Lowest Common Denominator

At the airport, there are two security lines. There is one where you have to take off your shoes, and another where you do not. Yes, you guessed it: for the second you need elite status.

It shouldn’t be surprising that an airline, a corporation, would divide humanity into two classes. It is the invisible hand of the market at work.

In today’s New York Times, Josh Barro, in Facing Elite Bloat, Airlines Move the Goal Posts, writes about his elite fall from grace. It seems that now plebes contend with not only the elite and the super-elite, but even higher orders. Remember how we used to speak of the 99% and the top 1%? And how now, more often, we refer to the top 0.1% or even the top 0.01%? Well, this elite thing has done so well for the airlines they are now facing elite bloat, where some plebes have invaded the bottom tier.

Their first response was to add classes to top the top elite, perhaps platinum, diamond, kryptonite, and unobtanium. But that didn’t fix things. As Josh Barro writes, “But mostly, (the airlines) have dealt with the problem by devaluing the lowest tier.”

Does that feel familiar? It probably does if you have a job, or if your degree is not from an elite university, or if your annual income is less than $1M. It certainly does if you are a tradesperson, or a nurse, or a teacher. You know, one of those people who has to rely on union seniority or tenure to have a chance in the marketplace.

Yes, it is as true in politics as it is in marketing – we have discovered a common denominator lower than greed: feeling superior.

So before you vote next time, ask yourself a question: do I feel superior to anyone? If you do, chances are someone has been pulling your chain.

Money is the New Religion

The Mall

The upscale mall near us occupies a huge contiguous tract north of the freeway. Its enclosed Main Streets have two levels, open to the non-sky, as if each building had a balcony upstairs connected with its neighbours. At the end of each street is a gussied-up big-box store – two-story of course – opening onto the mall. Stairs, escalators, and flyover bridges connect levels and balconies, so the penitent can wander in wonder through the architecture of the age. Light filters in overhead through cloudy glass. Along the streets and balconies gaudy alcoves harbour treasures and artifacts. Seen from above, the two streets intersect, forming a cross. Soon after it was built, my wife said, That’s our Chartres.

History

The great cathedrals embody all that was noble and profane in the Middle Ages. Although Chartres was built with remarkable speed, it was a product of several generations. Begun in 1194, it was mostly complete in 1250, by which time many of those involved with the heroic effort were second or third-generation. The stained-glass windows, miraculously preserved through centuries of war and weather, are narrative art for a time when few could read.

But there is more: the cathedral was also a free-trade zone outside the purview of the feudal lord. Merchants set up their stalls in the zone and even in the nave itself, although wine-sellers were occasionally banished to the crypt. Taxes on the stalls were payable to the clergy.

So far the activity is merely profane – that is, secular, or not connected to religion. (Profane is from the Latin pro and fanum: before the temple.) But as human custom tends to, the commercial practices proliferated and evolved, until by the late Middle Ages indulgences had become the Wall Street of the twentieth century or the indiegogo.com of the twenty-first. The Butter Tower of Rouen Cathedral was capitalized by selling pardons for the use of butter in Lent.

Belief

It seems that mystery is the father of faith. The architects and artisans of Chartres responded to the beauty of the world by doing their best to compete with it. Their homage to God was an artifact and a space that educated and inspired wonder and ascribed God as the author of all. The cathedral was the railroad of the nineteenth century and the airline of the twentieth. Man as artisan constructed huge works from technologies on the edge of human understanding. Did the traveller on the Orient Express understand the physics of the steam engine? Does today’s passenger understand the physics of flight or inertial navigation? Do the viewers (or the makers) of the film Gravity understand orbital mechanics?

Where am I going with this?

I admit I am groping. But we are again today in an age of indulgences. We know that capitalism and free markets are the foundation of democracy – or at least that’s what everyone says. They say that we should bow to the market, should let it decide everything, or else we are threatening freedom and democracy.

Today’s received wisdom is the same as is was in the Middle Ages – only the object of faith has been changed. We understand the market about as well as we understand orbital mechanics. We are invited to have faith in matters beyond our understanding. So we bow not only to technology, but also to the market and the almighty dollar.

The Range of Human Endeavour

We humans span the noble and the profane and continue into the ignoble and the self-serving. It happened with religion after Chartres was built. The practice of indulgences took a few centuries to moulder and spread, but it was one of the principal motivations behind Martin Luther’s ninety-five theses, nailed to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517. Luther said, Wait a minute – this is not what Jesus meant at all. Thus came the Reformation and more wars and Protestantism and Christianity without profit.

Not much has changed in five hundred years. The noble – the making of art and the building of large, co-operative works – is still followed by the profane – normal commerce. But inevitably – and today is no exception –  the profane is followed by the self-serving, and the whole process is debased. We are once again at a crossroads like the one Luther faced down in 1517.

Inventive mankind has gone from barter to money to lending to banking to capital formation to finance. The average man gropes along behind progress, believing in what he cannot understand. Meanwhile elite MBA’s twist the corporation (human co-operative effort) into re-structuring for maximum stakeholder value. (The definition of stakeholder is left to the MBA’s). Banks no longer turn savings into investment capital but instead operate for maximum profit and market share, extracting their cut not as interest but as fees. (There is no interest rate connected with fees, so there is no appearance of usury.) Investment banks invent financial products which they peddle to pension funds and then bet against in the market, making huge profits at the expense of their customers.

These shenanigans depend on our faith and our ignorance. They twist the institutions of our society so they work not for mankind but for a small elite.

This small elite no doubt believes in itself. That, too, is human. Like all of us, they construct a world-view. They are smarter and work harder, and deserve their spoils. Their efforts are a natural winnowing.

But that is their world-view, not the Word of God. There is no reason for us to believe it.

I also understand why we believe in money. It is a matter of survival, and is getting more so every day for us, the great unwashed. But let us not worship money. That can only lead us to suckerdom, as P.T. Barnum famously observed. We would do better to open our eyes and learn and not lose the hope of human co-operative effort toward great things. Perhaps we might even tape a thesis to the door of the mall.

As inspiration we can remember Job, centuries before Christ and millennia before today’s selfish deeds. Covered with boils and tempted by cynicism, he could still say:

I know that my redeemer liveth;

and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth:

and though worms destroy this body,

yet in my flesh shall I see God.

 

Job 19:25

First Letter to the 99%

Dear Young People,

It’s winter. The heady autumn of Occupy Everywhere is now last year’s news. Mitt Romney says corporations are people. Newt says government doesn’t make jobs, private enterprise makes jobs. All politicians are promising jobs. None of that helps if you don’t have a job.

A young man interviewed on NPR has a job. He says his company doesn’t represent him politically. He says his company doesn’t have the right to use the profits it makes on HIS WORK to vote against him.

Perhaps you gave gone into debt (like the country) to get an education and you still can’t find a job. You are bummed, and rightly.

This is all pretty discouraging stuff. But wait. Start from another perspective.

The government doesn’t need you. No corporation or small business needs you. The jobs they may or may not offer can be filled by you or by someone else, interchangeably.

But the world needs you. There is no one else in the world who has exactly what you have to give.

In my post of December 11, 2011, Advent and Jobs, I asked, “Who decides what my work will be?” If you’re young and you don’t yet have dependents, you have a chance to give the finger to The Market and decide for yourself.

This is not easy, and I have no illusions that it will be possible for everyone. But I write this in hope and in the belief that looking clearly at the problem is a good start. So before you take that job as a “greeter” or as an “associate”, think about the work you want to do. All work – however strange and useless it may appear to The Market, is worthy of your human dignity if it comes from the heart. So try to make time – quiet time – to listen to that voice inside – and it will come, but it is a soft voice – that will tell you about the work that you are meant to do, the work that will be your vocation. Then fight for it with all your might.

I don’t know how you’re going to do it. I would tell you, but I know the solution is unique to you and I am not privy to it. What I do know is you might have to ask for help. It could be as little as asking a parent, sibling, or friend with a credit card to pay $2.95 to iPage or $3.15 to FatCow every month so you can have your own website. Set it up with WordPress and you can work on it anytime you have access to a computer and WIFI. It may take a year or two to learn the ropes and find out how to attract people to your site and figure out what you are selling or giving away. At the end of the second year you owe your parent, sibling, or friend $72.

Then who knows? When Mitt or Newt or even Barack gets around to offering you a job, you might just say no.

What Now? Haircut?

Winter is coming and the occupy camps are being dismantled. Is this the end of the movement?

No way. First, the idea we are the 99% has spread around the world. Second, the mountain of bad debt created by the financial “industry” is still there. Third, Generation Do (I called them GenGive) is going to dismantle that mountain piece by piece, starting by taking their money and business away from banks.

They’re not stupid. They know it will be a slow process that proceeds by increments. But make no mistake: ideas are coming. If the 99% are not wanted by this economy, they will make their own economy.

Start with Generation Do moving their money out of banks and into credit unions and new local co-ops. Add Bitcoin, a new and apparently viable global internet currency. Restore barter. If you have a roof over your head and enough to eat, consider working for nothing. Leave the consumer economy behind – it is doomed anyway. Let those who own that mountain of debt take a haircut.

Politically we are the 99% is just starting to take hold. Money is powerful only when citizens get their “facts” from TV. (Under the banners of flag, cross, fetus, exclusive marriage between men and women, they march onward to their own deepening impoverishment.) The internet is global and still free for those with access.

Let’s get our own information. Let’s follow the money and work systematically to subvert its power.

Thank you, Ohio!

Thank you, Ohio! You have spoken up for the dignity of teachers, firemen, police officers, and countless others on whose work our society depends. You have spoken clearly and no, Governor Kasich, your law was not too much, too soon – it was not the right path. A race to the bottom, sidelining the very people who make this country work, will not fix what ails us.

Retired state employee and union worker Monty Blanton was quoted in today’s New York Times saying, “What we were actually fighting for was our livelihood.” Amen, brother. A society cannot survive unless it values the honest work of its citizens.

Could this vote mean that even frustrated Tea-Party-leaning voters are asking themselves who really speaks for them? Are they wondering if they have perhaps unwittingly become mouthpieces for the Koch brothers, Art Pope, and the other bankrollers of the far-right agenda?

Tea and The Street

The media are abuzz this week with comparisons of Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party. Many are eager to point out similarities, particularly in the trajectories of their media coverage.

The fundamental difference between them, however, is being ignored. The Tea Party is a local phenomenon while Occupy Wall Street has become a global movement.

The Tea Party proclaims government as the one true bad guy. Reduce government and cut taxes and all will be well. Occupy Wall Street, meanwhile, is accused of having no message and no demands – no recipe for reform, no cure. The two movements are speaking different languages – and now as the cause spreads this is true literally as well.

Bill Frezza, a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, said on NPR’s Morning Edition (October 4, 2011) that “business is not run for the benefit of the country.” Nor does the corporation create jobs, he said, except indirectly as a consequence of growth. In fact business regards job creation as “expense creation” and therefore something to be avoided. The segment (and transcript) are here: Venture Capitalist Warns of Job Creation Myths. This is our local, Tea Party language.

The language of the global movement has its root in humanity. It speaks in the voices of ordinary people whose gifts are unwanted by the economy. It takes as given that society would be better off if these gifts could be given.

The challenges that face humanity are larger than the individual, larger than the corporation, perhaps even larger than the United States of America. They will not be solved today, this quarter, this election cycle, or even this generation.

We Are the 99 Percent

this serif;”>Is it reasonable to assume that one percent of humanity is worthy and the rest of us are not?

cure serif;”>Can 1% move the economy ahead?

Can 1% move the world ahead?

Can 1% take care of the rest of us?

The 1% believe they are taking care of themselves. Theirs is the narrow view of the cancer cell. Their destiny is to die along with the host.

Take heart, 99%. We are humanity – let no one tell you otherwise. We will move the world ahead, and take care of each other while we do.

The economy will adjust.

 

Chris