Posts Tagged ‘Detroit’

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Next week, after the Memorial Day recess, the entire House is expected to take up the bill, which last week was approved (by a vote of 29-10) within the House Natural Resources Committee, with support from the White House, to handle the Puerto Rico debt crisis.

The folks at the Wall Street Journal couldn’t be happier.

The bill offers debt relief to Puerto Rico in return for a mechanism to overrule the territory’s feckless current government and impose reform. The legislation explicitly pre-empts conflicting laws and regulations passed by the commonwealth. It also stipulates that legal challenges will be heard in federal rather than commonwealth court.

The key to the reform is a seven-person control board modeled after the board that pulled the District of Columbia out of a debt spiral in the 1990s. The President would select the board from nominations by the House Speaker (two), Senate Majority Leader (two), House Minority Leader (one) and Senate Minority Leader (one). The President has sole discretion to choose the seventh. The appointments must be made by Dec. 1, and the terms last three years, so the GOP majority’s choices will steer the board’s crucial early decisions. . .

After ensuring that financial audits and a fiscal plan have been completed, the board would propose a plan of adjustment that is fair and equitable. The legislation explicitly requires that the plan respect creditor priorities and liens and be “in the best interest of creditors.” So if Democrats later control the board, they couldn’t subordinate general obligation bondholders to pensioners.

As we know, similar programs elsewhere—in Europe (e.g., Greece) and in the United States (e.g., Detroit and Flint)—have proven disastrous, at least for the majority of the population. They have only helped the “vulture creditors,” who have already profited enormously from extending high-interest loans and purchasing tax-privileged bonds. In each case, the possibility of real debt relief was scuttled in favor of repaying the creditors and imposing the kinds of economic and political “reforms” elites both inside and outside have long wanted to implement.

Last August, Joseph Stiglitz and Mark Medish warned that Puerto Rico “can’t pay its debts today, and with short-term debt financing at the high interest rates demanded by creditors, it will be even less able to pay its debts tomorrow.” As for the United States, it needs to

take responsibility for its imperialist past and neocolonial present. Washington owes Puerto Ricans a future based on democratic legitimacy and a financially and socially viable development strategy—a development strategy that is more than a set of tax breaks for profitable U.S. corporations.

The new deal is exactly the opposite of taking that responsibility, since (as Erik Levitz [ht: sm] explains) it means establishing “a pseudo-colonial shadow government tasked with trading debt haircuts for austerity measures.”

It should come as no surprise, then, that Bernie Sanders, in the midst of his own presidential campaign, is strenuously campaigning against the bipartisan Puerto Rico deal.

In my view, we must never give an unelected control board the power to make life and death decisions for the people of Puerto Rico without any meaningful input from them at all. We must not balance Puerto Rico’s budget on the backs of children, senior citizens, the sick and the most vulnerable people in Puerto Rico.

Moreover, this legislation requires that any restructuring of Puerto Rico’s debt must be “in the best interests of creditors,” not in the best interests of the 3.5 million U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico.

“Not in the best interests of 3.5 million U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico”—who may soon find themselves in the same position as the citizens of Greece, Detroit, and Flint.

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All but three of Detroit’s 97 schools stayed closed again today, the second day of teacher protests over their pay and the conditions for students in the city’s financially ailing school district.

The protests began on Monday, on Teacher Appreciation Day [ht: sm],

after Detroit Public Schools’ emergency manager Steven Rhodes announced in an email to teachers Friday that the city’s finances were so bad that it wouldn’t be able to make payroll after more than $48 million in state emergency aid runs out on June 30.

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In addition, teachers have tweeted photos of stained ceilings, disgusting bathrooms, and inadequate student lunches.

 

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Rafael Chehín Tak, for World Water Day

The problem of drinking water is not confined to Flint, Michigan, where manslaughter charges are now possible. Fracking chemicals have been detected in Pennsylvania well water. And there are still at least 4000 homes in Detroit where water has never been turned back on after massive shutoffs attracted international attention in 2014.

But, as Suzanne McGee agues, perhaps the biggest problem with drinking water in the United States is privatization.

The appeal of privatization to municipalities struggling to balance their budgets isn’t hard to see. They get to transfer one big headache to someone else to deal with, dust their hands, and move on to address the next problem. And it’s up to companies like American Water Works to make it all come together: to invest the capital required, upgrade the systems, and generate a profit. . .

Utilities of all kinds are discussing the need to raise their rates to cover the cost of financing infrastructure improvements. It’s tough enough when those utilities aren’t private corporations with an incentive to maximize profits, but city departments. Even then, citizens in cities such as Baltimore and New York are in financial peril and losing access to their water supplies. Throw the profit motive into the mix, and things could get worse. What happens if those for-profit utilities have too many delinquent bills, and shareholders are unhappy? The pressure will be on to cut costs, which could result in some of the same problems that prompted the sale in the first place.

Water isn’t a private commodity, but a necessity of life, making access to it a public good. And steps need to be taken to ensure that access remains open, not to install toll gates and barriers.

Let’s remember that it was the “water wars” in Bolivia that led to the formation of a “broad alliance of farmers, factory workers, rural and urban water committees, neighborhood organizations, students, and middleclass professionals in opposition to water privatization,” which was later joined by the militant federation of coca growers from the Chapare, led by then labor leader Evo Morales, which ultimately led to the overthrow of two neoliberal presidents and the subsequent election of Morales and the Movement Towards Socialism party.

Bolivia’s constitution now proclaims that access to water is a human right and bans its privatization.

I was honored, back in 2013, to be invited to screen and comment on an early cut of Grace Lee’s film about Grace Lee BoggsAmerican Revolutionary: the Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs. Here’s what I wrote:

American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs is a documentary about the long and rich life of an extraordinary American revolutionary. And for that we should be thankful, since we simply don’t have many cinematic examples of ordinary flesh-and-blood people who have struggled to locate themselves within, radically challenge, and creatively make history. All the while maintaining her humanity.

But this film is much, much more. It is both a document of people’s struggles over the course of the twentieth century—especially civil rights and black power, during the rise and fall of Detroit—and an invitation to engage in new conversations about the kind of American revolution needed today. Because, as Grace Lee Boggs says, “It’s obvious by looking at it, what was doesn’t work.”

American Revolutionary is also quite wonderful filmmaking—beautifully filmed and edited, with a lively, engaging score. And the filmmaker herself, Grace Lee, makes the life of a venerable and tough woman relevant to younger generations of potential activists and revolutionaries: first, by showing how Boggs found ways of rethinking and reinventing what her life, including her involvement in the people’s transformation of Detroit, might look like; and, second, by documenting Lee’s own struggles to make sense of and to connect with Boggs “the icon” and her confident and uncompromising spirit of revolutionary thinking and engagement.

Lee’s film represents an alternative, then, to the main kinds of messages being delivered to young people today, of either insipid inspirational self-improvement or the cynical “to the victors belong the spoils.” Instead, she provides us the opportunity to imagine a different kind of life and world—one in which ideas matter, giants do in fact fall, and people (including Boggs herself) evolve.

Philip Levine RIP

Posted: 16 February 2015 in Uncategorized
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Philip Levine, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and U.S. poet laureate in 2011 and 2012, has died at the age of 87.

I have featured two of his poems on this blog over the years: “An Abandoned Factory, Detroit” and “What Work Is.”

Here is a third:

I Sing The Body Electric

People sit numbly at the counter
waiting for breakfast or service.
Today it’s Hartford, Connecticut
more than twenty-five years after
the last death of Wallace Stevens.
I have come in out of the cold
and wind of a Sunday morning
of early March, and I seem to be
crying, but I’m only freezing
and unpeeled. The waitress brings
me hot tea in a cracked cup,
and soon it’s all over my paper,
and so she refills it. I read
slowly in The New York Times
that poems are dying in Iowa,
Missoula, on the outskirts of Reno,
in the shopping galleries of Houston.
We should all go to the grave
of the unknown poet while the rain
streaks our notebooks or stand
for hours in the freezing winds
off the lost books of our fathers
or at least until we can no longer
hold our pencils. Men keep coming
in and going out, and two of them
recall the great dirty fights
between Willy Pep and Sandy Sadler,
between little white perfection
and death in red plaid trunks.
I want to tell them I saw
the last fight, I rode out
to Yankee Stadium with two deserters
from the French Army of Indochina
and back with a drunken priest
and both ways the whole train
smelled of piss and vomit, but no
one would believe me. Those are
the true legends better left to die.
In my black rain coat I go back
out into the gray morning and dare
the cars on North Indemnity Boulevard
to hit me, but no one wants trouble
at this hour. I have crossed
a continent to bring these citizens
the poems of the snowy mountains,
of the forges of hopelessness,
of the survivors of wars they
never heard of and won’t believe.
Nothing is alive in this tunnel
of winds of the end of winter
except the last raging of winter,
the cats peering smugly from the homes
of strangers, and the great stunned sky
slowly settling like a dark cloud
lined only with smaller dark clouds.

 

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Last week, in my discussion with Chris Dillow on the differences between mainstream and heterodox economics, I cited the example of one Charles Calomiris, a professor of financial institutions at Columbia University and a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, as an example of the kinds of policies mainstream economists would like to see imposed in Greece.

Richard Wolff [ht: hr], a heterodox economist, offers a very different analysis of the situation in Greece, along with an alternative set of policies. Wolff makes a number of key points—about how Greece got into this mess (as a result of a number of conditions that came together and then blew up during the global economic collapse of 2008), the mistakes some Greeks made (believing they could become more competitive, based on lower wages, within the euro zone), what austerity has meant in Greece (shifting “the burden of the crisis. . .on to the masses of people, while telling a story which you hope that the media and the professors of economics will take seriously, that this is not only the best way to solve the problem, but the only way”), the fact that the United States has it own Greece (in devastated major cities, like Detroit), and finally an alternative set of policies (less about the relationship to the rest of the world and more about the organization of the economy inside the country).

The whole interview is worth a read. What it does is illustrate my original point that “heterodox economists see that another economics—another economic theory as well as another economic system—is both necessary and possible. Mainstream economists, for their part, don’t.”

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Special mention

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Special mention

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Detroit

This is a map of the city the United Auto Workers built—with union wages and middle-class housing for whites, African-Americans, and others—that, over the course of the past three decades, was abandoned by the corporations that used to produce the autos, so as to search for even higher profits by moving production out of Detroit.

Now, according to the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force, almost $2 billion needs to be spent just to raze the abandoned residential and factory buildings and clean up the sites.

And there’s still no plan for actually doing something with those lots, much less for creating decent, well-paying jobs for the remaining residents of Detroit.

Next time someone claims the spectacular successes of capitalism, remind them also of its spectacular failures. Like Detroit.

American-Dream

The American Dream has been a prominent theme of our Tale of Two Depressions course this semester. We have had the opportunity to trace both the changing content and contours of that dream and the periods, as after 1929, when it quickly turned into a nightmare.

But, as we know, a new American Dream was invented in the postwar period, the so-called Golden Age of American capitalism, which—while unevenly distributed (for example, in the Jim Crow South and northern inner cities) and openly contested (for example, in the Port Huron Statement and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom)—held sway at least in some pockets. Such as Detroit:

Decades ago, car workers lived the quintessential American Dream: they pursued stable, well-paying, union-backed jobs, often straight out of high school. They were able to build a middle-class life and provide the promise of something better to their children.

Now, once again, as the BBC [ht: ja] explains, that dream has turned into a nightmare:

Times have changed.

Now jobs are scarce, and people feel shame in being unprepared for the current labour market.

“Unemployed auto workers, factory workers, they have a lot of regrets about the past,” he said.

“A lot of workers are internalising, ‘You succeed on your own merits and your own abilities, and if you fail, you’re to blame’,” [Victor Tan] Chen says.

He isn’t alone in seeing this pattern.

Experts tell the BBC that job seekers in the US are now, more than ever, blaming themselves for being out of work, due in part to misconceptions about what it takes to succeed in America.

What reinforces such an American Nightmare is a self-help industry that is the modern secular version of our grounding myth—which, as Helaine Olen explains, is “the idea that diligent efforts and thrift demonstrated both godliness and virtue — and would result in worldly success.” Belief in self-help easily becomes self-blame. And, of course, an attempt to blame the victims of the Second Great Depression for their own plight.

Viewed through this prism, you can think of the constant simmering anger in our culture as the road rage of self-help culture. Fearing the humiliation of failure, we aggressively lash out at others who prove the self-help nostrums a lie.

This could be the reason that many, including Republican members of Congress, blame the long-term jobless for their own plight, and cut off their unemployment checks. We say those who fell prey to predatory lending weren’t misled, but were greedy.

According to the tenets of self-help, the victims of the American economic collapse need not a helping hand, but a kick in the pants.