Tag Archives: Occupy Wall Street

Eight recent books that illuminate the state of affairs in America today

In recent months I’ve reviewed eight nonfiction books in this blog that collectively represent a panoramic view of America today — and of our prospects to thrive in the future. It’s a decidedly mixed picture, but I’m convinced it’s real. Together, the books in this accessible little collection constitute a primer on the challenges we face as a nation.

If you want to read the original review of one of these books, simply click on the title below.

Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, by Mark Hertsgaard. An able journalist who specializes in reporting on the environment generally and global warming in particular interviews many of the world’s top scientists in the field — and comes away gloomier than ever.

The Self-Made Myth, and the Truth About How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed, by Brian Miller and Mike Lapham. The directors of United for a Fair Economy and its project, Responsible Wealth, respectively, explode the Ayn Rand myth that corporate leaders are self-made “job creators” who did it all on their own, and that the rest of us deserve our fate.

99 to 1: How Wealth Inequality Is Wrecking the World and What We Can Do About It, by Chuck Collins. The founder and former director of United for a Fair Economy, now at the Institute for Policy Studies, is one of the country’s top experts on the gap between the really rich and the rest of us. He prescribes action to build a new economy that will benefit all 100%.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander. A veteran civil rights lawyer exposes the horrific consequences of the War on Drugs, including the institutionalization of racism in American jurisprudence. This is a shocking indictment of our political and judicial leadership over the past three decades.

Corporations Are Not People: Why They Have More Rights Than You Do and What You Can Do About It, by Jeffrey D. Clements. A former Massachusetts assistant attorney general examines the four-decade legal history that culminated in the Citizens United decision, details how it undermines American democracy, and lays out a strategy to fight back.

Rebuild the Dream, by Van Jones. One of our nation’s most passionate and insightful young leaders, building on his experience both as an activist and in the White House, analyzes the similarities and differences among the Tea Party, the Occupy Movement, and the 2008 Obama campaign and its aftermath. He advocates a grassroots citizens’ movement to regain political advantage over the extreme Right Wing.

Republican Gomorra: Inside the Movement That Shattered the Party, by Max Blumenthal. A young journalist, author, and blogger digs through the history of the Religious Right and turns up an astonishing story of its antecedents — and of the true, often masked, beliefs of its current leaders.

Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin. A Pulitzer-Prize-winning reporter for the Washington Post and her researcher and co-author root around through the maze of our country’s 16 federal intelligence agencies and reveal just how far we’ve come in the years since 9/11 from our cherished self-image of a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

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Citizens United, corporate personhood, and the movement to restore political power to the people

A review of Corporations Are Not People: Why They Have More Rights Than You Do and What You Can Do About It, by Jeffrey D. Clements

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

If you’re like most Americans, you may think that the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission is the root cause of the stranglehold on U.S. elections by major corporations and the 1%.

If you follow public affairs more closely than most, you’re aware that the situation is more complicated than this — that the misbegotten principle of “corporate personhood” that underpins Citizens United is a major element in the picture. I knew that much before I read Jeffrey Clements’ eye-opening book, Corporations Are Not People – but I didn’t have a clue where that concept came from, how it grew into one of the dominant judicial doctrines of the last several decades, or the truly pivotal role it has played in recent American history.

In fact, Citizens United was only one of the latest episodes in a four-decade-long history of legal, political, and social change that has moved the center of gravity in public discourse in America so far to the right that our last two Democratic Presidents can only be seen in global context as moderate conservatives, while today’s Republican leaders hold such extreme views that to term them “conservative” is a gross misuse of the language.

As Jeffrey Clements tells it, the story begins in 1970 with the first Earth Day. The mobilization of more than 20 million Americans in that masterful organizing effort led to the passage of a long series of laws that established the basis for long-overdue environmental regulation: the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Health and Safety Act that created OSHA, the Clean Air Act, and a host of others.

Then the corporate world struck back.

A soft-spoken Southern attorney named Lewis F. Powell, Jr. led the charge. Powell was defending Philip Morris in the growing wave of lawsuits about cigarette smoking in the 1960s and sat on its board. Shortly before accepting his appointment to the Supreme Court by Richard Nixon in 1971, Powell wrote a now-infamous memo to a friend at the U. S. Chamber of Commerce, the bastion of corporate America. The “Powell Memo” kicked off the four-decade assault by the corporate elite and the 1% that stifles American democracy today.

Under the title “Attack on American Free Enterprise System,” Powell explained, “‘No thoughtful person can question that the American economic system is under broad attack.’ In response, corporations must organize and fund a drive to achieve political power through ‘united action.’” As a lawyer, Powell naturally saw the courts as the centerpiece of the pro-corporate strategy he advocated. “Activist judges” on courts throughout the land, and especially on the U. S. Supreme Court, would roll back legislation such as the flood of new environmental laws.

The corporate campaign rolled out in the years after Powell’s memo in spheres of activity: lobbying Congress, state legislatures, and the public through industry front groups such as the Tobacco Institute and the Edison Electric Institute; electing or appointing pro-corporate judges such as Powell himself; and influencing public education and shaping public opinion through a flotilla of Right-Wing think tanks including the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Manhattan Institute, and many others.

Since Powell’s memo circulated in the upper echelons of corporate America in 1971, corporations, primarily the large transnational companies that dominate the Chamber of Commerce, have poured billions of dollars into these activities. However, until his death in 1998, Lewis Powell continued to lead the pro-corporate effort from his seat on the U. S. Supreme Court. In the early and mid-1970s, Powell was thwarted by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, but the tide turned in 1978 when Powell prevailed over strenuous objections from the Chief in a case that firmly established the “right” of corporations to flaunt laws passed to keep them in check by establishing the principle of corporate personhood.

Corporations Are Not People is an activist plea for readers to join the gathering movement to overturn Citizens United, wrest political power from the corporations, and put it back in the hands of people. As Jeffrey Clements sees it, there are “three essential steps to roll back corporate dominance of government: (1) a twenty-eighth amendment to the Constitution that will overturn Citizens United and corporate rights and restore people’s rights; (2) corporate accountability and charter reform to ensure that corporations better reflect the public policy reasons for which we allow the legal benefits of incorporation, such as limited liability, in the first place; and (3) election law reform, including increased public funding, greater transparency, and an end to legal political bribery.”

As an advocate for public funding of elections since 1972 and a long-time participant in electoral politics at every level – local, regional, statewide, and national – I find Clements’ three steps to be right on target. The structural reforms he proposes would strike at the heart of the forces that are strangling our political rights and advancing the interests of the 1% against those of the 99%.

Much of Corporations Are Not People is devoted to the many resources offered readers at the back of the book: the wording of the proposed 28th Amendment; a draft resolution favoring passage of the amendment that organizations and local governmental bodies may adopt; and contact information for the growing list of organizations that are coming together in the new movement to roll back corporate power.

Jeffrey D. Clements is an attorney in Concord, Massachusetts. A former Assistant Attorney General of his state, he cofounded Free Speech for People following the ruling in Citizens United.

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Van Jones: Making sense of the Tea Party, the Occupy Movement, and Barack Obama’s shift from candidate to President

A review of Rebuild the Dream, by Van Jones

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

I always knew Van Jones was smart, but I didn’t know just how smart until I read Rebuild the Dream. In recent years, Jones has emerged as one of the most charismatic and outspoken younger leaders of our time. This book proves he has also become one of the most insightful, too.

We live at a time when far too few of us can make sense of what’s happening around us. With the incessant noise of the news media, our full immersion online from dawn to dusk, and the endless distractions of entertainment reflecting a thousand subcultures, it’s all too easy to just lie back and let it all happen, convincing ourselves that no one could possibly perceive meaningful patterns in this donnybrook we call contemporary American life. Jones does, though.

In Rebuild the Dream, he asks — and answers — three questions:

  • “What can Americans who want to fix the system learn from the movement for hope and change that united around Barack Obama in 2008 — and from its collapse after he entered the White House?
  • “What can we learn from the Tea Party’s equally impressive capture of the national debate in 2009 — and its successful pivot to electoral politics in 2010?”
  • And what can we learn from the startling success of Occupy Wall Street in elevating economic inequality to the top of the political agenda in 2011 — and of its failure to translate that success into the electoral arena?

Rebuild the Dream has been greeted as a call to arms to progressives, an exhortation to reenergize ourselves for the November 2012 elections. That’s true, so far as it goes. But this book is far more valuable for its clear-eyed analysis of today’s political scene. Van Jones has devised a simple analytical framework through which we can see — clearly — the similarities and differences among the Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party movements and the 2008 Obama campaign and its aftermath. If Rebuild the Dream is useful as a guidebook for activists determined to swing the pendulum back to the left, in the long run it will be an even better resource for historians and social scientists attempting to understand this tumultuous era in American history.

However, simply as a call to arms, Rebuild the Dream is compelling: “The time has come to turn things right side up again and declare that America’s honest, hard-working middle class is too big to fail. The aspirations of our low-income, struggling, and marginalized communities are too big and important to fail . . .  The American Dream itself is too big to fail.”

I’ve known Van Jones for more than a decade, first through the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, which he founded in Oakland in the mid-1990s, and later through Social Venture Network, of which we we were both members. Van also co-founded the online activist organization Color of Change and later, reflecting his turn to environmental activism and his passionate belief that the environment and the economy both benefit hugely by creating “Green Jobs,” he founded Green for All. Along the way, he also managed to write a New York Times-bestselling book, The Green Collar Economy. Having accomplished all this, however, Jones is nonetheless best-known for his six-month stay in the White House as Special Advisor for Green Jobs, Enterprise, and Innovation to President Obama.

It is clearly no coincidence that Color of Change is credited with triggering the successful boycott of Glenn Beck’s hysterical outbursts on Fox News that was responsible for his leaving the network, and that Beck in turn was a central figure in the Right-Wing smear campaign that drove Jones out of his job in the White House.

Jones is a Yale-educated attorney who was born and raised in Tennessee. He is African-American. He is also a very good person to have as a friend. You’ll find an extensive biography of Van Jones here.

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A lucid analysis of how the 1% got to be that way, and how the 99% can fight back

 

 

 

1A review of 99 to 1: How Wealth Inequality Is Wrecking the World and What We Can Do About It, by Chuck Collins

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Leave it to a scrappy little San Francisco publishing house to be first out of the gate with a primer on the central lesson to be learned from the Occupy Wall Street movement: that the disparity in wealth (not income) between the 99% and the 1% is the most significant economic fact about the U.S. today. Most books spring from the minds of authors, who in turn seek out publishers, but Berrett-Koehler has a long history of identifying themes and issues that cry out for analysis — and then finding the authors to take them on. In Chuck Collins, one of the nation’s leading scholars and activists on the topic of wealth inequality, Berrett-Koehler struck paydirt.

In 99 to 1, Collins lucidly spotlights the terrible price we all pay for the massive imbalance in wealth between today’s haves and have-nots. He surveys U.S. economic history, drawing a parallel between the Gilded Age of the 1890s through the 1920s and the current era, beginning in the late 1970s — both of them periods when the disparity of wealth grew to unprecedented proportions. Collins explains the political dynamics that gave rise to today’s wealth disparity, identifying those responsible as the “rule-riggers” among the 1%, chiefly the leaders of Wall Street-based financial institutions and of the transnational corporations they finance as well as a small number of the individuals who are benefiting the most from the current economic regime.

“In a nutshell,” Collins writes, “(1) the rules of the economy have been changed to benefit asset owners at the expense of wage earners, and (2) these rule changes have benefited global corporations at the expense of local businesses.”

As Collins explains, the 1% today includes individuals with net worth of $5 million or more — a total of roughly 3 million individuals or 1.5 million households. Obviously, this large number of people aren’t co-conspirators in a historic scheme to plunder the U.S. economy. However, a small percentage of the 1% does actively participate in an ongoing effort to shift wealth from the poor and middle class to the coffers of those who are already rich.

These “rule-riggers,” most of whom can be found among the top one-tenth of 1%, use every advantage at their disposal: their direct access to legislators; the thousands of lobbyists their companies maintain on Capitol Hill and in statehouses throughout the country; their personal and corporate philanthropy; and their positions in society as “opinion leaders.” The result of their three decades of effort has been to weaken labor unions; undermine government regulations ensuring public health, job safety, and environmental quality; seizing control of both major political parties; and disproportionately benefiting not just the 1% as a whole but the very richest among them. As Collins notes, “between 1979 and 2007, the top one-tenth of 1 percent realized 36 percent of the total [gain realized by the top 1 percent]. The 1 percent saw their incomes go up 224 percent over these years, while the richest one-tenth of 1 percent saw theirs rise by 360 percent.”

Tragically, the growing disparity in wealth is neither new nor just an American phenomenon. More than 2,000 years ago, Plato (yes, that Plato) wrote that “the legislator should determine what is to be the limit of poverty or of wealth.” And Collins cites a UN study finding that “the richest 1 percent of the world’s adult population, individuals worth at least $514,512, owned 39.9 percent of the world’s household wealth. This is greater than the wealth of the world’s poorest 95 percent, those adults worth under $150,145, who together hold just 29.4 percent of the world’s wealth.” Not to speak of the billions of people who don’t have a pot to piss in, let alone $150,000!

Collins devotes considerable attention to identifying the steps that need to be taken to reverse the direction of the pendulum. He is careful to point out that any movement to do so will find a great many allies within the 1 percent. Collins cites polling results that “over 65 percent of people in the 1 percent agree with the concerns of the 99 percent and believe they should pay more taxes.” However, an effort to reverse the present course will require a fundamental shift in society’s values over many decades. Collins enumerates the clashing values between those at the top of the wealth pyramid and most of the rest of us and lays out a policy agenda based on a “seven-generation perspective — the belief that our actions should be considered in light of their impact seven generations into the future.”

99 to 1 should be required reading for every public official, every activist, and every citizen who wants to understand what really makes society tick and how its malfunctioning economic systems can be repaired.

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Occupy Wall Street: A View from the Inside

A review of This Changes Everything: Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Movement, edited by Sarah van Gelder and the staff of Yes! Magazine

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Even today, as local authorities around the country mobilize their police forces to dismantle the encampments of the Occupy movement, it’s difficult to have any conversation about the U.S. economy without confronting the harsh financial reality faced by the majority of Americans today. If the mostly young people who have braved cold nights and police batons to cast a spotlight on this manmade disaster are now being forced to scatter, there seems little question that the terms of the national debate on economics have been altered by their courage. After all, who today doesn’t recognize what they mean by “the 99%” and “the 1%?” They’ve turned the sort of dry statistics that cause our eyes to glaze over into memes that have made their way into every nook and cranny of our society.

How all this came about and what we can learn from it is the subject of This Changes Everything. This instant book — published November 4, 2011, barely six weeks after the first occupation in New York City on September 17 — is the result of an unusual collaboration between the publisher, San Francisco-based Berrett-Koehler Publishers, and the editors of Yes! Magazine. which hails from Bainbridge Island, Washington, near Seattle.

In a fast-paced series of short articles, this well-organized little book brings together the thoughts and observations of several individuals critical to the launching of the Occupy movement as well as a number of outside observers who are close to the movement. In these pages, you’ll find recognizable names — Ralph Nader and Naomi Klein, for example — as well as those who are far less well known. They include writers and poets, but all appear to be activists.

As an anthology, This Changes Everything doesn’t convey a single point of view but rather a range of approaches that share only their sympathy for the movement and a conviction that the economy of the U.S. and the world has veered sharply off course in a dangerous direction. The contributors include the usual mix of perspectives found on the American Left today, from issue-focused community organizers to progressive thinkers concerned above all with the Big Picture questions of global warming and economic justice, to anarchists whose focus is on the ways and means of organizing.

If for some reason you’re wondering why Occupy Wall Street hasn’t settled on a specific set of demands, you’ll find the explanation here: “The system is broken in so many ways that it’s dizzying to try to name them all . . . The one thing the protestors all seem to agree on is that the middle-class way of life is moving out of reach.” Clearly, they would also subscribe to the judgment that “Much of what provides profits to Wall Street is, or should be, illegal.”

Others can translate these truths into practical proposals. The value the Occupy movement brings to the table is the ability to make us think, and think hard, about the roots of our deplorable economic circumstances.

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