Archive for August, 2009

Local food fights

Posted: 30 August 2009 in Uncategorized
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One of the differences between Vermont and Chicago: while in Vermont the discussion is about hunting and eating squirrels, as they do on a regular basis in the South and in the UK [for: sw], in Chicago it’s about deep dish versus flat crust pizza [ht: ja].

My view: all 3 are delicious!

frontban - diane greene lent

Another Israeli academic—Anat Matar, a lecturer in Tel Aviv University’s Department of Philosophy—takes the plunge. . .

When the flag of academic freedom is raised, the oppressor and not the oppressed is usually the one who flies it. What is that academic freedom that so interests the academic community in Israel? When, for example, has it shown concern for the state of academic freedom in the occupied territories?

In contrast with the accepted impression, only few lecturers speak up decisively against the occupation, its effect and the increasingly bestial nature of the State of Israel.

The vast majority retains its freedom to be indifferent, up to the moment that someone begs the international community for rescue. Then the voices rise from right and left, the indifference disappears, and violence replaces it: Boycott Israeli universities? This strikes at the holy of holies, academic freedom!


Neoclassical economists are hell-bent on blaming workers and the government for the crisis—now and then. The latest is from UCLA economist Lee Ohanian, who has written a new paper, “Who—or What—Started the Great Depression?” (available on his web site). The latest is a follow-up to his previous  (with Harold L. Cole), “How Government Prolonged the Depression.”

Andrew Leonard writes about both papers—the first here, the second here—on In the new paper, Ohanian claims that Herbert Hoover’s call for “business leaders to be gentle to their workers” helped to cause the Great Depression. Brad DeLong explains why this claim does not hold up:

There is a germ of information buried in the pile: Hoover did urge business leaders to be gentle to their workers because, he assured them, the Great Depression would soon be over.

But Hoover’s interventions do not appear to have had much effect. If you take the degree of government-sponsored union power and wage rigidity in post-WWII Europe to be 100, then FDR’s New Deal counts as a 30 and Herbert Hoover’s “can’t we all just get along?” White House meetings count as a five. If Hoover’s inviting businessmen to the White House could push the unemployment rate up from 4% to 23%, simple extrapolation would then suggest that Roosevelt’s labor-market policies ought to have pushed unemployment up to 118%—and unemployment in post-WWII Europe ought to have averaged 384%.

But, it seems, that won’t stop neoclassical economists from teaching and arguing that free markets and “appropriate factor-market adjustments”—read: a fall in wages, a decrease in unit labor costs, and a rise in the rate of exploitation—constitute the only solution to the crisis. Now and then.


Today’s Washington Post reports one “bright spot” in the current crisis: sales of antidepressants are up.

Helplessness, pessimism and persistent sadness—the main symptoms of depression—didn’t seem to abate as the economy crumbled. About 164 million antidepressant prescriptions were written in 2008, 4 million more than in 2007.

As it turns out, the business of depression is particularly lucrative. Whereas other costly conditions, such as heart conditions or cancer, tend to strike late in life, most people experience depression when they’re much younger, usually between the ages of 15 and 30. Besides setting in early, depressive episodes tend to recur.

Antidepressants are big business for BigPharma. They’re also big business for advertising agencies:

In the first quarter of 2009, as automotive ads—long the top advertising category in the Unites States—plummeted by 28 percent, according to Nielsen rankings, pharmaceutical companies’ ad spending was more consistent. It still dropped, but only by 11 percent. Drugmakers were the third-biggest spender of ad money in that period. Without those purchases, some media outlets already floundering in the thinned-out ad market would have been much worse off. Because most depression sufferers are women, female-targeted lifestyle magazines get a particular boost from companies pushing antidepressants.

The problem, of course, is that capitalist crises create depressed workers, which leads to “missed workdays and lost productivity.” And antidepressants are supposed to get them back to work and increase their productivity. Capitalism’s solution for a capitalist problem!


According to 2 recent studies [ht: ja], simply worrying about losing your job can cost you your health.

Based on how participants rated their own physical and mental health, we found that people who were persistently concerned about losing their jobs reported significantly worse overall health in both studies and were more depressed in one of the studies than those who had actually lost and regained their jobs recently. In fact, chronic job insecurity was a stronger predictor of poor health than either smoking or hypertension in one of the groups we studied.

If you’re feeling good about your job’s prospects, here’s one more thing to stress about: Other research has shown that the stress of a tough job—long hours and high pressure to perform—can also ruin your health.

So, losing your job can ruin your health, worrying about losing your job can ruin your health, and working hard so as not to lose your job can ruin your health. Let’s face it: being either in or out of the the capitalist job market can ruin your health.


The big banks that brought us to the brink of disaster—the effects of which are still being felt by the majority of the population—are now even bigger. As reported in today’s Washington Post,

The crisis may be turning out very well for many of the behemoths that dominate U.S. finance. A series of federally arranged mergers safely landed troubled banks on the decks of more stable firms. And it allowed the survivors to emerge from the turmoil with strengthened market positions, giving them even greater control over consumer lending and more potential to profit.

J.P. Morgan Chase, an amalgam of some of Wall Street’s most storied institutions, now holds more than $1 of every $10 on deposit in this country. So does Bank of America, scarred by its acquisition of Merrill Lynch and partly government-owned as a result of the crisis, as does Wells Fargo, the biggest West Coast bank. Those three banks, plus government-rescued and -owned Citigroup, now issue one of every two mortgages and about two of every three credit cards, federal data show.

That’s the way capitalism solves its crises—on capitalist terms: through the concentration and centralization of capital, and the relative immiseration of the rest of us. That’s the “new normal” we’re supposed to accept. . .


The U.S. Catholic bishops are at it again, in this case opposing health care reform. According to today’s NYT, some leaders of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops—such as Cardinal Justin Rigali and Bishop R. Walker Nickless of Sioux City, Iowa—are arguing that “no health care reform” is better than any of the current proposals. Here’s Nickless:

The Catholic Church does not teach that government should directly provide health care. Any legislation that undermines the vitality of the private sector is suspect.

Fortunately, there are other Catholic voices, at least in other countries. Here are excerpts from an editorial in the UK Tablet:

It is unfortunate that the one body that could turn out to be a decisive strategic force in his favour, the US Catholic bishops, have so far concentrated on a specifically Catholic issue – making sure state-funded health care does not include abortion – rather than the more general principle of the common good.

The opponents of change are largely funded by the operators of the health insurance industry, which, as in the early 1990s, sense a threat to their profits. They are the robber barons of their age. All the dark arts of media misrepresentation have been deployed to turn public opinion against Mr Obama’s policy. Through their greed and inefficiency, America spends something like double per head on health care compared with a country such as France, whose state-run health system is acknowledged as one of the world’s best. Even at the level of spin and sound bites, the bishops could make a difference. They could refute the constant slur of “socialised medicine” that opponents throw mindlessly around, simply by saying that health care for all is in fact “Catholic medicine”. Once they began to introduce reason and truth into the debate, they could also point out that what Mr Obama is proposing is in principle no different from extending Medicare – which brings affordable medical treatment to America’s elderly – to everyone.

When Britain’s National Health Service was set up in 1948, the Catholic hierarchy led by Cardinal Griffin was also preoccupied with its own Catholic agenda, not abortion but winning an opt-out for Catholic hospitals. So the birth of the National Health Service, one of the great forward strides for social justice, had no Catholic blessing. The bishops failed to put the promotion of social justice above their churchly priorities. It is a mistake the American bishops may be about to repeat.


The mainstream media are busy normalizing the current crisis. A good example is ABC News [ht: ea], which asked readers to tell them “how they’re adapting to today’s economic conditions.”

Cutting spending, not surprisingly, seems to be the most common way Americans are adapting to the tough economy. For one Florida family, that means paring back on day-to-day costs; for a California family, that means scaling back on future plans and for a Wisconsin man, it means sacrificing as much as he can to keep his business alive.

The “new normal” is adapting to the crisis—not questioning the structures of capitalism that created the crisis in the first place.

Fortunately, there are other groups that are denaturalizing the crisis. Like Bread & Puppet Theater in their current show, “The Dirt Cheap Money Circus” (which I saw yesterday in South Royalton, in a performance sponsored by the Vermont Law School).

The photo above has Marx returning from the grave, in front of a group of billionaires. Here are some other photos from the show:




However unbelievable, here is the the full translation of the letter written by the president of Ben-Gurion University to all the faculty:

Dear Faculty Members,

I would like to share a very grave matter with you, one that has unfolded in the past few days and has severe consequences for our university.

Last Thursday I returned from a trip to the US. After over a year in which there was a steep decline in donations due to the world economic crisis, I definitely felt signs of cautious optimism and a willingness [of donors] to continue cultivating a close relationship [with the university] so that – in the near future –the university’s financial needs and plans could be discussed. In all the meetings I attended, the university’s achievements were hailed, as were its academic and social reputation and its important role in developing the Negev [southern region of Israel] and the state.

Less than one hour after I had landed, I received an urgent phone call from the US notifying me of an article by Dr. Neve Gordon, one of our faculty members, that was published in a prominent place in the newspaper “The Los Angeles Times”.

The article calls on the entire world to boycott Israel, which Dr. Gordon defines as an apartheid state. From that moment on, I have been receiving an unprecedented flow of enraged emails from friends and university supporters, as well as from others who merely heard about the article. I was also forced to hear very difficult things on the phone from Jewish donors and Israeli and international public figures.

This is not the first time that senior university administration members and I have had to face with such frontal attacks for similar reasons. I never shared this matter with you because I believe that confronting such issues is part of my job. Nonetheless, this time the severity and scope of the attack are unprecedented, both because of the article’s extremist line, which is perceived by many readers as an act of treason [emphasis added] against the state of Israel, and because the article was published in a newspaper with a very wide circulation, especially within the Jewish community. I have real and concrete reasons to feel that above all else, this article will likely cause a destructive blow to fundraising for the university, and the article’s potential damage to the university budget during the most difficult period in its history, and perhaps also in the future, is vast.

I see it as my duty to share with you my fears about the damage and its dire influence on the university’s financial situation, on its academic and social reputation, on its professional prestige and the loyalty of each and every one of us.

My fellow administrators and many of you, the faculty, work hard on fundraising for the university. I am sorry to say that without these donations we have no life [emphasis added] and certainly there can be no development and progress. This task is especially difficult now, during the current world economic crisis, and the competition between different institutions, and especially the universities, is harsh.

This type of article brands the university as one unworthy of support from the Jewish world. Many of those who contacted me emphasized that they will never again support a university who employs a faculty member willing to harm the state like this and that they will recommend that their friends to follow suit. I am quoting here the bottom line of the many inquiries I have received and am receiving at this moment.

Friends, I am not discussing the content of the article, although I am personally [bold and underlined in the original] deeply disgusted by it. All I want is to share with you the distress in which, in my opinion, the university currently finds itself, to inform you of the reasons for the distress, and as stated above, to share my fears of what is likely to happen to the future and growth/flourishing of the university.

Best wishes,
Rivka Carmi

This is the essence of the corporate university: anything that stands in the way of successful fundraising needs to be stopped!

Fortunately, the news is not all bad. Haaretz just published a very good essay by Gideon Levy. Some extracts:

A country that constantly demands boycott from the world and also imposes boycotts itself, cannot play the victim when the same weapon is turned against it. If the election of Hamas is cause for boycott, then occupation is a far more potent cause. The fact that Israel is living a lie – pretending that the occupation does not exist, that it is just, temporary and unavoidable – does not make the struggle against it any less legitimate. So let us admit the truth: The occupier deserves to be boycotted. As long as the Israelis pay no price for the occupation, the occupation will not end, and therefore the only way open to the opponents of the occupation is to take concrete means that will make the Israelis understand that the injustice they are perpetrating comes with a price tag.

Gordon chose not to follow the herd, unlike most of his cowardly colleagues or the nationalists. It is one’s right to think that an Israeli who does not boycott Israel does not have the right to call on others to take that step, or that the call for an external boycott is the last option of Israeli patriots who do not want to abandon the country or throw up their hands. There is, however, no place for the vicious attacks on Gordon. The height of ludicrousness was achieved by the President of Ben-Gurion University, Prof. Rivka Carmi. She was appalled by the article published by a member of her faculty, fearing it could affect the university’s donations from American Jews. Here, then, is a new criterion for good citizenship and morality: the harm it wreaks to our schnorring. It’s also a new gauge for academic and civic freedom of expression: If something miffs the donors from Beverly Hills or Miami Beach, then we must not speak it aloud. Quiet – people donating.

Crisis children

Posted: 26 August 2009 in Uncategorized
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While the pundits and officials proclaim the end of the recession and the beginning of the recovery, many people—especially children–continue to suffer the effects of the crisis.

According to today’s Guardian, almost 2 million children in the UK now live in households where there is no working adult.

The rise in the number of children in workless households points to yet another generation hit by widespread unemployment after government statistics earlier this month revealed a record number of adolescents are out of education, work or training.

One in six people in England aged 18 to 24 are so-called “neets” (not in education, employment or training), statistics published by the Department for Children, Schools and Families showed.

Best I can tell, no such statistics are collected in the United States. What we have are child poverty rates. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty,

Over 13 million American children live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level, which is $21,200 a year for a family of four in 2008. The number of children living in poverty increased by 15 percent between 2000 and 2007. There are 1.7 million more children living in poverty today than in 2000.

Not only are these numbers troubling, the official poverty measure tells only part of the story–it is widely viewed as a flawed metric of economic hardship. Research consistently shows that, on average, families need an income of about twice the federal poverty level to make ends meet.

Children living in families with incomes below this level–for 2008, $42,400 for a family of four–are referred to as low income. Thirty-nine percent of the nation’s children–more than 28 million in 2007–live in low-income families.

These figures are higher for black and latino children, children of immigrant families, and for younger children. They are all the victims of capitalism’s crises.