Saturday, November 23, 2013

How Corporations are Loving Us All to Death

Much of the power of corporations comes from their ability to convince us we cannot live without the products or services they provide.  As if the disappearance of any one of them might immediately result in humanity being transported back to the dark ages (which, by the way, may be where we are all headed in the not too distant future, thanks to corporations).  Through the magical wonder of advertising, the pixie dust of corporate propaganda is used to sell us everything from sports cars to sunglasses.   By exploiting the inner void that a consumer driven society helps to create in each of us - what Victor Frankl referred to as the “existential vacuum” - the billion dollar marketing industry pours into our longings the promise that they, through a dazzling array of the most fashionable products available, can give us a life of love, meaning, fulfillment, and happiness.  None of this is true, of course, because advertising is designed to play us all like a flute. It is as easy as lying, because it is lying. It’s just lying that happens to be, as H.G. Wells pointed out, legal.  

Thankfully, however, those lies, and the billions of dollars spent annually to manufacture them, have not been entirely wasted on people like David Mamet.  Mamet, who has only recently been converted to the fold, admitted the error of his ways when he began to question his hatred for "the Corporations.”  As he put it, he questioned “the hatred of which, I found, was but the flip side of my hunger for those goods and services they provide and without which we could not live."  Christmas shoppers in Long Island in 2008 would certainly agree.  They agreed so much with Mamet's sentiments, in fact, that they trampled to death the Wal-Mart employee who tried to satisfy their “hunger for those goods and services” by merely opening the store. No doubt the crowd was driven into their frenzy by the same siren song of consumer-corporatism that has made Mamet such a true believer of late in all the blessings that corporate benevolence can bestow. 

Mamet explains further that his change of heart came when he realized that corporations are simply “legal persons” with as much "lust, greed, envy, sloth, and their pals as people but none of the constraints.” Some of these "legal persons" who have succeeded in seducing Mr. Mamet are more like vampires than actual people.  DuPont, for example, was born in 1802, Colgate in 1806, and Citibank has been around since the War of 1812.  And where real people have a diffusion of appetites that ebb and flow and often wane with age, corporations have basically one appetite that grows exponentially by what it feeds on. They're like Terminators, in other words, programed to chase forever the Sarah Connor of their own self-interest.  And they’ll destroy everything and anyone to get what they want. 

 In addition to virtual immortality, the corporate "person" that Mamet is so enamored with has all the personality traits of a psychopath.  According to the World Health Organizations Manual of Mental Disorders, a corporation has "a callous unconcern for the feelings of others; an incapacity to maintain enduring relationships; an incapacity to experience guilt; failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors; and a reckless disregard for the safety of others."  Indeed, if corporations are like the people Mamet knows, he is either hanging out with serial killers or living in the Twilight movies.

What Mamet has altogether missed while playing his lyre at the knee of the corporate 'overmen,' is that many of the very "goods and services" that he thinks people can't live without are producing a world that people are finding increasingly impossible to live with. In fact, corporations are forever finding new ways - with true American grit, determination, and know-how - to maximize their profits by poisoning everyone and everything on the planet, from the biological to the global. 

On the biological level, corporate overuses of antibiotics in farming and livestock have contributed to the rise of super-resistant bacteria strains that are becoming impervious to antibiotics. These new super-strains threaten to make things as harmless as a scraped knee or common cold a struggle between life and death.  Corporations use such antibiotics, “to varying degrees depending on” the “size and age” of animals such as “cattle, pigs, and chickens — and, in other countries, fish and shrimp.”  These animals “receive regular doses to speed their growth, increase their weight, and protect them from disease. Out of all the antibiotics sold in the United States each year, 80 percent by weight are used in agriculture, primarily to fatten animals and protect them from the conditions in which they are raised.[i]  Protecting an investment in animals by overusing antibiotics, however, is increasingly undermining our ability to protect ourselves.  Of course, animals are corporate assets that affect a company's bottom line, while people, on the other hand, are expendable. 

Luckily for Mamet and his conservative minions, attempts to prevent such overuse of antibiotics - which would cut into their sacred earnings - have been regularly thwarted by the agriculture and veterinary pharmaceutical industries who claim that these antibiotics have no demonstrable effect on human health.” Ultimately, protecting the value of its animal assets is a necessary thing for corporations to do in order to maximize their share prices, even if all the shareholders may eventually die as a result. What such a myopic view of the bottom line has led few to ask, however, is “what multi-drug–resistant bacteria might mean for farm animals” or the people who eat them. Instead, corporate executives were so busy watching their incomes float like a butterfly, they didn't really care about how their actions were impacting the bee.

Apparently no one bothered to explain the birds and the bees to corporate America, especially the part about the bees. As a result, today the world suffers from Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, otherwise know as "the  vanishing of the bees." While scientists are still trying to determine the root causes of that problem, researchers have discovered that pesticides and fungicides being produced by corporations are contributing to the collapse. According to the study in PLOS One, for example, healthy bees that ate the fungicides – which were supposedly harmless to bees – were actually three times more likely to become infected with a parasite that's known to cause CCD. Since 2007, more than 10 million beehives in North America have collapsed, putting more than $30 billion in U.S. food crops at risk. In Japan and China, the effect of CCD has necessarily led fruit farmers to pollinate their crops by hand.  Without bees, pretty soon we’ll all be running around like Oliver Twist and his bowl of gruel: “Please  Corporate Sir, I want some more.”

As Beth Hoffman explained, “At the center of the debate is the pesticide glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s “Round Up.” Rather than decreasing the amount of this pesticide, as Monsanto claimed it would, the “total volume of glyphosate applied to the three biggest GE crops — corn, cotton and soybeans — increased 10-fold from 15 million pounds in 1996 to 159 million pounds in 2012.”[ii]  Just imagine that summer corn on the cob, steaming hot, and lathered with melting butter and glyphosate. Now we just need a couple billion dollars to wash it all down.

Of course, that's just what these businesses have gotten. Such pesticides and herbicides have produced huge profits for the agribusinesses that develop them   Seed revenues, which have been genetically engineered to contain such herbicides and pesticides, have septupled (increased seven fold) since 1998, increasing profits from 0.1 billion in 1998 to close to $15 billion in 2012. Who needs bees when you're making billions?! [iii]

Moving up the scale from the biological to our own backyards, we find thousands of “Superfund Sites” mushrooming around the country.  A Superfund Site is just one way corporations pass off the costs of the environmental damage they produce – what they refer to as “externalities” – straight to their customers in the discomfort of their own homes.  

Corporations like GE use Superfund sites as dumping grounds for their toxic waste, and are designated areas “contaminated with hazardous substances,” and other "pollutants or contaminants."  The term “Superfund” is itself the common name for the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA).  CERCLA was established with broad cleanup authority, to clean up releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances that may endanger public health or welfare or the (natural) environment. This authority was given primarily to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and states in reaction to the Love Canal Disaster and what would come to be called the Valley of the Drums.

The Love Canal Disaster
In the mid-1970s, “Love Canal became the subject of national and international attention after it was revealed in the press that the site had formerly been used to bury 21,000 tons of toxic waste by Hooker Chemical (now Occidental Petroleum Corporation).”  In 1976, two reporters for the Niagara Falls Gazette, David Pollak and David Russell, tested several sump-pumps near Love Canal and found toxic chemicals in them. Michael Brown, “who then investigated potential health effects by carrying forth an informal door-to-door survey in early 1978,” found “birth defects and many anomalies such as enlarged feet, heads, hands, and legs.” According to the EPA in 1979, “residents exhibited a "disturbingly high rate of miscarriages.” The EPA also found that “Love Canal can now be added to a growing list of environmental disasters involving toxics, ranging from industrial workers stricken by nervous disorders and cancers to the discovery of toxic materials in the milk of nursing mothers." Oh joy!

The Valley of the Drums, on the other hand, is a 23 acre (9.3 hectare) toxic waste site in northern Bullitt County, Kentucky, near Louisville, that was “named after the waste-containing drums strewn across the area. It is known as one of the primary motivations for the passage” of the CERCLA, or Superfund Act of 1980. There, the EPA announced an emergency cleanup of more than 17,000 drums that [where] allowed to be scattered there and of chemicals that had been dumped in open pits.[iv]

The way that CERCLA is supposed to work in such situations is that the EPA “may identify parties responsible for hazardous substances released into the environment and compel those parties to clean up the sites, or it may cleanup” those sites “itself using the Superfund (a trust fund) and cost recover from responsible parties by referring such matters to the U.S. Department of Justice.” Identifying the “parties responsible” is part of the “Polluter Pays Principle,” which is the principle that says, if you’re the polluter, you should pay – obviously. 

The problem is that the U.S. EPA has observed that this “polluter pays principle” has typically not been fully implemented in U.S. laws and programs.  During the 1980s, for example, the Reagan administration's laissez-faire policies made the implementation of such a principle largely ineffective.  During Reagan's two terms, only “16 of the 799 Superfund sites were cleaned up,” and only “$40 million of $700 million in recoverable funds from responsible parties were collected.” Today, on the other hand, the problem is complicated by the fact that drinking water and sewage treatment services are subsidized, and there are limited mechanisms in place to fully assess polluters for treatment costs. 

Since 1980, the EPA has put 1,600 sites on its priority list. Nationally, however, the EPA has identified some 47,000 hazardous waste sites in the United States.  As Superfund approached its 30-year anniversary, it was struggling to maintain funding, as it has since 1995, when its dedicated tax expired. The fund's balance shrank from $4.7billion in 1997 to $173million in 2007, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report in July.[v] The effect of that reduction amounts to an increase in taxes on everyone else, since it is their tax dollars that must now be stretched further to cover the reduction. This is like reducing the number of trash collectors while increasing the amount of trash to be collected.  

Nor is such dumping limited to America.  Corporations are equal opportunity destroyers of environments and echo systems both at home and abroad.  On the other side of the globe, for example, we can see how increasingly impossible it is becoming for people in the Niger Delta to live in the world corporations are helping to shape. This is because the Niger Delta in Nigeria has become an environmental disaster zone after fifty years of oil exploitation. By some estimates, "one and a half million tons of crude oil have been spilled into the creeks, farms and forests" there while "the natural gas contained in the crude oil is burnt off in gas flares" thereby emitting as much greenhouse gases as 18 million cars." Such gas flares end up "releasing toxic substances into densely populated areas."[vi] According to a recent Greenpeace report, "although Shell operates in more than 100 countries, 40 percent of all its oil spills happen in Nigeria.  With the government of Nigeria content to look the other way, Shell reported double its 2007 number of oil spills in the country in 2008, and double the 2008 number in 2009. One estimate stated that "some 13 million barrels of oil have been spilled in the Niger Delta since Oil exploration began in 1958. This is the equivalent of one Exxon Valdez every year for 50 years"[vii]
All of this corporate destruction, however, pales in comparison to the worst of all – the destruction of the planet itself. That destruction has long been coupled with the drum beat of denial that echoes with the regularity of minting money.  The global warming deniers have lobbied hard to keep corporate earnings higher by putting every living thing on the planet at higher risk. The Kyoto Protocols, for example, which were designed to decrease the emission of carbon monoxide and other greenhouse gases contributing to climate change, were successfully blocked by American corporate interests as soon as Clinton signed the agreement in 1997. The US Senate refused to ratify the Protocols because of the "potential damage to the US economy" that compliance might produce. Never mind the "potential damage to the" planet and everything on it that noncompliance may produce. 

The Senate also failed to ratify because the agreement excluded countries like India and China from having to comply with its emissions standards (so much for being a world “leader," America).  Likewise, the Bush administration objected to signing the protocol for similar reasons, as George W. Bush "claimed that the cost of following the Protocols requirements will stress the economy." And since Bush was busy lying to America so he could flatten two whole countries in order to find one man and dethrone another, there was no time or money left to clean up the planet.  All that Bush cared about instead was playing war and pushing through tax cuts for his buddies, tax cuts even his own economic advisers called “a terrible idea.”[viii]

Between the diabetes and the cancer, and the bankruptcies and the bailouts, I’m having a hard time determining which "goods and services" Mamet is referring to exactly, that he thinks we "can't live without." If you're not getting trampled to death trying to buy those "goods and services" or poisoned to death by the environmental pollution that results from making and shipping them to Wal-Mart, the items themselves might kill you. One pharmaceutical company, for example, reportedly paid $80 thousand in fines for knowingly releasing to the public a drug it knew was deadly.  Sugar, tobacco, alcohol and high fructose corn syrup, for that matter, are certainly not items people add to their diet in order to improve their figures or their health. On the other hand, an ever growing array of anti-depressants are now marketed to improve our mental health by increasing our suicidal tendencies. I feel happier already.

 As time marches forward, and humanity marches off a cliff of its own making, the question is not whether people can live without the goods and services that many corporations provide, as Mamet contends, but whether there is anything on the planet that can survive the process by which those corporations provide such goods and services. Indeed, people applaud the rise of their investment portfolios even as the world is falling to pieces all around them as a result.  The reckless pursuit of economic "growth" has led humanity to construct for itself an environmental guillotine,  and chasing the holy grail of the former is only helping to ensure the latter will come crashing down on all of our heads soon enough.

[iii] Id.
[vi] See the Documentary Poison Fire: Oil and Gas Abuse in Nigeria
[vii] Power, Inc, by David Rothkopf page 321

Saturday, November 9, 2013

David Mamet: Just Another Brain-Dead Conservative

While the play write David Mamet has shifted his political perspective from liberal to conservative, his article, “Why I Am No Longer a Brain Dead Liberal” shows that he is redoubling his efforts to remain as "brain dead" as he ever was. Rather than explaining his recent conversion to the cult of Conservatism, Mamet's article only demonstrates that he understood Liberalism about as much as a Christmas Tree understands Christmas.

In his article, Mamet writes about his latest play in which a "conservative president... holds that people are each out to make a living, and the best way for government to facilitate that is to stay out of the way, as the inevitable abuses and failures of this system (free-market economics) are less than those of government intervention." Mamet should share his recent epiphany about economics with the former employees of Enron, the families of the BP  rig explosion in 2005,  or the survivors of the 1984 Union Carbide disaster. In the latter case, an explosion at a pesticide plant in Bhopal killed thousands and exposed over half a million people to dangerous chemicals. I'm sure the survivors would all love to hear how a play write became such a fountain of free market wisdom.

As part of the "privileged class," of course, Mamet had his head so far up his own play that he apparently failed to notice how the "inevitable abuses and failures of "free market economics” contributed not only to the destruction of ecosystems around the world, but how it nearly destroyed an entire global economic system in 2008. That crisis threatened to destroy the world's free market economies at the very moment Mamet was singing his praises to "free market economics." In fact, the "abuses and failures" of the financial sector were so great, that the only thing that could have saved them and the world from complete economic collapse was the very thing Mamet derides as the harbinger of so much sorrow: government intervention.

 According to the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, which was appointed to investigate the causes of the crisis, the "disaster" was "caused by widespread... corporate mismanagement and heedless risk-taking by Wall Street." The commission, which released its findings in January of 2011, also concluded that government, by heeding Mamet's wisdom of staying "out of the way," contributed to making an “avoidable disaster” far worse by failing to regulate the very financial institutions that caused the disaster. Luckily for the world, however, governments are not actors in one of Mamet's economic plays. By providing hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out the very system Mamet has so recently fallen in love with, “government intervention” avoided "much ... sorrow" both on Main Street and Wall Street. The White Knight of Mamet's free market system, in other words, came in the form of socialism.

Regardless of the billions spent by government to save the "free-market system," Mamet insists he is “hard-pressed to see an instance where the intervention of the government led to much beyond sorrow.” Somehow, the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, Social Security and Civil Rights, the $40 billion given by the federal government for research and development to universities across the country each year, and far too many other examples, all escape the economic acumen of Mr.  Mamet. No wonder he became a Conservative.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Catholic Church on the Sun, Slavery, and Sexuality

Some people of different religious faiths see homosexuality as a sin.  The Catholic Church in particular claims that being a homosexual is not a sin but that engaging in homosexual sex, like engaging in adultery and premarital sex, is a sin. Not all Catholics agree with their Church's views about homosexuality, mind you, but when I was a Catholic, I certainly did.  One reason I believed the Church's view that homosexuality was a sin was because I thought the Church, through the doctrine of infallibility, could never be wrong about moral issues. But the Catholic Church has proven itself fallible indeed, and it's views about sexuality in general,  and homosexuality in particular, are as flawed today as its views about the universe and slavery were in the past.

Consider the Church's historical view of the heavens, what Hamlet called "this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire." Until the 16th century, most people believed that the Earth sat at the orbital center of all celestial bodies. This 'geocentric universe' was considered obvious by most people because Earth was seen as God's favorite marble, the center jewel in the crown of His creation, and humanity was His favorite Claymation. Galileo, on the other hand, saw things differently
Like many people before Galileo, I always believed heterosexuality sat at the center of the sexual universe.  It never occurred to me to question this fundamental assumption because, quite frankly, it never occurred to me that my "belief" was nothing more than a 'fundamental assumption.' To me, being a Catholic meant the Catholic Church's view of sexuality was as unquestionable as the Church's view of the universe before Galileo. The Catholic Church, however, had not only been wrong about morally neutral questions like whether the Sun went around the Earth or vice versa, it had also been wrong about very moral questions as well, like whether God was a fan of slavery.

 The Catholic Church did not finally declare slavery to be an "infamy" without qualification until the Second Vatican Council in 1965.  Only then did the Church conclude that slavery "dishonored the Creator and was a poison in society."   Before that, people like Thomas Aquinas argued that slavery was permissible in the eyes of God, within certain parameters, and Pope Paul III even sanctioned the enslavement of baptized Christians in Rome.  Papal bulls such as Dum Diversas, Romanus Pontifex, and their derivatives, were issued during the Age of Discovery to sanction and justify the enslavement of natives whose lands were being appropriated. In fact, nearly "all Christian leaders before the late 17th century regarded slavery as consistent with Christian theology while today, nearly all Christians are united in condemning slavery as wrong.”

The fight for equal rights by newly freed slaves in America faced similar hurdles after the Civil War in part because the Jim Crow south, while largely anti-Catholic, held with religious conviction the belief that God was a White supremacist. This was based, naturally, on a self-serving interpretation of a Bible story called the "curse of Ham." Ham was cursed by Noah, so the story went, when the former laughed at the drunken nakedness of the latter. Ham, it was argued, was "black skinned" and that therefore Noah had, in effect, cursed the "black skinned" race.  There was no basis for such an interpretation, of course, but we're discussing the Bible here. 'Basis? We don't need no stickin' basis!"

 In similar fashion, Puritan John Winthrop's sermon in 1630 produced the widespread belief that America was "God's country," because, metaphorically, the United States was a "Shining City upon a Hill."   From this grew a sense of "American exceptionalism," and the vocation of "manifest destiny" inspired Christians to practice genocide from "sea to shining sea." 

Nor have such grim services been performed for God's glory only in the backwater of history. In the 1950's, for example, the Catholic Church in the Netherlands castrated at least 10 boys to cure them of their homosexuality, or to punish them for accusing clergy members of sexual abuse. A report states that “surgical removal of testicles was regarded as a treatment for homosexuality and also as a punishment for those who accused clergy of sexual abuse.” No records were kept of which reason the boys were castrated.Only in the service of a morality for the Most High could such horrors be performed with such pious and time honored devotion.

Such examples do not demonstrate that Christianity as a whole, or the Catholic Church in particular, is wrong about everything they believe. But it does prove that the Catholic Church is certainly not the 'infallible' north star of moral truth I had always been raised to believe that it was. The Catholic Church is, in fact, largely a group of men who, by the scalpel of a sacred vow,  have chosen to live like eunuchs in a matrimonial union with their own spiritual Mother. Yet it is these same men, who see their own renunciation of sex as "natural," who proclaim that homosexuality is somehow "unnatural." 

But rather than worrying about the speck of homosexuality in their neighbor's eye, these men should be trying to remove the plank of an Oedipus complex from their own.  Indeed, people on the whole should stop asking the question of whether homosexuality is the result of 'nature vs nurture,' and wonder why we nurture our nature to ask such silly questions in the first place.


Religion is a disease masquerading as it’s own cure.