Sorry this is such a long essay, but so much has happened since the election (and so much still on the elite's upcoming Congressional agenda!) . . . It could take a while.
Welcome to my neighborhood. (OK, I grew up with these bodies.)
Sunday, Jan 4, 2015Hope he said "Hi!" to Mac's staff.
Chain Restaurants Are Killing Us: Billionaire Bankers, Minimum-Wage Oilers and the Nasty Truth About Fast-Food Nation
This is what we eat, this is where we work, this is what we do to our land: It's nasty and must be rethought.Thomas Frank
(Credit: AP/Richard Drew)
Let me tell you about this one stretch of Hillsborough Road in Durham, North Carolina. It’s between two freeways, just a short drive from the noble towers of Duke University, and in the space of about a mile, you will find a McDonald’s, a Cracker Barrel, a Wendy’s, a Chick-fil-A, an Arby’s, a Waffle House, a Bojangles’, a Biscuitville, a Subway, a Taco Bell, and a KFC.
As you walk down this roaring thoroughfare, you’ll notice that the ground is littered with napkins and bright yellow paper cups. But then again, you aren’t really supposed to be walking along this portion of Hillsborough Road and noticing things like those cups, or that abandoned concrete pedestal for some vanished logo, or the empty Aristocrat Vodka bottle hidden behind that broken Motel 6 sign.
This is a landscape meant to be viewed through a windshield and with the stereo turned up. In fact, drivers here sometimes seem bewildered by the very presence of pedestrians, which may be the reason I was almost run down twice.
But it wasn’t a car that struck me on Hillsborough Road, it was a vision: a spontaneous understanding of fast-food efficiency. I was gazing on a simple yellow structure that contained the workings of a Waffle House when it came to me — the meaning of this whole panorama of chain restaurants.
The modular construction, the application of assembly-line techniques to food service, the twin-basket fryers and bulk condiment dispensers, even the clever plastic lids on the coffee cups, with their fold-back sip tabs: these were all triumphs of human ingenuity. You had to admire them. And yet that intense, concentrated efficiency also demanded a fantastic wastefulness elsewhere — of fuel, of air-conditioning, of land, of landfill. Inside the box was a masterpiece of industrial engineering; outside the box were things and people that existed merely to be used up.
I tried to imagine the great national efforts that had made such lunatic efficiency possible. There were the agricultural subsidies and the irrigation projects and the many highway-construction programs, not to mention the mass media, without which our greatest brands could probably never have been built. Had all these mighty enterprises been undertaken simply to create the amazing but utterly typical landscape of Hillsborough Road? To ensure that certain parties might make tons of money while others made almost nothing at all?
I was in Durham on August 29 of 2013 to observe something unusual in this particular industry: a strike. What made it especially unusual is that it was happening in North Carolina, which is both hostile to unions and — as the birthplace of Hardee’s, Bojangles’, and Krispy Kreme — a kind of fast-food Athens.
The action began at a Burger King, a lonely-looking outpost holding down one corner of a bleak intersection. A handful of workers and their supporters gathered there at six in the morning, forming their line on the sidewalk even before the sun rose. After some preliminary small talk, they stirred themselves into action and began to chant: “Workers’ rights are human rights!” Mustering enthusiasm wasn’t easy at that hour, however, and the chant didn’t take. They tried another, and eventually got themselves pumped up: “We can’t survive on seven twenty-five!”
TV news crews soon showed up, as did two police cruisers. A single silhouetted customer sat by the window inside the beleaguered BK and contemplated the scene. As rush hour began, passing drivers honked to show their support.
Later that morning, the protest moved to a McDonald’s in down-town Durham, then to a Little Caesars located in a strip mall on a busy eight-lane road in Raleigh. The strikers, whose numbers had grown, stood by the curb and waved their signs at motorists while their children played in the mulch under the tiny suburban trees behind them. Drivers of semitrailer trucks blew their horns in solidarity; drivers of pickup trucks yelled insults.
The last stop of the day was a Raleigh KFC. It was nearly four in the afternoon by then, and it was plenty hot. The protesters, now numbering around 150, had rallied at a nearby Baptist church before heading over to vent their displeasure at the Colonel’s jolly empire. And this time they were accompanied by the Reverend William Barber II, leader of North Carolina’s NAACP chapter and the organizer of weekly protests against the far-right state legislature that had led, by that point, to nearly a thousand arrests.
A big man with a slight arthritic stoop, Barber worked the crowd in a resonant bass voice. Standing on the lawn in front of the KFC, he sketched out the basic moral framework of the protest — that no matter how many hours fast-food employees work, they’ll never get anywhere at minimum wage. What they wanted, Barber declared, was the right to enjoy “the fruit of their own labor,” a line he quoted from the state’s Reconstruction-era constitution. And then he lowered the boom. “I stopped by to tell you that the fruit is spoiled. The fruit is spoiled when you can work in Kentucky Fried Chicken and can’t hardly buy the chicken that’s there. The fruit is spoiled when you can work and feed other people and can’t hardly feed your own children.”
It was a day of revolt against the batter-fried god Efficiency and his eleven esoteric herbs and spices, and an air of jubilation hovered over the protesters as they made their way down Tarboro Street back to the church. Residents of the tiny houses along the route stood in their doorways and cheered as the workers passed. And the strikers themselves, back in the church parking lot and filled with the joy of collective action, began to dance.
There have been countless news stories on the national wave of fast-food strikes, but what I saw that day in North Carolina wasn’t exactly a strike in the traditional sense of the word. In several other cities, cashiers and fry cooks walked off the job in sufficient numbers to close restaurants down. That didn’t happen in Raleigh-Durham. What I saw that day in 2013 was more protest than work stoppage, and the most visible organization at the rallies was not a union but a community-organizing outfit called Action NC. Very few people, if any, were actually skipping their shifts.
Not surprisingly, then, the workers I met seemed a little unfamiliar with the customary rules of labor agitation. One protester wore a stylish black dress and high heels — as she told me, she hadn’t anticipated how physically demanding picketing could be. The protesters made little effort to dissuade customers from entering the restaurants, and as the day got hotter, some went inside themselves to order cold drinks. Several of the people I interviewed also seemed to assume that they needn’t fear retaliation by management. These were all innocent mistakes, of course — and the kind of confusion you would expect to see in the least unionized state in the Union.
Their grievances, however, were the real thing. Willietta Dukes, dressed in dark clothes and with a crucifix on a cord around her neck, told me about her job at a local burger franchise. She is, to judge by her story, an employee who cares about the restaurant, about keeping it shipshape and getting to know regular customers. But after working for various fast-food franchises for sixteen years and raising two children on minimal pay, she’s now living in her grown son’s spare room and barely staying afloat.
By contrast, Dukes says, managers in the industry boast about the bonuses they receive, and one has even shared a favorite stress-reduction technique: every day he goes home and climbs into his hot tub. “I don’t even have a home to go to!” Dukes tells me. And though her employers are tightfisted with wages, Dukes says she received a form letter warning her about the dangers of labor unions — sent by FedEx.
Lucia Garcia, who had brought her cheerful six-year-old son to the picket line, told me about working at a suburban McDonald’s, where she has the relative good luck to be paid $7.95 per hour — seventy cents above the minimum wage. But despite this munificence, and the fact that her husband works as well, she and her family have been forced to rely on church food pantries to get by, an ironic state of affairs for someone who works in food service, and an emotionally difficult one as well. “It’s sad for me,” Garcia said, “because sometimes it embarrasses my girls.”
Now, everyone knows how poorly fast-food jobs pay. They also know why this is supposed to be okay: fast-food workers are teenagers, they don’t have kids or college degrees, and it’s an entry-level job. Hell, it’s virtually a form of national service, the economic boot camp that has replaced the two years our fathers had to give to the armed forces.
Every one of these soothing shibboleths was contradicted by what I saw in North Carolina. These days, fast-food workers are often adults, they often do have children, and I met at least one college grad among the protesters in Raleigh. Why are things like this? Because a job is a job, and in times as lean as ours, the Golden Arches may be the only game in town, regardless of qualifications and degrees.
What people who repeat these things also don’t know is how much effort has gone into keeping fast-food pay so low, despite the enormous profits raked in by the chains. In fact, the conditions of employment have been engineered almost as carefully as the brands and the burgers — engineered to achieve the complete interchangeability of workers.
In his classic Fast Food Nation (2001), Eric Schlosser describes the industry’s manic pursuit of standardization. The food arrives at the restaurant mostly frozen; the machines that do the cooking are foolproof; virtually no skills are required. “Jobs that have been ‘de-skilled’ can be filled cheaply,” writes Schlosser. “The need to retain any individual worker is greatly reduced by the ease with which he or she can be replaced.”
Indeed, these are not really restaurants at all but “food systems,” a term favored by the companies themselves. And naturally these systematizers are militantly anti-union. Schlosser tells of a “flying squad” of McDonald’s executives who roamed the country during the 1960s and 1970s, stamping out pro-labor sentiment.
The National Restaurant Association, for its part, was a leading opponent of the federal “card check” legislation in 2009, which would have made it easier to form unions, and the industry also supports such private-sector propagandists as Rick Berman, a gifted translator of biz-think into the common sense of the millions.
By and large, Americans love the men who systematized their food. Our culture is awash with celebrations of the heroes who plucked pearls of efficiency from the grease traps of the nation. Think: the brave entrepreneurs who pioneered the fifteen-cent hamburger. The brave entrepreneurs who gave the fifteen-cent hamburger people a little competition. The brave entrepreneurs who brought fake Mexican food to the heartland, or who figured out a quicker way to bake a pizza or fluff a biscuit or “build” a submarine sandwich. They publish their memoirs. They are saluted by presidential candidates. They run for president themselves.
And then there is the army of slightly less heroic entrepreneurs known as franchisees, people who harness their ambition to a brand and a food system developed by someone else. They may not be Wilber Hardee or Harland Sanders, but they are still risk-taking individualists, tirelessly pushing some cupcake concept or dedicating their lives to the advancement of Hawaiian-style smoothies.
We love them too. They are our “neighbors,” as an angry commentator on Fox News put it during a segment on the fast-food strike; they are people, said another, who “worked their rear ends off all their life, put up their own risk capital.”
These myths are powerful stuff. They were reiterated by Mitt Romney in 2012, when he extolled the “entrepreneurial spirit” of Jim Liautaud, the founder of Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches. People like Liautaud “don’t look to governments,” the candidate insisted, in a campaign speech in suburban Chicago. “They instead look to themselves and say: What can I do to make myself better? What things can I do to enhance the prospects for myself and my family?”
But while these practitioners of self-improvement through food systems may not “look to governments,” government sure does look out for them. I refer not only to roads and sewers and small-business loans but also to something much more direct.
As I discovered in North Carolina, many if not most fast-food workers receive food stamps or some other form of government assistance. When they say, “We can’t survive on seven twenty-five!” they mean it quite literally — they can’t survive on the minimum wage, and neither can you, if you are trying to “enhance the prospects” of your family by feeding them. So government steps in and graciously makes up the difference with our tax dollars, thereby excusing management from paying workers enough to keep them and their families, you know, alive.
It’s an honest living,” Willietta Dukes told me the day of the action in North Carolina, by way of explaining why she should be paid more. “I’m a hard worker.”
These were direct statements, made without guile. But despite the legend of the scrappy fast-food entrepreneur, I wonder how many chain-store bosses can truthfully say they make an “honest living.” The managers at the restaurants in Raleigh-Durham declined to talk to me, so it’s difficult to form any kind of judgment about them as individuals.
The fast-food companies themselves, however, are well-known entities. Vast corporations making vast profits, they deal in often unhealthy food and pay their leading executives princely sums. And increasingly, they are the property of the same hard-working bankers who brought you the economic slump that never ends.
Consider Burger King, which (let the shameful record show) I once preferred to certain other ubiquitous burger joints. Today the chain is little more than a shuttlecock for private equity.
Acquired in 1997 by Diageo, the liquor multinational, it was sold in 2002 to a consortium of financial institutions — including, of course, Goldman Sachs and Bain Capital — which took the company public in 2006.
It was next acquired by the Brazilian-backed investment firm 3G Capital, then merged with yet another private-equity outfit, only to be taken public again last year. Along the way, this pointless enterprise duly fumbled its position as the Number Two American burger chain. A long and painful fight with employees can only do it good.
Similar stories are everywhere you care to look. Bojangles’, the fried-chicken chain, used to be owned by Falfurrias Capital Partners, which eventually off-loaded it to a private-equity firm called Advent International.
Sun Capital Partners owns Friendly’s, Captain D’s, Johnny Rockets, and Boston Market. Fog Cutter Capital Group owns Fatburger. Consumer Capital Partners owns Smashburger. And then there is Roark Capital — yes, named after Ayn Rand’s individualist architect — which owns Arby’s, Cinnabon, Carvel, and Moe’s Southwest Grill.
Even the franchisees, the moms and pops who run your beloved local chain restaurant, aren’t that mom-and-poppy anymore. Here too the Wall Street folks have seen a good thing — a reliable source of revenue made possible by rock-bottom wages.
The largest Burger King franchisee, for example, is a publicly traded company in Syracuse, New York, that owns 566 local restaurants; its CEO took home $1.9 million in 2012, counting stock options. Another big BK operator is Strategic Restaurants, which is owned by Cerberus Capital.
The largest tranche of Pizza Hut franchises is owned by something called Olympus Growth Fund V, which bought it in 2011 from Merrill Lynch Global Private Equity. And let us not overlook the doughty folks at Valor Equity, which owns a string of Little Caesars and Dunkin’ Donuts locations through its Utah subsidiary, Sizzling Platter.
At both the corporate and the franchise level, industry officials are keeping their mouths shut about the strike, and for obvious reasons. Acknowledging worker discontent is a no-win situation for enterprises that have invested so much in depicting themselves as enclaves of family-friendly happiness.
I mean, nothing deflates a carefully constructed brand image like an angry worker standing out front screaming about not being able to vaccinate her six-month-old on said brand’s lousy pay.
However, the industry’s D.C. attack dog, Rick Berman, felt no such compunction, and commenced snarling immediately. On the day of the strike in August 2013, his Employment Policies Institute ran a full-page advertisement in the "Wall Street Journal" featuring a big photo of a Japanese kitchen robot.
The fast-food protests “aren’t a battle against management,” the ad proclaimed, but a “battle against technology.” Should workers push too hard for super-size wages, shiny automatons might well be deployed in restaurants across the country, making you-know-who totally redundant.
The ad’s implication was that companies employ humans as an act of charity. If those ingrate humans mouth off too much, those noble companies will just go ahead and take the bottom-line steps they’ve magnanimously refrained from taking until now. “Hard work” and an “honest living” actually mean nothing in this world; capital means everything. Look on my technology, ye powerless, and despair!
I thought about that nightmare of automation for quite a while after Berman’s ad ran. It has a grain of truth to it, of course. Journalists have been replaced with bloggers and crowdsourcing. Factory hands have been replaced with robots. University professors are being replaced with adjuncts and MOOCs. What else might the god Efficiency choose to de-skill?
Here’s a suggestion: the ideological carnival barkers in D.C. As I watched the creaking libertarian apparatus go into action, sending its suit-and-tie spokesmen before the cameras to denounce unions and order fast-food workers to shut up, I wondered how long capital would tolerate its old-fashioned existence.
In many cases, these people haven’t had an original thought in years. Their main job is to appear concerned on Fox News and collect a six-figure sinecure at some industry-subsidized think tank. To say that they “work hard” for an “honest living” is to bend meaning to the point where its fragile chicken bones snap beneath its rubbery flesh.
In a sane world, they are the ones who would be most profitably replaced, their space in the CNBC octobox taken by Hatsune Miku–style projections, attractive Republican holograms whose free-market patter could be easily cued up by a back-office worker in Bangalore.
Boddie-Noell Enterprises is one of the great fast-food success stories in North Carolina. It was among the first to open a franchise of Hardee’s, a restaurant selling cheap hamburgers after the McDonald’s model, and over the years Boddie-Noell grew to become the biggest Hardee’s franchisee of them all. The company has not been purchased by some faceless private-equity firm, and it is not the sort of outfit that would ever run advertisements threatening to replace its workers with robots.
On the contrary, it is a family-owned business whose slogan is “We Believe in People.” Boddie-Noell feels such concern for its people that the company claims to have a phalanx of “Corporate Chaplains” on call, ready to “offer care to employees with personal and professional life issues.”
Boddie-Noell Enterprises also owns a plantation. In saying this, I am not making a snarky comment about the conditions of fast-food employment. I mean a real plantation outside the town of Nashville, North Carolina, named Rose Hill. Its main house was completed in the 1790s by the ancestors of the Boddie family, and its ups and downs over the decades roughly parallel the vicissitudes of American capitalism itself.
The Boddies lost Rose Hill in the depths of the Depression, that dreadful era for the One Percent, but were able to buy it back in 1979, as their archipelago of cheap hamburger stands grew. Yes, their antebellum paradise was regained through the miraculous intercession of fast-food efficiency, and now the family has converted Rose Hill into a conference center and a favorite venue for elegant plantation-style weddings.
The day after the strike, I drove out to Rose Hill. It was indeed impressive. I approached the plantation by an allée of crêpe-myrtle trees in full flower, and passed through an imposing brick-and-iron gateway bearing the Boddie coat of arms (which does not feature a hamburger couchant on a field of honey-mustard dipping sauce). I drove on, was waved at by a man mowing a lawn, and finally reached the main building, where I had the beautifully landscaped parking area all to myself.
The manor house certainly looked authentic — white and stately, the ceiling of the grandiose, four-columned front porch painted exactly the right shade of blue. I rang the doorbell: nothing. I gazed out over the attractive swimming pool: nobody. With the exception of the man on the mower, Rose Hill seemed completely depopulated.
I have no doubt that this place swarms with people when conferences are in session or weddings in progress. But seeing it empty in this way triggered another epiphany, a vision of a world in which workers and their troubles had completely disappeared.
Yes, they will persist as smiling faces in company newsletters. Yet the day will come when technology and ideology make them absolutely interchangeable, each bearing a silver tray loaded with deep-fried hors d’oeuvres: a support staff for the entrepreneurial schemes and romantic fantasies of the ones who can still afford individuality.
(Thomas Frank is a Salon politics and culture columnist. His many books include What's The Matter With Kansas, Pity the Billionaire and One Market Under God. He is the founding editor of "The Baffler" magazine.)
More Thomas Frank.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _
Don't you just love how the radical conservatives (no, not really conservative - at least of anything other than their personal wealth) just love to rail against the lower classes whom they believe to be living off the rest of the population (them, mainly)?
Almost like the people on the bottom getting the 80% of the profits since the crash that the corporations and rich on the top actually got, isn't it?
Some believe the central political issue of our era is the size of the government. They’re wrong. The central issue is whom the government is for.
Consider the new spending bill Congress and the President agreed to a few weeks ago.
It’s not especially large by historic standards. Under the $1.1 trillion measure, government spending doesn’t rise as a percent of the total economy. In fact, if the economy grows as expected, government spending will actually shrink over the next year.
The problem with the legislation is who gets the goodies and who’s stuck with the tab.
For example, it repeals part of the Dodd-Frank Act designed to stop Wall Street from using other peoples’ money to support its gambling addiction, as the Street did before the near-meltdown of 2008.
Dodd-Frank had barred banks from using commercial deposits that belong to you and me and other people, and which are insured by the government, to make the kind of risky bets that got the Street into trouble and forced taxpayers to bail it out.
But Dodd-Frank put a crimp on Wall Street’s profits. So the Street’s lobbyists have been pushing to roll it back.
The new legislation, incorporating language drafted by lobbyists for Wall Street’s biggest bank, Citigroup, does just this.
It reopens the casino. This increases the likelihood you and I and other taxpayers will once again be left holding the bag.
Wall Street isn’t the only big winner from the new legislation. Health insurance companies get to keep their special tax breaks. Tourist destinations like Las Vegas get their travel promotion subsidies.
In a victory for food companies, the legislation even makes federally subsidized school lunches less healthy by allowing companies that provide them to include fewer whole grains. This boosts their profits because junkier food is less expensive to make.
Major defense contractors also win big. They get tens of billions of dollars for the new warplanes, missiles, and submarines they’ve been lobbying for.
Conservatives like to portray government as a welfare machine doling out benefits to the poor, some of whom are too lazy to work.
In reality, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, only about 12 percent of federal spending goes to individuals and families, most of whom are in dire need.
An increasing portion goes to corporate welfare.
In addition to the provisions in the recent spending bill that reward Wall Street, health insurers, the travel industry, food companies, and defense contractors, other corporate goodies have been long baked into the federal budget.
Big agribusiness gets price supports. Hedge-fund and private-equity managers get their own special “carried-interest” tax loophole. The oil and gas industry gets its special tax subsidies.
Big Pharma gets a particularly big benefit: a prohibition on government using its vast bargaining power under Medicare and Medicaid to negotiate low drug prices.
Why are politicians doing so much for corporate executives and Wall Street insiders? Follow the money. It’s because they’re flooding Washington with money as never before, financing an increasing portion of politicians’ campaigns.
Do you like getting credit for America's actions abroad?
Wait, why wouldn't you/we?
Are we really that fearless?
Why is America in decline and just how far and fast is this going to go?
Cheerful New Year tidings to all, of course.
Anyone who thinks of America and its place in the world clearly and honestly understands, with no shred of doubt after the destructive year gone by, that this nation is now well into its late-imperial phase. As history instructs us, two signs of an imperial power’s decline at this point in its story are blindness and deafness: It gives up all capacity to see the world as it is and takes no interest in what those dwelling in it have to say. Clear sight and open ears are unbearable, for both bring news that history’s wheel is turning and an era of primacy is passing into the past.
This is where we are as 2014 ends. It is not, I add instantly, where we have to be, only where we happen to be, where we have been led and find ourselves as we look to the year ahead.
A few years ago the words “decline” and “declinist” were much in debate. A declinist was not something a good American was supposed to be. The obfuscating chatterers on the opinion pages and in the magazines could hold these terms up for criticism because there was — apparently, not evidently enough ground to stand on and dismiss the declinist’s point. Recall all this?
Now no one talks about decline, if you have not noticed — not because the triumphalists have won the argument but precisely because they have lost it. In the best American tradition, the topic falls away: It grows ever more obvious now that our leaders have put themselves and us on the road to decline.
If I can impose on your time a few extra seconds, please read that last sentence carefully once again. Two things in it we need to talk about now: “Our leaders,” as opposed to us, we the led. “Chosen,” said leaders having made choices and not simply accommodated the inevitable. To have a choice, by definition, means to have an alternative.
Many readers have questioned use of the term “we” in these columns over the past year. “Who is this ‘we’ doing this or that in Ukraine, Syria, across the Pacific or wherever?” they ask. They are right to do so, but only half right in refusing responsibility for America’s conduct abroad.
It has long been true that this nation’s foreign policy cliques think and act — often the latter while skipping the former — independently of any electorate. But the sharpening of this contradiction is among the significant realities to come to the fore in 2014. We are back in the pre-crisis years of the Vietnam period, in my estimation. A lot goes on people do not like.
I am not a declinist, as noted often in this space. Neither are many readers, if the interactivity and the Twitter accounts are any guide. I see nothing of myself reflected in either the objectives or the execution of American policy, not anywhere on the planet. Possible exceptions include the administration’s opening to Cuba and its “skin in the game” response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa.
O.K., policy may be made by a sequestered elite and not in our image, but it is nonetheless our responsibility. The goals and strategy are shaped in our names. We pay for the drones. This is why all my “we’s” have to stand.
The column has instructed the columnist in too many ways to count this past year, mostly because of the place readers have generously given it in their conversation. The thought has come home: One of the very largest boulders in the way of a re-imagined place for Americans among others is the failure of the political system.
This failure is now complete. At present there is no avenue open to meaningful expression of popular preferences on the foreign policy side. The conclusion is obvious: Better policy abroad requires better political arrangements at home. This is among our responsibilities, too.
To put this point another way, I see malign intent among the policy people, the military command and the national security “folks,” as Obama memorably referred to the NSA crowd when Edward Snowden was opening the lid on their Strangelovian doings. (Always be careful when this president uses the folksy “folks,” for he is usually trying to put something objectionable over on you. I loved “We tortured some folks.”)
That is at the top. Below I see an accumulating swell of opinion in search of a voice — a voice to insist that there are alternative ways for Americans to go at the 21st century. As noted a while ago, this column is less about policy per se than the broader topic of Americans among others. In this connection, more and more of us understand that there are choices before us and we can — incredible as the thought may seem — make the right ones, the constructive ones.
Step 1: Recognize that these choices are there to be explored. Forget anyone touting TINA, the neoliberal mantra, “there is no alternative.”
Step 2: Start on all the obvious things arising out of Step 1.
In my read, we are at work on Step 1. This is why I am not a declinist even as there is no mileage in denying the road to decline we now travel.
Error and failure among our leaders, a gathering resolve in the name of humane good sense among the led. This is among my 2014 recognitions. The exception here is Pope Francis. Rome has very oddly elected a Latin American social democrat to the chair of St. Peter, and in consequence a notable man has emerged among the world’s leaders.
In the late-imperial phase, I find, optimism and pessimism seem to change places. This, too, is a pronounced feature of our moment.
On one hand, you have elites and their messengers in the media who incessantly insist that the course is right and all we have to do is stay it. The task is not to renovate anything but to remain faithful to the cult of the founding fathers. We cannot risk change or lose our nerve, for without us the world would fall into chaos.
This is advertised as optimism but is profoundly pessimistic on the very face of it. The working assumption is that we must always act out of belief, for to venture into thought is beyond our capacities. We did our thinking in the eighteenth century.
So you get, from the euphemism creators — Is there an office in Washington that cranks these out? — things like Operation Inherent Resolve, the bombing campaign against ISIS. The moniker tells us only that the Pentagon is going to keep this stuff going no matter how counterproductive it is.
Think about it: These are the optimists. In this crowd it is always TINA. On consideration the optimists turn out to be a frightened lot — frightened mostly of change and anything new.
On the other hand, there are those who insist that we Americans can do better, far, far better, and that we are capable of re-imagining our place in the community of nations — to everyone else’s benefit but also our own. We should think this through, the line goes, as our predicament belongs to us, not anyone of a previous time. We understand the past and the old beliefs but are not history’s prisoners.
To think anew is a necessity given the vast transformations the world has entered upon — rising aspirations everywhere, new poles of power, the limits of violent resolution now obvious. If we do this it will look like decline only to those too wanting in spirit to understand that we are what we choose to make of ourselves.
Think again: These are the pessimists, gutless wretches one and all. These are the nattering nabobs of negativism, the hysterical hypochondriacs of history. (And I have dreamed for years of my chance to deploy the phrases Bill Safire put into the immortal Spiro Agnew’s mouth.)
During my days as a correspondent I learned to distinguish between strong nations and the merely powerful. A good social fabric and a clear idea of purpose and limits make a nation strong. Think, say, of the Finns or the Norwegians. Or the Koreans, maybe. Germany has aspects of strength. Strength is endogenous, arising from within.
Powerful nations rely on military budgets and economic leverage. The powerful tend not to respect limits and their purpose is often a blur. Attaining and then maintaining power will shred the social fabric. Power is exogenous, like a brittle shell.
Let’s see, then. Germany, again, is powerful in some respects. China is getting there. And you know where we are headed from here.
America’s single greatest vulnerability now is its overweening power. It is because of it that the nation goes blind and deaf.
The torn social fabric, a tragedy in itself, is directly related to the position the fear-ridden leadership insists on claiming abroad. If anyone can state clearly what this nation is doing in the world without indulging in hollowed-out mythology and Disneyesque fairly tales, do step forward. We all want to hear the plan.
When the superpower has to telephone allies to assure them it will not torture their citizens, when it has to fend off prosecution in international courts for its criminal conduct, when it comes down to depending on everyone else’s fear of retribution to get things done, well, the superpower has reached a bad place.
Among the aspects of our time that continues to astonish is the speed with which events unfold. Maybe nothing that happened in the year now concluding is new — one of our calamities, indeed, is that we have done it all before — but the chaos American policy causes spreads ever more quickly. In the confrontation with Russia, for instance, we have come to the edge of real disaster in a matter of months: There could be war; sooner, there could be an economic crash.
Something else comes at us far faster than would have been guessed even a few years ago. This is the matter of lost opportunity. In its pursuit of chaos, America harms itself as well as others. We are losing out in the world as it now evolves. The example here, noted in previous columns, is the formation of new economic and diplomatic partnerships. South-South and East-East ties proliferate in part because Washington makes South-North and East-West ever less appealing.
It has proven impossible to write about foreign affairs this year without becoming something of a media critic. The logic here should be evident. Few would argue that the American press has performed well on the foreign side since the earliest days of the Cold War. But the deterioration of overseas coverage is something else that has accelerated markedly this year.
I see two reasons for this, and they meet at the horizon.
One, as the late-imperial leadership acts ever more desperately, the long- unhealthy closeness of media to power leaves the former holding the bag. I cannot imagine there are not correspondents feeling betrayed as they are charged with reproducing untenable accounts of events and with leaving so much of the story out.
It is bad out there in medialand, and this is perilous. One understands that journalists have families, mortgages, consumer desires and so on, but I have no sympathy for those tolerating the worst excesses and corruptions.
Two, media have emerged this year as an instrument of aggression. “The information age is actually a media age,” John Pilger, the noted English journalist, said in a remarkable speech delivered in London earlier this month. “We have war by media, censorship by media, demonology by media, retribution by media, diversion by media — a surreal assembly line of obedient clichés and false assumptions.”
Taking this to the specific, Pilger had this to say on the Ukraine crisis, which has done much to worsen the crisis in the media:
The suppression of the truth about Ukraine is one of the most complete news blackouts I can remember. The biggest Western military build-up in the Caucasus and Eastern Europe since World War II is blacked out. Washington’s secret aid to Kiev and its neo-Nazi brigades responsible for war crimes against the population of eastern Ukraine is blacked out. Evidence that contradicts propaganda that Russia was responsible for the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner is blacked out.
Back in the 1960s, the late and great Herbert Marcuse described ours as “a society without opposition.” In such a society, as he put it, we find “a paralysis of criticism,” which is the fault of a very unprincipled press. “Under these conditions,” he wrote, “our mass media have little difficulty in selling particular interests as those of all sensible men.”
My buddy at Down With Tyranny fills us in on what's really been being done to us by the powers-that-pretend-not-to-be in-charge.
During the election, we talked a bit about how the CIA and other spy agencies worked hard to insert their own operatives into Congress as members, with the object of getting control over oversight of their own agencies. There were some successes (William Hurd in Texas) and some failures (Kevin Strouse and Bobby McKenzie) but electing Members of Congress isn't the only way the National Security State can keep control of their shit. This week, investigative journalist Lee Fang, writing for Republic Report, exposed another: high-paid lobbyists being hired by Intelligence shills to run the oversight committees. How about... Blackwater in charge?After lobbyist-run SuperPACs and big money efforts dominated the last election, legislators are now appointing lobbyists to literally manage the day-to-day affairs of Congress. For the House Intelligence Committee, which oversees government intelligence operations and agencies, the changing of the guard means a lobbyist for Academi, the defense contractor formerly known as Blackwater, is now in charge.Essential reading: the comment below on Shockley's background as a longtime crooked Beltway insider going back to when Jerry Lewis was the most corrupt man in Washington and Shockley was one of his top bagmen.
Congressman Devin Nunes (R-CA), the incoming chairman of the Intelligence Committee when the House reconvenes in January, announced that Jeff Shockey will be the new Staff Director of the committee. As a paid representative of Academi, Shockey and his firm have earned $80,000 this year peddling influence on behalf of Academi.
In previous years, the House Intelligence Committee has investigated Blackwater over secret contracts with the Central Intelligence Agency. Now, the shoe is on the other foot. As Staff Director, the highest position on a committee for a staff member, Shockey will oversee the agencies that do business with his former employer.
Shockey also represents a number of other companies with business before defense agencies: General Dynamics, Koch Industries, Northrop Grumman, United Launch Alliance, Innovative Defense Technologies and Boeing.
The role reversal, for lobbyists to take brief stints in Congress after an election, has become a normalized. In a previous investigation for "The Nation," we found that some corporate firms offer employment contracts with special bonuses for their staff to return to government jobs, ensuring the paycut they receive for passing through the revolving door to become public servants doesn’t have to alter their K Street lifestyle.
Other committees are also hiring lobbyists. Congessman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), Darrell Issa’s (R-CA) replacement as chair of the Oversight Committee, just hired Podesta Group lobbyist Sean McLaughlin as his new Staff Director. McLaughlin’s client list includes the Business Roundtable, a trade association for corporate CEOs of large firms. Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) also hired a new chief of staff, Mark Isakowitz, who represents BP.
Remember Jeffrey Shockey? He’s the former top aide to Republican Congressman Jerry Lewis, a powerhouse on the House Appropriations Committee. Shockey left the Hill in 1999 to become a lobbyist at a firm called Copeland, Lowery, where he specialized in winning money from Lewis’s committee. Taxpayers for Common Sense has traced at least $150 million in pork that Shockey won for clients of his firm, whose name partners include former California congressman Bill Lowery, another close friend of Lewis.
By 2004, Shockey was earning a cool $1.5 million salary as a lobbyist. The following year, he returned to the Hill to become Lewis’s deputy staff director at the Appropriations Committee. (Since that entailed a steep pay cut, Copeland Lowery cut Shockey a check for $2 million as a departure payment). Now Shockey is under scrutiny by federal investigators and, according to TPMMuckraker, seven of his former lobbying clients “have been served subpoenas in the federal investigation into the ties between Lewis and Lowery.”
The party of small government and fiscal responsibility, ho ho ho.~
I hope my baby girl is having a wonderful day.
Happy Birthday, sweetheart!