row has fallen asleep or has a wretched hangover. Further along the same bench you’ll find a couple of students chatting amiably and at the far end of the back row another couple are conferring quite oblivious to the Magister at the lectern.  Maybe the lecture is really dull. That’s possible. On the other hand, some of those students are paying rapt attention.  Our bet is that the guy in blue stayed up much to late last night,  drinking and singing Gaudeamus igitur, juvenes dum sumus.

Romney, Lies and Audio Tape

Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney

Romney has already launched his first television ad against the President and — good grief! As has been pointed out by Democrats and Independents and anyone who cares,  the ad distorts what Obama actually said. What’s even more astonishing, Romney’s Republican confederates agree it’s a lie. They say they want it that way.

The ad uses an audio of Obama campaigning in New Hampshire  in 2008, his voice saying, “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” In actual fact, in that 2008 speech it’s clear that Obama is quoting an aide to his opponent, Senator McCain. But in the 2011 ad, Romney makes the listener believe that it’s Obama who doesn’t want to discuss the economy.

Liar, liar! Pants on fire!Romney’s people distributed a press release admitting that the words are not Obama’s and Romney himself, in Des Moines, proudly told reporters, “There was no hidden effort on the part of our campaign. It was instead to point out that what’s sauce for the goose is now sauce for the gander,” By no hidden effort Romney apparently means that since his press release  admits the distortion, there’s no hidden effort to deceive.

Having attempted to fool the public once, with the deceptive ad, his campaign now tries to fool the public a second time by saying they’re not trying to deceive.

“It was instead to point out that what’s sauce for the goose is now sauce for the gander.”  That old expression is another way of saying that what’s fair for one person is fair for the other. How in the world does that apply here? Obama wasn’t putting words into McCain’s mouth. Romney is. His run for the presidency should be quite a spectacle

Cargo Cults and Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Wall Street in Portland

Probably the best known example of a cargo cult arose in New Guinea during World War II when the indigenous inhabitants, a pre-industrial society,  saw US military personal build landing fields and use radios to call in aircraft loaded with supplies. After the US left New Guinea, the locals built crude landing strips and make-believe radios and imitated the actions they had seen performed by the military, all in the vain hope that planes would arrive, bringing them what they wanted.

Cargo cults appear to be springing up everywhere these days. The locals get together in an open field, a park or other public space, and imitate in empty ritual the authentic acts that others have used to produce real results. But because they don’t actually understand the inner workings of what they believe they’re imitating, they don’t get anything at all.

No, we’re not being churlish or mean spirited.  But, yes, we’re referring to the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Sure, like Occupy Wall Street, we’d like to see the very rich pay their fair share of taxes. And, yes, we think the income distribution in this country is a disgrace. And, of course, we’d like to see our economic system change for the betterment of all of us. But nothing will be accomplished simply by an imitation of the non-violent protests by the “leaderless” young in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The United States isn’t the same as Egypt under Hosni Mubarak, nor is youth an explosive demographic in the US as it is in Egypt and the Middle East in general.

Occupy Wall Street has posted a “DETAILED LIST OF DEMANDS & OVERVIEW OF TACTICS FOR DC PROTEST.” Currently, the demands are being edited, so we’ll wait on that. But the tactics for the DC protest do not, on the face of it, have a chance of succeeding. It’s very hard to believe that peacefully blocking all entrances to the Capital building – that’s the tactic – will cause Congress to pass the legislation the movement demands.

OK, maybe we are getting churlish. We’ve been driven to it.

Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Wall Street poster

Occupy Wall Street poster

The Occupy Wall Street protest is now a month old and has collected $300,000. And at this point, with coordinated gatherings taking place not only in other cities across the United States, but also across the globe, we can leave off calling it a protest and begin to call it a movement.

Our conservative House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, famously said that he, for one, was “increasingly concerned about the growing mobs occupying Wall Street and the other cities across the country.” On the other hand, a recent Time magazine poll found that 54 percent of Americans held a favorable view of those mobs, while only 27 percent — that would be exactly half as many, right? —  held a favorable view of the Tea Party movement.

Occupy Wall Street is inclusive, so it’s no surprise that it includes some flakey people, such as those youngsters who want to experience the countercultural sentiments of the late 1960s and not much more. And, yes, Fox News found those hippy kids right away and was shocked and disgusted. Fox news’s Bill Schulz believes he discovered that people were having sexual intercourse in public, or, well, under a blanket in public, and, according to Schulz, many of the protestors hadn’t bathed in weeks and the smell of the place was, in his words, “equal parts patchouli, body odor, and urine.” Schulz had a little hissy fit on TV,  he was so, so, so  upset. Fox’s Sean Hannity interviewed a young woman who had taken off her shirt and was naked from the waist up. Wow! Apparently Hannity thought she was a good representative sample of the movement. If she was, then Wall Street, the upper 1 percent and Representative Cantor have nothing to be concerned about.

At this point, no one can say whether the Occupy Wall Street movement is going to change anything. (Yes, they’ve changed the name of Zuccotti Park to Freedom Park, but we suspect that won’t stick.) Probably the most thoughtful criticism of the movement is that it’s diffuse, that on the one hand it can’t actually represent the “99 percent” that it aspires to, because no movement can do that, but on the other hand it’s so broadly inclusive that it embraces contradictory aims. It often appears to be a movement with vague goals, no policies and, most damning,  no smarts.

But appearances can be deceiving. Despite the impression you my have received, the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York city is highly organized. And we don’t mean that they’ve merely learned to pick up their trash and bathe. The movement may not have official leaders, but it sure does have “groups” and “committees,” and those committees publish their minutes online and are clearly working toward their goals. This is a big organization and it’s growing. In addition to receiving donations of food and other supplies, it has an deepening stream of financial donations and, yes,  a way of keeping track of money. Exploring the movement’s informative web site  should do away with any notion that Occupy Wall Street is hapless, amateurish and incapable of developing into a political force. Quite the contrary. Occupy Wall Street

CEO and Average Worker Pay

Recently a chart appeared on Facebook  and elsewhere showing CEO pay compared to the pay of the average worker in different countries.CEO & Worker Pay If the figures you had seen before made you angry, this chart would have made your head explode. It listed CEO pay in the United States as  475 times greater than the pay of the average worker. Now the chart has gone viral; it appears all over the place and is cited as evidence of the radical unfairness of  our economic system.

We’re grumpy skeptics at Critical Pages.  We’re skeptical even when what we read confirms us in our grumpiness. The chart about CEO and average worker pay appeared to have no author. It had no dates or sources. It turns out we had reason to be skeptical.

PolitiFact, the online project of the St. Petersburg Times that seeks the facts behind statements by politicians, has completed a study of the US figures on the chart. It turns out that the numbers were produced by three graduate students some six years ago.  “So what we’re left with,” says PolitiFact, ” is an unsourced, undated chart with numbers that, at best, were only correct (approximately) in 1999 and 2000 according to one measure, and wrong according to a different measure.”  According to PolitiFact,  “The latest number for the U.S. is 185 to 1 in one study and 325 to 1 in another — and those numbers were not generated by groups that might have an ideological interest in downplaying the gaps between rich and poor.”

There’s no question that the ratio of the CEO’s pay to the pay of the average worker is shamefully large.  Such disparities of pay are bad for everyone and bad for the economic system itself. No need to exaggerate.

More Notes


Tim Carmody, in his excellent piece, "How Haiti Became Poor", notes that President Trump's racist policies and vulgar language have sullied the word "shithole" which used to be one of the all-time great swear words. He's right. It's another terrible power this careless President wields.