VOICES FROM BELOW
Radio Ecoshock moves from Washington and Wall Street all the way to tent city. We’ll hear from the homeless – and from the new breed of independent citizen reporters who will replace the dying newspapers and gutted TV newsrooms.
The financial news is so depressing, I couldn’t make the program without coming up with “Four Solid Tips for Surviving Bad Times”. That’s in this program and blog as well.
This week we're going to take a quick cruise through the battered economy. Like economist Paul Krugman in the New York Times says, the latest news and government moves almost left me in utter despair. I didn't want to make this program - until I realized, as I waded through, there was another stream developing in the back of my mind. Things to learn, personal solutions that I could share with you. An antidote to the poison economy.
So you'll get all the desperation a mind can stand, but I've also got four solid tips for you, tiny ways out that might make you better prepared for the hard times to come. Stay tuned for that.
We have an interview - a new take on the "Will Work for Food" sign, and two radio reports from Independent journalists. George from California takes us on a tour of people living in their cars, while CKUT radio brings out powerful voices from a tent city in Nashville Tennessee. It's an example of how we get news without newspapers, in the digital democracy.
Let's start with the banksters, the victims, and Obama's latest national TV address.
According to a report from MarketWatch, many Americans are just "a paycheck or two from ruin." Millions do not have enough savings to cover even a month's worth of expenses. And this includes many in the Middle Class, as well as the poor. Countless Americans living in expensive houses are sweating out this month's bills, hoping to make it through.
The article by Jennifer Waters, published March 18th, collects date from a number of recent surveys. These found, quote ""Roughly 60% of the population was ill-prepared (financially) before the meltdown." Another study by MetLife discovered half of Americans have only a month's worth of savings - two paychecks before default or bankruptcy. Twenty eight percent surveyed could last only two weeks. Almost a third of those making over $100,000 a year said they could only last a month without a job.
Another study by the Pew Center reported that 86% of consumers, rich and poor, have cut back on spending, even those who had not lost any job or income.. That could be good news for the environment.
The major banks of America are insolvent. This has been reported by most major news outlets, and acknowledged by the repeated bailouts by the government. Now American Credit Unions are threatened by the same problems. Wanting to invest their members' money in something tangible, they bought trumped up mortgages which are now crashing in value.
On March 20th, Federal Regulators took control of two big institutions at the heart of the credit union system. These so called "corporate credit unions" mediate payments between at least 10,000 "retail" credit unions - the ones joined and used by the public. The government's National Credit Union Administration seized U.S. Central Federal Credit union, based in Kansas, and Western Corporate Federal Credit Union in California. These two had assets over 55 billion dollars.
U.S. Central expected to lose 1.2 billion from bad mortgage-backed securities. The government has already promised $40 billion in aid for corporate credit unions, and guarantee up to $250,000 per account, as they do for banks.
Without the week-end takeover of these credit union clearing houses, the cash might have stopped flowing through 7,800 U.S. credit unions.
China is the world's top steel maker. Steel exports from the Asian giant are projected to drop by 80 percent this year. After a glut of over-production, the world has stopped making things this year. Instead of being the world's steel exporter, China may actually import more steel this year.
Japan, the world's second largest economy, and heavily dependent on exports, experienced another month of 50 percent drop in exports. The economy there is in a shambles. Westerners aren't buying cars and new digital gear.
When you see the U.S. Federal Reserve buying U.S. Treasuries, you know serious problems are blowing up in the back rooms of government finance. The Chinese leaders are questioning whether treasuries, the debt which funds all U.S. government operations now, are really worth much. The Chinese are the single largest owner of U.S. Treasuries. If they, or the Saudi's decided to sell, you can lock up the doors of Congress and send the politicos home. There won't be any money to pay government employees and programs.
The head of the biggest Chinese bank is also suggesting a new world currency to replace the U.S. dollar. If that happens, America would collapse for sure. If foreigner's don't need and buy U.S. dollars, there isn't much else keeping the U.S. economy afloat these days.
We have to wonder if a major Treasury owner, say a soverign Wealth fund, didn't threaten to get out. There are dinosaurs stumbling around in the dark, that we never hear about. Even on the surface, we know that the Chinese, Japanese and Germans will buy fewer Treasuries this year just because their exports have dropped so much. They have less trade to exchange for U.S. government debt. How will the Obama administration pay for so much more?
The U.S. government shows there is a way to sell Treasuries, namely, to sell them back to another arm of the government. "I'll lend money to myself" says the debtor, who just makes up more billions using a laser printer in the back office. Every major financial publication admits this move to buy our own Treasuries is the last desperate gamble, by the biggest gambler in the world. The Administration admits it's thrown everything but the kitchen sink at this economic crisis. Buying their own debt is the kitchen sink. To me, it's a sign to get ready for the toughest of times.
The other major economic news comes from Tim Geithner's suicidal plunge down the black hole of toxic assets. Geithner sat with all the top bankers on the privately owned Federal Reserve of New York, before being tapped by Obama to run the treasury. Barrack chose this Republican bankers' man to run the country's treasury. The new plan is a regurgitation of Bush's man, the Goldman Sachs CEO Hank Paulson - to push up to a trillion dollars into the big banks, buying toxic assets for the taxpayer.
Mmmm who wouldn't want a big dinner of toxic assets. This is the mess of legal paperwork poised on top of shaky sub-prime mortgages, with the blessings of so called ratings agencies. The banks hold toxic assets on their books valued up to a quadrillion dollars or more. Their real value is low to nothing. Even a trillion dollars is just a drop in the ocean of derivatives floating out there, not much in a quadrillion dollar problem.
This is a double tragedy. First, as economists like Paul Krugman pointed out in the New York Times, it won't work. Second, these mistakes, some say looting, in the economy will burn out the political good will felt for Barrack Obama. The Banksters are hosing him, and us, at the most critical time in all human history. Think what a trillion could do for replacing coal power with solar and wind, for building high-speed rail, for saving our climate.
In his televised address to the nation March 24th, Barrack Obama did not mention the climate as a concern at all. He talked energy independence under his breath, but did not warn the American people about the new science coming out of Copenhagen. About the rising seas, storms, fires, floods and drought coming to the nation. The country will be overwhelmed with debt or bankrupt as the climate disaster hits harder and harder.
Worse, his whole financial talk is based, Obama told us, on a presumed growth rate of 2.6 percent per year. Nobody told him the age of growth is over. The toxic economy growing at 2 percent a year uses up the Earth within the lifetimes of our children. Projections of spending built on endless growth means projections of mutual suicide for the planet's ecosphere.
You will know someone truthful is in control when they outline the plan for a an orderly contraction of the toxic economy. Rapid withdrawal from carbon, pesticides, and the general rape of the biosphere. Even a contraction in the human population, planned and humane we hope, is absolutely necessary.
This will happen anyway, as fossil fuels run out. It is happening now in the financial world, and in our local jobs market. The kill-it-all for profit bubble is deflating like a balloon with a nail in it.
Barrack Obama can talk honey out of the air. He is easily the most articulate and intelligent American President since Bill Clinton - and a great relief from the dumb and evil years of George Bush. But Obama has not yet faced reality, nor separated himself from his Wall Street campaign donors.
His main advice for the American people: don't look back. Don't look over your shoulder. Don't look at what really happened before, during and after 9/11. We'll leave the Bush appointed version of history intact. Don't prosecute anyone for the torture and the horrendous war crime that ended in hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqi's. Let Mr. Cheney go on his speaking tour. Oh, and it's counterproductive to charge those who engineered and profited from the world's biggest Ponzi scheme either. We need those crooks to save us now. In fact, we need the crooks to lead us, acting right in the heart of government. We need to give them all our tax money, and all the tax money our children will ever pay, and maybe, just maybe, they'll be able to find your pension money and your savings, if you have the nerve to ask for them. Nothing will be investigated - just face forward and hope.
In my opinion, that is blackmail, not government. It means American government bankruptcy and even collapse becomes ever more possible. We all need to take what steps we can to find our local resource base, develop community links, and learn how to live through the developing collapse. In this program, I'm going to give you four illustrated tips to help you do just that.
In Rolling Stone magazine and online, Matt Taibbi's March 19th article is simply titled "The Big Takeover." Rolling on from the seemingly unlimited payouts from AIG, Taibbi explains, quote "How Wall Street insiders are using the bailout to stage a revolution." They may get more revolution than they bargained for, I say.
Finally, understanding the financial situation, there is a good article from the Global Macro EconoMonitor dated March 18th by Rich Hartmann. The title tells it all: "Nobody Knows the Price of Anything". That is the basis of the crisis. Is that $200 billion dollar derivative collection worth $100 billion, 100 million or nothing. Nobody knows. We are not sure wht gold is really worth - estimates run from $4,000 dollars and ounce to nothing if you are hungry and have only gold. Oil goes from $150 to $35 to ... anything is possible.
We don't know what the dollar is really worth, or any currency. Nobody can guess how much banks or industries are worth. And we certainly don't know the value of real estate. Is a gas guzzler from a soon-to-be bankrupt auto company worth $30,000 dollars? or nothing, as a complete liability? Rich Hartmann asks: will orange juice or milk be four dollars next year, or 20 dollars?
Republicans are always saying we face a crisis of values. Well now we do. In fact, we don't know what future human life is worth - although on our current carbon trajectory we value it as nothing.
It's all a Moroccan bazaare now. People are guessing at costs, offering half the asking price, and still paying too much. Your challenge, as a single person in the storm, is to judge what really matters to you and your family. Which is worth more: more fast food bills, or a year's supply of food. Because no one else knows what anything is really worth - set your own values, and proceed accordingly.
Even Peggy Noonan, hardly a radical op-ed columnist, is writing about the "pandemic of fear" - her words - gripping America. Gun sales are up, people going to church, folks are taking money from banks to the mattress, while others surf the Net looking for some place safe to get out. How many of us are dreaming of a nice concrete hole lined with food? Check out her article titled "There's No Pill for This Kind of Depression" in the Wall Street Journal March 13th.
Oh - and that famous tent city in Sacramento - the one covered by all the American networks, Oprah, the BBC and even Al Jazeera - that's being closed down by the city. Too embarassing. Sacramento will find shelter beds for the now famous down and out residents of tent city. But a blog comment explains that area floods in the spring anyway. Sacramento would have been liable if there were deaths. Meanwhile, the city is opening more tent cities on higher ground.
*Update: Governor Schwartzenegger has swooped in to open a local fair-grounds (with water and sewage services) for the tent city residents – but only until June. Presumably after that they have to keep on moving to nowhere.
They'll have plenty of company. Maybe Google maps will develop a tour of tent cities from the safety of satellites. In this program, Radio Ecoshock will go one better, with two independent reports right from people living in cars in California, to a major tent city just outside of Nashville Tennesse.
I want to showcase these two for another reason. We are all asking what happens when newspapers disappear, when the journalists behind the big TV networks are laid off. One answer is citizen journalism, and listener-supported non-profits, especially non-profit radio with it's low production costs. We're finding informed content in blog post comments, sometimes better written than newspapers. And it's coming in hot, fast, and free.
Our first piece is from the non-profit Canadian station CKUT. They visited a tent city out of Nashville. We'll hear not just the hardship, but the intelligent plea for rights coming from people thought to be discarded, lost to society. Let's listen.
[CKUT NASHVILLE][in the Radio Ecoshock Show 090327]
Yes, the kicked out and forgotten still have a voice. As Van Jones said in his Powershift 09 address, a rebuilt America will have to include everyone. Everyone one.
For our second I Report piece, how about this You tube video, presented by "George from California". I like it George. Just getting out around town, observing what the mainstream media don't find interesting. The little signs of desperation in the falling Middle Class.
[George from California]
Check out my blog for the You tube address for George's video. It's just a park. No car chases. Just another sad story. [Damn – now I can’t find the video!!]
WHICH HALF OF AMERICANS DON’T COUNT AT ALL?
Watching the U.S. election speeches in November 08, I was struck by one thing: both candidates spoke for a class. Supposedly McCain and the Republicans spoke for the rich, and Obama the Middle Class. No one even suggested they represented the poor, who are rapidly becoming the majority of Americans. Stunning. Tax cuts mean nothing to people who can't make enough to pay taxes. Refund checks don't reach the people who need help most, the ones with no address. The media of America, studded with well-paid anchors and experts, have blanked out American poverty for generations. Now that a few Middle Class types, people who could have been us, are falling down the ladder, suddenly the U.S. networks have discovered tent cities and single moms on welfare. Suddenly, now that we worry we're going there too - the poor become visible, at least for a few minutes. How is it the U.S. media managed to ignore horrible poverty for so long?
I've been to a house with three kids where the refrigerator held nothing but a piece of birthday cake, and a half-eaten sausage. Nothing in the cupboards but ketchup and sugar packages lifted from a restaurant. Have you mixed ketchup and sugar with hot water to make the last ditch dinner? The kids couldn't chew a carrot, their teeth were so bad. Right in the land of billionaires. And no, momma wasn't an alcoholic or a drug addict. At least they had a home. According to a Harvard Study, over a million American kids are homeless, and that number is growing. It breaks my heart to even imagine their lives, as they shuffle around the world's wealthiest country. It's starting in Canada and the UK too.
I promised you some tips in this show, some things to do in the whirlwind. Here's one, and it goes against what you have been taught. All your life people have promised upward mobility. Marry up. Meet the right people. Don't associate with the losers.
Now it turns out the most exclusive country club, in the most exclusive enclave, leads only to Bernie Madoff, to the grand ponzi scheme of Wall Street. During the next few years, many of us, too many, will become downwardly mobile. We don't know what to expect at all.
My personal solution is to get a little more street-wise. To connect with the homeless and the disadvantaged. Two weeks ago I visited one of the best centers serving the poor in my hometown of Vancouver, Canada. "The Gathering Place" as it is called, is run by the city. It provides a safe meeting place, which includes TV rooms with benches, a guarded temporary storage room to put your stuff in big tubs, and, glory be, the all important free showers.
Upstairs, there is a cafeteria which once a day serves up an all-inclusive three dollar dinner.
I don't know about you, but I often learn best by embarassment. When I do something stupid, and everybody sees it, I dont' forget that easily. So I don't mind telling a story about myself, it if might help you. I decided to go for the meal - and joined the line. The bearded thin man ahead of me said it would be an hour wait. I believed him, even though a large clear sign announced dinner would be in 15 minutes. Then he disappeared around the corner, saying I had to wait, because only two were allowed in at a time. What did I know? The line behind me shoved forward, because that was a lie as well. My self-appointed guide knew a gullible outsider and had fun with me. But I learned this: as much as I like to brag about sustainability, and visits and friends on the poor side of town - I'm still a middle class mark with few street smarts. How about you?
If we really had to live on the streets, we might not last long. Part of the solution is to connect with those who do know how to survive in a city, when money can't be found. Maybe we can pick at least a few hours to volunteer at a local homeless shelter. Meet people who know hard times and learn from them. Look into into people's eyes. Locate the shelters, the parks for sleeping, the free meals, the day labour pickup spots. Try standing on a street for a day. Look around.
Meanwhile, take clean water out to tent city, blankets to the cold. Do something, feel better, and know we may be helping our future selves or relations, and the country.
Rule 1: Get street-wise now.
My second tip will take you in a completely different direction. That is: do what you can to connect directly with sources of food. I started with locating the food co-ops, and small warehouses that distribute food, but will deal with bulk orders from individuals. I even found a small granery just on the edge of town. Chat up the vendors at the farmer's market, learn their names.
We may need to go further, to meet the people who produce our food locally. In Vancouver, there is an organization whose founding purpose was to link aware food consumers with organic growers in the area. It's called Farm Folk City Folk. Check it out as ffcf.bc.ca or just Google Farm Folk City Folk. This is a model organization which you could set up in your town or city.
A listener sent in another great tip, which resulted in this interview.
[Valerie Gates, willworkforfoodproject.com][Valerie is an award-winning Boston area designer and publicity expert who decided to help small local organic farms get known. She trades her skills for food – a great idea that many of us could develop.]
Do you have skills that can help you connect with food growers? All sorts of alternative economics are popping out of the current crisis. One organic apple grower let's city dwellers adopt a tree. When harvest time comes, you get whatever crop that tree gives. You assume some of the risk, help the farmer who likely can't get credit anyway, and may end up with a bumber crop of great organic apples.
Personally, I've had an invite to go out and speak in an agricultural area. Likely it will be a small audience, but I'll go, just to start making friends and laying down roots where the food is.
Tip #2 is: Develop direct connections to local food producers however you can.
On to Tip #3: Adopt a place to run away to. Chances are you will be stuck in the city. But what if roving armed gangs make city living unhealthy? What if disease, or simple lack of food supply mean you have to get out? Or a hurricane wrecks the city beyond immediate rebuilding? There are many reasons, including the climate, which might drive you to seek another location. So you might as well develop a Plan B ahead of time.
I suggest checking out maps, figuring out gas supplies or get-away routes (when the freeways are plugged) - and pick a place you might want to go. Those with the money should go ahead and buy a cheap country place, or at least a plot of land now. That's the best insurance and investment you will ever make, in my opinion. We did just that a few years ago.
Even if you can't buy - pretend. Get detailed maps of the area. Go camping in the area if you can. Figure out where the ducks land and the deer go. Introduce yourself to local farmers. Maybe even stash a few tools in a shed. Consider where you could squat in an emergency and grow some food. Check out the weather stats. Is there enough rain or river to water your garden? How long is the growing season?
It may seem like an imaginary exercise now, but it could provide you with at least some landing knowledge if you had to move. And millions of us will have to move, in the coming years or decades.
Finally, Tip Four: something you can do easily now: print out a survival binder, and get a few books. Sure it's all there on the Internet. But you need a home to get the Net regularly. And the Net could go down.
It's so easy now to get a few good simple recipe books for cooking, and books on how to store food. The old standard "Joy of Cooking" tells you how to prepare anything, and "Putting Food By" is the bible of food preservation. I keep finding important survival tips on the Net - but if my hard drive goes bust, or I can't afford the power bills due to a lost income - then what? So I print out the best into a "survival binder". At least I'll have that, and I could rip out the most important pages for my backpack if I have to hit the road for some reason. And just like the last Depression, there will be millions of migratory people even in the developed countries.
Add climate change, and it could be that migratory living will be even more common. In fact, that's how the first North Americans lived. That tells you about the real resources here, once fossil fuels are removed, and the climate shifts. I get out and walk every day, with a backpack some days, just to be ready and able to move. Oh, and it adds years to your life too, no matter what happens.
Four quick tips this week for hard times: Connect with the poor and get street smart. Meet your local food producers. Adopt a place to go if you need to leave the city. And print out - and practice! - the knowledge you might need.
This is Radio Ecoshock, I'm Alex Smith, and that's all I've got to say about that.
The show ends with a song “Everythings Comes at a Price” by recently unemployed steelworker Remo Cino. You can find that on Youtube as well.