Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 30, 2009

Acoustic Research wireless headset

Filed under: consumer guide — louisproyect @ 5:44 pm

I don’t know how many people are in my position, but my wife is working on a book in the living room and would not be able to concentrate if I listened to the stereo. So as a solution, I purchased an Acoustic Research wireless headset, model AWD209, at J and R yesterday for $99. I am listening to “Ben Webster and Associates” directly from the CD player right now with the amplifier on mute and it sounds terrific. I should mention that the headsets are not a solution when I am listening to the FM tuner since the mute button on my Rotel Preamp/tuner also mutes the headset when it is plugged in. Maybe your receiver has a switch for speakers or headset, but mine does not. But the bottom line is that this is one terrific sounding headset as well as marriage-friendly.

The Cove; Crude

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 4:21 pm

If you are looking for socially relevant movies featuring likable heroes and heroines in dramatically exciting situations, your only recourse nowadays is the documentary. Fortunately, two of the better documentaries, both involving environmental activism, can be seen in New York City theaters–one playing now and the other debuting on September 9th. The first is “The Cove”, a story that pits Rick O’Barry, formerly one of the world’s leading dolphin trainers, against Japanese fishermen and their government sponsors who are determined to block any efforts aimed to save this highly intelligent creature. The other is “Crude”, a documentary about the movement in Ecuador led by attorney Pablo Fajardo to force Chevron Oil to pay 27 billion dollars in damages to the mostly indigenous peoples whose water resources and health have been ruined by Texaco, a rapacious company that was bought by Chevron in 2001.

Rick O’Barry, now 70 years old and bearing a striking resemblance to Richard Widmark,  trained dolphins for a living in his youth. So good was he at it that he landed a job with the 1960s “Flipper” television show that featured a number of dolphins playing the lead role, just as multiple collies played Lassie on a kindred show. Before long O’Barry discovered that dolphins hated being in captivity despite their outward exuberance at places like Seaworld, so much so that they often committed suicide. Unlike human beings, dolphins and porpoises breathe each breath as a willful act so the decision to stop breathing can lead to death. The dolphin Kathy, who was one of the animals that played “Flipper” died in O’Barry’s arms one day in an act that he could only interpret as suicidal. From that moment on, he devoted himself to freeing dolphins from captivity no matter the risk.

O’Barry won the support of documentary film maker Louie Psihoyos who assembled a kind of guerrilla band of film technicians and divers to accompany him to Taiji, Japan, a city with a seaquarium and host to some of the inhumane treatment of dolphins anywhere in the world.  As we learn from this highly informative documentary, these seaquariums are a living hell for the dolphins that are fed Maalox in order to counteract the stress-related indigestion living in close quarters induces. As one of the animal kingdom’s freer spirits, they are fond of going on 40-mile jaunts in a kind of aquatic version of a joy ride.

Psihoyos is a co-founder of the Oceanic Preservation Society with Silicon Valley visionary Jim Clark who was a principal at Silicon Graphics and Netscape. Making this movie with O’Barry was seen as a way to put pressure on a Japanese government and unscrupulous fishermen. While it is in the spirit of a “Sixty Minutes” segment, the action will remind you more of “Oceans Eleven”, as Rick O’Barry points out in one scene as they try to sneak their gear past the Taiji cops.

The authorities at Taiji have been warding off photographers and activists ever since the coastal waters became a killing ground. Local fishermen discovered that they could stampede dolphins into a cove and kill thousands of dolphins at a time, saving just a few animals for export to seaquariums around the world, including Seaworld, at $150,000 per head. Those that are slaughtered end up in Japanese supermarkets labeled as whale meat. Technically, this is true since dolphins are small whales. But the meat is hazardous to one’s health. Laced with mercury, an inevitable by-product of factory emissions, they can potentially cripple or kill you.

The bad guys in this movie are the Japanese authorities, including a truly sleazy representative to the feckless International Whaling Commission, which allows this criminal enterprise to continue. Just as they resisted any encroachments on the industrial fishing of whales in years past, they now fight any attempt to limit the killing of dolphins, all in the name of “preserving national culture”.

The movie shows the secret filming of the slaughter, facilitated by cameras concealed in fake rocks on the hillside surrounding the cove made by special effects artists from the film industry who are part of O’Barry and Psihoyos’s courageous crew. I should stress the word courageous since there have already been incidents of environmental activists being killed in the act of defending some of nature’s noblest creatures.

Official film website: http://thecovemovie.com/

****

“Crude”, which opens September 9th at the IFC Center in N.Y. and elsewhere around the country later in the month (screening information), is a David and Goliath story which pits an Ecuadoran attorney and his American partners against Chevron, a company that has dug in its heels against paying a single penny to the mostly indigenous victims of toxic waste. When Texaco, now part of Chevron, operated in Ecuador, it allowed the byproducts of drilling to run off into the rivers and wells of tribal land, thus leading to an epidemic of cancer, birth defects and other illnesses that were calculated by Texaco as necessary collateral damage in the pursuit of profit. The movie claims that the environmental destruction wrought by Texaco was thirty times as great as the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.

The movie follows lead attorney Pablo Fajardo around Ecuador as he argues his case before a judge. The trial included on-site investigations of oil spillage with both attorneys present. Chevron’s defense attorney, also an Ecuadoran, pleads with the judge, trying to convince him that the damage might have been done by PetroEcuador, the state-owned enterprise that assumed ownership of Chevron’s assets in 1992. He also argues that the government of Ecuador absolved Chevron/Texaco of all future responsibility for environmental destruction after it paid $40 million for a cleanup. Fajardo takes the film crew around to various sites that were supposedly cleaned up only to show that sludge remains beneath the surface. The closer native peoples live to the wells, the greater the incidence of illness. We meet a peasant woman whose teenage daughter has liver cancer. She attempts to raise chickens to pay for the medical bills, but the animals die from toxic waste long before they can be brought to market.

Now 35, Pablo Fajardo was born into a poor family in the very region that was destroyed by Texaco. At the age of 14, he began working in the oil fields as an unskilled laborer. Seeing the suffering of native peoples convinced him to devote his life to their defense. He studied hard and excelled in school, prompting the Catholic Church to pay for law school. Today he still lives in relative poverty, seeking nothing but justice for the victims of corporate greed.

Fajardo’s main legal partner is Steven Donziger, a bear of a figure who comes across as blunt, ambitious but totally committed to the ideals of social justice represented by this case. Since billions of dollars are riding on the outcome of this case, the Ecuadoran stooges of Chevron try to portray Donzinger and Fajardo as simply in it for the money. This is what Freudian psychologists call projection.

The documentary devotes ample time to allowing the Ecuadoran Indians to tell their story, particularly the Cofàn people who bore the brunt of the despoliation. They all recall the joyful existence they had before Texaco came, when fish and game were plentiful and when crops could be grown in fertile soil rather than toxic sludge.

Like the Japanese representative to the International Whaling Commission, “Crude” has a bona fide villain in Sara McMillan, who is Chevron’s Chief Environmental Scientist. Throughout the movie, she defends Chevron right down the line, just as you expect she would. The net effect is like watching Condoleezza Rice making the case for the invasion of Iraq.

Interestingly enough, the director decided not to explicitly frame the movie as an anti-Chevron work and allows both sides to present their case. Not only does it make for a more interesting film, it allows Chevron to hoist themselves on their own petard. Anybody watching McMillan or any of the other corporate mouthpieces, including one who we learn was convicted of fraud in the closing moments of the movie will feel that they are being conned.

There are other good guys in this movie besides the Fajardo-Donzinger team. It was being made when Rafael Correa assumed office in 2006. Unlike former presidents, Correa sided with the victims of oil pollution, not the giant American corporation that had bribed countless Ecuadoran officials. We see him being escorted through the affected region by Pablo Fajardo and speaking to indigenous peoples. It was his election that most certainly helped the Ecuadoran justice system decide in favor of the plaintiffs even though Chevron has plans to keep the case going on through litigation for decades if possible

We also meet rock musician Sting and his wife Trudy Skyler who are both very involved with the rights of indigenous peoples in the Amazon rainforest. Although the tendency of most radicals, including me most of the time, is to view celebrity activism somewhat cynically, I became convinced after watching “Crude” that their participation is essential. For the average American, Sting has a lot more name recognition than Noam Chomsky and therefore can play a much more significant role in forcing this scumbag corporation to pay restitution to the people whose lives it ruined.

Official film website: http://www.crudethemovie.com/

Excellent “Vanity Fair” article on the case: http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2007/05/texaco200705

August 28, 2009

Big Bands on Youtube (modern)

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 5:46 pm

Billy Eckstein was best known as a crooner, comparable in many ways to Nat King Cole. Ironically, both were superb jazz musicians who were tuned in to the bebop revolution following WWII. The Wiki article on Eckstein notes:

In 1944, Eckstine formed his own big band and made it a fountainhead for young musicians who would reshape jazz by the end of the decade, including Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Charlie Parker, and Fats Navarro. Tadd Dameron and Gil Fuller were among the band’s arrangers, and Sarah Vaughan gave the vocals a contemporary air. The Billy Eckstine Orchestra was the first bop big-band, and its leader reflected bop innovations by stretching his vocal harmonics into his normal ballads.

In this performance of “Rhythm in a Riff”, Eckstein does some great bebop type scatting and a very young Gene “Jug” Ammons turns in a cooking a solo.

Herman became a bandleader in the late 1930s but it was his hiring of Dizzy Gillespie as an arranger in 1942 that marked him as a modernist. Dizzy wrote “Woody’n You” for the band, a tune that became a modern jazz standard.

Like Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw before him, Woody Herman was a proficient clarinetist—so much so that Igor Stravinsky wrote “Ebony Concerto” for him.

In 1947, the Herman’s Herd—as his band was known—became famous for the “four brothers” saxophone section that included Zoot Sims, Serge Chaloff, Herbie Steward, and Stan Getz.

The Youtube clip includes a solo by a very young Stan Getz. The song, an obvious novelty tune, was first recorded by rhythm-and-blues/jazz small group leader Louis Jordan in 1945. Herman does a pretty good imitation of Jordan, including the African-American phrasing, but he was a much better bandleader than a singer.

Dizzy leads his band in a performance of his tune “He beeped when he should have bopped”. Like many of his songs, “Beeped” is a novelty tune that is elevated by his performance.

Like his great predecessor Louis Armstrong was a showman. He enjoyed cracking jokes, mugging and other ploys designed to win over an audience. By the 1960s, his clowning around was distinctly out of fashion as the Black revolution in jazz dictated a more sober if not hostile posture.

Dizzy was committed to progressive social change, a large part due to his Baha’i religious beliefs that stressed the common humanity of everybody on the planet. His efforts on behalf of Cuban musicians did a lot to counteract the demonization promoted by Democratic and Republican presidents alike.

To an extent, the Cuban connection was a natural outgrowth of his affinity for Afro-Cuban music. When he led a big band, he relied on Cuban-American Mario Bauza for arrangements and Cuban-American Chano Pozo’s drumming.

In the early 1950s, Gil Evans began a collaboration with Miles Davis that would last for about 10 years. Their first collaboration on the Capitol label was “Birth of the Cool”, a turning point in the evolution of jazz. In distinction to the up-tempo bebop style of Eckstein’s “Rhythm in a Riff” or Gillespie’s “He Beeped when he should have Bopped”, the Gil Evans/Miles Davis performance of “The Duke” followed by “Blues for Pablo” relies less on pyrotechnics and more on phrasing and mood.

After his partnership with Miles Davis ended, Gil Evans led a number of top-flight bands over the years that reflected his interest in contemporary developments in music, including a wonderful album made up entirely of Jimi Hendrix tunes. Unfortunately, this is only available as an MP3 download from amazon.com.

Maria Schneider was a student of Gil Evans who began leading her own band in 1993. She is arguably the finest band leader on the scene today. Her performance of “Hang Gliding” will remind you of Gil Evans, I am sure.

The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra was formed by trumpeter Thad Jones and drummer Mel Lewis around 1965. It was made up of studio musicians who wanted to work together in a big band setting. The band was a throwback to the bebop style of Billy Eckstein and Dizzy Gillespie but contemporary enough so that it was an influence on the young Maria Schneider.

The tune they are performing in this Youtube video is “Oo-Bop-Sh’Bam-a-Klook-a-Mop”, a Dizzy Gillespie tune very close in spirit to “He Beeped when he should have Bopped”.

Thad Jones, an African-American, was the brother of jazz greats Hank Jones (piano) and Elvin Jones (drummer). Mel Lewis was a Jew, his birth name Melvin Sokoloff. Like all of the other musicians in the band, this was not their main gig. They played together out of enthusiasm for the big band sound not for money.

This leads me to make a couple of observations on what was lost when the big bands went extinct. Unlike small groups, big bands are not heavily reliant on solos. For example, in the classic Count Basie recordings from the 1930s, a typical Lester Young solo might last a minute or two. This is not just a function of the recording limits for 78’s. In performance, the emphasis was on ensembles not on solos.

Bebop created the small group environment in which extended solos were featured, a tendency no doubt encouraged by the new 33 1/3rpm format. In nightclubs, however, the solos could become tedious as every song consisted of a brief statement of the theme followed by solos. Interplay between the musicians became secondary to the point where a band leader might walk off the stage after his solo was done (Miles Davis was infamous for this.)

As is the case in all music, from symphonic to rock, there is an inevitable life cycle and I am afraid that jazz is at the end of its own. The big bands were mostly about dancing and when jazz lost its roots in the jitterbug, it lost its soul. The same thing is true of classical music as well. Born as an accompaniment for aristocrats or peasants amusing themselves with a gavotte or a mazurka, it eventually became more and more cerebral. Perhaps Igor Stravinsky’s “Ebony Concerto” was the perfect symbol of the ineluctable onward procession of both jazz and classical music.

Nowadays the only music that is still rooted in dance is worldbeat music. From the Congolese soukous to the Colombian cumbia, the artists are all about putting people on the dance floor. Just as the case with politics, it seems that the third world is in the lead as always—including music.

August 26, 2009

Ted Kennedy as New Dealer?

Filed under: economics,literature — louisproyect @ 2:34 pm

From an editorial in today’s Washington Post:

TED KENNEDY once said that his own legislative record was one he’d love to run against. A number of people tried, of course, and lost. But then, they weren’t Ted Kennedy. Mr. Kennedy spent 46 years in the Senate hewing pretty steadily to his course while others trimmed or just plain bailed out.

He remained committed to a brand of New Deal and postwar liberalism that, even when it had lost some of its luster and had run up against a conservative tide in politics, still had much to offer the country.

From the Wiki article on the New Deal:

Roosevelt formed what he called the Brain Trust, a group of academic advisers to assist in his recovery efforts. Their solutions to the economic crisis called for more extensive government regulation of the economy. Donald Richberg, the second head of the NRA, said “A nationally planned economy is the only salvation of our present situation and the only hope for the future.”

From Ted Kennedy speech to the 1980 Democratic Party convention:

The task of leadership in 1980 is not to parade scapegoats or to seek refuge in reaction, but to match our power to the possibilities of progress. While others talked of free enterprise, it was the Democratic Party that acted and we ended excessive regulation in the airline and trucking industry, and we restored competition to the marketplace. And I take some satisfaction that this deregulation legislation that I sponsored and passed in the Congress of the United States.

American Truckers: Sweatshops on Wheels, Adrift In a Tumultuous Sea

This must be the week to write about truckers, with Stephen Labaton’s article in the NY Times last Tuesday and now Steve Franklin and Darnell Little’s article in the Chicago Tribune yesterday.

Labaton focused primarily on the regulatory cave-in by the Bush administration, which has resisted efforts to reduce the number of hours that truckers spend on the road and working. In fact, Labaton writes, the Bush administration has actually expanded the number of hours truckers can spend driving. His article failed, however, to delve into the deeper structural issues in the industry that are driving truckers to cheat, lie, take drugs and speed.

Franklin, on the other hand, goes more into some of the root causes of truckers’ problems than Labaton’s article last week — particularly the fact that most truckers are now paid by the trip instead of a regular salary, making time spend waiting to be loaded or unloaded, or time doing maintenance unpaid. The pace means that counting all their time on the job, some earn as little as $8 an hour. And the fatigue and stress are not only unhealthy for the drivers, but makes the roads more hazardous for everyone. Every year, more than 5,000 people die and 116,000 are injured in truck-related accidents, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

So what’s going on?

When did the dream of being a trucker turn sour?

It began after the government deregulated the industry in 1980, says Mike Belzer, a one-time Chicago trucker and now a Wayne State University professor and trucking industry expert. Ever since, he says, it has been a “race to the bottom.”

Before 1980, nearly 9 out of 10 over-the-road drivers were union members, he says. Today, 1 out of 10 carry a union card. That shift ushered in lower pay, fewer benefits and tougher working conditions.

It also made the highways far more dangerous as inexperienced and lower-paid drivers push themselves to earn more, Belzer adds. “You get what you pay for,” Belzer explains. It is a matter of choosing between a “skilled professional” and someone “from the soup line,” he says.

***

By the late 1990s much of the industry was transformed into a “sweatshop on wheels,” Belzer claims. Truckers’ income, when adjusted for inflation, dropped steadily as the market was flooded with new companies, new drivers, and pressures from shippers and manufacturers to keep freight costs down.

Figures from the American Trucking Association show that between 1980 and 2005, the number of interstate trucking companies soared from 20,000 to 564,000. But nearly 90 percent operate six trucks or less, according to the industry group.

The result is a highly fragmented industry with “low profit margins,” according to an association study.

Out of an estimated 3.3 million truckers, about 1.3 million haul freight. Of these, about 350,000 are independent drivers. Most own their trucks but lease them to companies. Or,… they work for whoever has goods for them to carry.

And for all of the literally back-breaking work, here’s what one trucker, Roger Kobernick, ends up with:

Because he cannot afford health care, he relies on state-sponsored coverage for himself and his family. They are qualified to receive food stamps, but pride stops them from doing so. In his best year he earned $40,000, but last year he made only $9,000.

Much has gone wrong for him in the last few years, and he partly blames it on freight rates that have barely gone up while fuel and other costs have soared and eaten away at his profits.

He also has made some financial missteps, among them expecting tax write-offs for his rig to help his bottom line. Instead, he owes $15,000 in state and federal taxes.

And 25 years behind the wheel have taken a toll. Last summer, barely able to bend his back, he had surgery. One doctor had turned him away, saying surgery would be foolish since he would return to truck driving.

The surgery put him out of work for four months. Without savings, he took out a home equity loan to pay bills, then sold his truck’s trailer and bought a less costly model.

He also has decided to sell his 2-year-old $140,000 truck because the $2,000 monthly payments are killing him. To attract potential buyers Kobernick has had to steadily lower the asking price.

***

“I haven’t had a vacation in 12 years. I have no dental. No pension. No savings,” he says as the sun’s dying rays filter through pine trees in South Carolina. “Hopefully, I’ll catch up one day here down the line. But right now that isn’t going to happen any time soon.”

The grueling schedule and financial problems also take a toll on truckers mental and physical health, according to John Siebert, an official with the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association:

Several years ago, when glancing through members’ obituaries, Siebert discovered that their average age at death was 55. In his research, he also found a higher-than-average suicide rate for members and turned his findings over to NIOSH, which has been examining truckers’ health for the last few years.

Siebert says he believes such problems are linked to difficult lives and financial stress. He lists organization surveys showing that nearly 9 out of 10 of its members are obese or overweight and nearly two-thirds expect to rely solely upon Social Security when they retire.

He especially worries about produce haulers like Kobernick who have highly unpredictable work schedules. If anything goes wrong, or their schedule is too tight, they lose out financially, and their health often is neglected as they push to work longer hours.

“These guys are working 100 to 120 hours a week, and their sleep patterns are all over the clock,” he says.

I wrote quite a bit more in my review of Labaton’s article about the structural problems in the trucking industry that lead to these unsafe conditions. Put all of these articles together and you get a pretty frightening picture of America’s highways. What are the solutions? An improved regulatory structure to start with, but until the root causes are addressed — deregulation and the sharp drop in unionized drivers — we’re not going to get very far just attacking the symptoms.

From my article on airline deregulation written about a decade ago:

We should finally say a word or two about safety. One would suspect that the pressures of the marketplace might lead to shortcuts that affect the reliability of air transportation. There is immense pressure to keep pilots flying as many hours as possible. To maximize profits, one would expect the schedule of maintenance to be lengthened and mechanics to receive less expensive training. When you add the heavy traffic in and out of hubs, the prospects are less than optimum.

While accidents have generally been on the decrease as airplanes themselves are better engineered, there are undeniably some fatal mishaps that can be attributed to conditions produced by deregulation.

On May 11, 1996, a Valujet airplane caught fire and crashed into the Florida Everglades killing all 100 people on board. The fire was nourished by oxygen generators that were not identified or packed properly. Valujet was a typical “no frills” airline spawned by deregulation.

The NY Times reported on August 20, 1997:

“Most of the technicians who first mishandled the generators, as they were removed from other planes, were not Valujet employees or even employees of Sabretech; they were contractors hired by Sabretech. Two-thirds of them were unlicensed.

“Valujet had only one employee to check the work of the technicians, so it hired two other individuals on temporary contracts to help monitor the technicians. A more well-established airline, board experts said, would have had three company employees monitoring each shift.”

“A single licensed Sabretech mechanic, who probably worked not much more than eight hours a day, signed off on the work of 72 people who worked around the clock, the board’s investigators said. One board member suggested that it was not possible for one mechanic to have overseen all such work.”

On January 31, 2000, an Alaskan Airlines jet crashed, killing all 88 people on board. The airline culture was hostile to “interference” from the beginning but its standards dropped even lower when deregulation set in. Its in-house newsletter touted an executive who ordered 25 bottles of vodka in Siberia to de-ice a plane’s wings – something the Federal Aviation Administration would never approve.

A July 15, 2000 Montreal Gazette article reported: ”They see themselves as being above any moral or ethical code. ‘And they’re used to making their own rules.” So stated Deby Bradford, a 10-year Alaska flight attendant who recently left to become an instructor pilot.

An FBI and the National Transportation Safety Board examined whether negligence by Alaska contributed to the crash of flight 261. They discovered, according to the Gazette report:

  • In an emergency nationwide inspection ordered by the FAA in February, Alaska turned up with the highest percentage by far of MD-80s flying with worn stabilizer jackscrews, the part suspected as a cause of the crash. Six of Alaska’s 34 planes failed the check (17.6 per cent), while only 16 of the other 1,073 inspected at 20 other carriers (1.5 per cent) failed.
  • In March, 64 Alaska mechanics delivered a letter to Chief Executive Officer John Kelly saying they had been ‘pressured, threatened and intimidated’ by a supervisor to cut corners on repairs.
  • In April, a veteran, respected Alaska pilot told a company vice president in a widely circulated letter that he was concerned about Alaska’s approach to safety and maintenance. ‘I feel that at some point our company needs to strive for a higher level than this,’ Capt. David Crawley wrote.

The total number of dead in these two crashes is 188, which begins to approach the kind of mass murder level of Timothy McVeigh who sits awaiting capital punishment. Of course, it is in the nature of American society not to punish corporate chieftains whose blood on their hands comes as a unintended byproduct of the pursuit of profit. Some day a different kind of society will sit in judgment on them and the punishment will fit the crime.

August 25, 2009

Separated at birth?

Filed under: separated at birth? — louisproyect @ 1:27 pm

John H. Durham, lawyer named by Attorney General Holder to investigate CIA abuses

New York 067Louis Proyect

August 24, 2009

Big Bands on Youtube (swing)

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 5:52 pm

Priceless performance by the Ellington band at its greatest. Solos by Ray Nance on violin, Tricky Sam Nanton on trombone, Rex Stewart on trumpet and Ben Webster on tenor sax. Some consider Duke Ellington to be a figure comparable to J.S. Bach or Mozart. I agree.

Count Basie Orchestra playing “One o’ Clock Jump”, one of their standards. In distinction to Ellington, Basie’s compositions, including this one, are more like 4 or 5 note “riffs”. They are used as a context for interplay between different sections of the band and solos from the top musicians of the 1930s outside of the Ellington orchestra—like saxophonists Lester Young and Buddy Tate, and trumpeters Buck Clayton and Harry Edison. Clayton and Tate are featured in this performance.

Ellington preferred to call what he played “American music” rather than jazz. He was the first to start performing in concert halls, even though Count Basie is probably better known for his Carnegie Hall performances that were part of the Spiritual to Swing concerts produced by the leftist John Hammond.

Cab Calloway was an immensely popular musician who was cast in a Betty Boop cartoon singing “Minnie the Mooche”. He played “Sportin’ Life” in a movie version of “Porgy and Bess” in the 50s, and had a role in the Blues Brother movie as well. He often sang about drugs, from “Reefer Man” to this performance of “Kickin’ the Gong Around”. You have to wonder if Michael Jackson got the idea for the moonwalk after watching this clip. Frankly, I think Cab was a much better dancer.

Benny Goodman in great performance of “Sing, Sing, Sing” from the 1937 movie “Hollywood Hotel”. Goodman worked closely with John Hammond, the Columbia Records executive alluded to above. Like Hammond, Goodman was committed to New Deal cultural leftism and was the first white bandleaders to feature a Black musician—vibraphonist Lionel Hampton.

Gene Krupa, Goodman’s drummer, started his own big band. He hired Anita O’Day, one of the greatest pure jazz singers, who created some controversy by a performing in a duo with African-American trumpet player Roy Eldridge “Let Me Off Uptown”. When John Chilton, the author of an Eldridge biography, was asked about the difficulties Eldridge faced as a Black man in a white band, he replied:

He worked with Gene Krupa, whose band he joined as a star member. The experience was great for him on the bandstand, but when he got off, even though Krupa was the most broad-minded person in those days, he encountered problems. For instance, when they got to a hotel, the employees would inform him that the room he booked had mysteriously become unavailable, that the hotel was now completely booked up. Roy devised a very clever scheme to combat this by entering the hotel lobby with his suitcase and telling the employees that it was for Mr. Eldridge’s room. That way they gave him the key and he was in, and they then couldn’t get him out. At any rate it was an indignity to have to go through that. A very famous circumstance involving bigotry occurred while they toured the North. Someone wouldn’t serve Roy in a restaurant, and it ended up with Krupa hitting the bigot, and having to pay a fine. Of course, the rest of the band supported Gene, but the audience had no idea these traumas were going on in the background.

Artie Shaw had other things in common with Benny Goodman besides being a clarinetist. He was also a Jew: Arthur Jacob Arshawsky. And like Goodman, he was sympathetic to the left but even more so as the wiki on Artie Shaw points out:

In 1946, Shaw was present at a meeting of the Independent Citizens’ Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions. Olivia de Havilland and Ronald Reagan, part of a core group of actors and artists who were trying to sway the organization away from communism, presented an anti-communist declaration which, if signed, was to run in newspapers. There was bedlam as many rose to champion the communist cause, and Artie Shaw began praising the democratic standards of the Soviet constitution. In 1953, Shaw was brought up before the House Un-American Activities Committee for his leftist activities. The committee was investigating a peace activist organization, the World Peace Congress, which it considered a communist front.

Unlike Goodman, Shaw evolved into a post-swing musician working with small bop-oriented groups when the economic basis for big bands had dried up. Here’s the Shaw band performing the exquisitely named “Shoot the Likker To Me John Boy” in 1939. There’s a very young Buddy Rich on the drums.

Next up is Youtube clips of big bands from the post-swing era, like Woody Herman’s.

August 23, 2009

What a disgrace Counterpunch has become

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:13 am

I am working my way through a pile of Counterpunch print editions and against my better judgment read an article by Paul Craig Roberts, who was Reagan’s Undersecretary of the Treasury and more recently a vociferous defender of Ahmadinejad’s electoral victory.

In the April 1-15 issue, he takes aim at offshoring and the Indians who are “stealing” American jobs. This article is not available in the web edition, for obvious reasons. It is sicker than anything that Roberts has written online and would likely impact their next fund-raising effort.

According to Roberts, it is not just the Indians who are ruining things. We also have to put up with immigrants coming to the USA, something he calls “insourcing”:

Indeed, Americans already experience difficulty in finding restaurant jobs because of “insourcing”. Young people from abroad are brought in on R-1 visas and supplied by contractors to restaurants, where they wait tables and do food prep work. In pharmacies, they serve as assistants. Mexicans have a large share of construction jobs. Americans are finding occupation after occupation closed to them.

This is pure poison. It is no different from the shit that comes out of Lou Dobb’s mouth. What a disgrace Counterpunch has become.

August 21, 2009

Separated at Birth?

Filed under: separated at birth? — louisproyect @ 7:58 pm

Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman-Sachs CEO

Dr. Evil

August 20, 2009

Keynesian illusions

Filed under: financial crisis — louisproyect @ 6:41 pm

Thomas Palley

Yesterday I received an invitation to read a paper on the financial crisis written by Thomas Palley, a Schwartz Economic Growth Fellow at the New America Foundation. Titled “America’s Exhausted Paradigm: Macroeconomic Causes of the Financial Crisis and Great Recession,” it makes a basic distinction between macro and micro explanations for the current mess and adds that unless we see things in macro terms, we will never be able to solve what is arguably the biggest crisis since the Great Depression. He writes:

The current financial crisis is widely recognized as being tied to the bursting of the house price bubble and the debts accumulated in financing that bubble. Most commentary has therefore focused on market failure in the housing and credit markets. But what if the house price bubble developed because the economy needed a bubble to ensure continued growth? In that case the real cause of the crisis would be the economy’s underlying macroeconomic structure. A focus on the housing and credit markets would miss that.

Despite the relevance of macroeconomic factors for explaining the financial crisis, there is resistance to such an explanation. In part, this is because such factors operate indirectly and gradually, while microeconomic explanations that emphasize regulatory failure and flawed incentives within financial markets operate directly. Regulatory and incentive failures are specific, easy to understand, and offer a concrete “fixit” agenda that appeals to politicians who want to show they are doing something. They also tend to be associated with tales of villainy that attract media interest (such as Bernie Madoff’s massive Ponzi scheme or the bonus scandals at AIG and Merrill Lynch). Finally, and perhaps most important, a microeconomic focus does not challenge the larger structure of economic arrangements, while a macroeconomic focus invites controversy by placing these matters squarely on the table.

The macroeconomic approach consists of an examination of policies that were ushered in during the Reagan administration and have been continued by Democrats and Republicans alike. They include:

Globalization: a policy characterized by free trade and capital mobility that leaves American workers at a disadvantage

Small government: this includes privatization of public services such as the school system, deregulation, and the erosion of working class and poor people’s rights. Clinton’s attack on welfare is just one example.

Labor market flexibility: this involves attacking unions, the minimum wage, unemployment benefits, employment protections, and employee rights.

Abandonment of full employment: this prioritizes low inflation even if it means rising unemployment.

The article is worth reading if only for its most useful array of statistics, all designed to prove how much of a one-sided class war has taken place since Reagan first took office. For example, a chart showing manufacturing employment from 1997 to 2007 reflects declining numbers. In 1997, there were 17.42 million manufacturing jobs; 10 years later there were only 13.88. If the table included figures up until the current day, the loss would be even more dramatic.

For Palley, 1980 is a watershed year. That is when—for some reason—a new economic policy was introduced, one that he characterizes as the Neo-liberal Growth Model. Before 1980, there was a kind of Golden Age that was ushered in by FDR. Like a wicked king in a fairy tale, Reagan came along and destroyed a policy that benefited workers and businessmen alike. Palley writes:

Before 1980, economic policy was designed to achieve full employment, and the economy was characterized by a system in which wages grew with productivity. This 4 configuration created a virtuous circle of growth. Rising wages meant robust aggregate demand, which contributed to full employment. Full employment in turn provided an incentive to invest, which raised productivity, thereby supporting higher wages.

After 1980, with the advent of the new growth model, the commitment to full employment was abandoned as inflationary, with the result that the link between productivity growth and wages was severed. In place of wage growth as the engine of demand growth, the new model substituted borrowing and asset price inflation. Adherents of the neo-liberal orthodoxy made controlling inflation their primary policy concern, and set about attacking unions, the minimum wage, and other worker protections. Meanwhile, globalization brought increased foreign competition from lower-wage economies and the prospect of off-shoring of employment.

What we need apparently is a wise king like FDR who can restore a new partnership between labor and capital that would provide “an incentive to invest, which raised productivity, thereby supporting higher wages.”

In keeping with the growing disgust with the president who some envisioned as a new FDR, Palley has harsh words for Obama who seems bent on preserving the Reagan policy. (Of course, if during the primary his friends in the press had paid attention to Obama’s gushing over Reagan’s presidency, this disappointment might have been a few degrees less bitter.) Palley writes:

Judging by its top economics personnel, the Obama administration has decided to maintain the system rather than change it. The administration may yet manage to create another bubble, this time probably an interest-rate bubble in Treasury bonds that will weakly jump-start the borrowing cycle one more time.

So why in the world would the American ruling class (please excuse my old-fashioned and dogmatic way of expressing myself) opt for Reaganomics when the New Deal institutions that were maintained even during the Eisenhower presidency were so good for boss and worker alike? Was Reagan some kind of psychopath like Bernie Madoff? Oddly enough, despite Palley’s preference for macro explanations of the current crisis rather than micro ones that border on conspiracy theory, he seems to flirt with such an explanation when it comes to Reagan’s role. Surely, there were wiser heads in the permanent government that could have whispered in the Gipper’s ear: “This ain’t gonna work”.

I think it is best to take a step back and look at the deeper economic forces which made it inevitable for neo-liberalism to prevail. The attack on working people and the poor was dictated by rivalries between the US and other capitalist powers that had fully recovered from WWII, especially Japan and Germany.

My recommendation is that Thomas Palley and my readers take a look at Harry Shutt’s “The Trouble with Capitalism”, a Zed Press book written in 1998 that is now available in excerpts on Google Books. The main merit of Shutt’s book is that it sheds light on the inevitability of neo-liberalism, a policy that is best understood not in terms of the whims of an Ebenezer Scrooge but in the hard realities of global competition. I especially recommend chapter three, titled “The End of the Boom and the Neo-Classical Reaction”, and especially the first section “Market Saturation” which begins:

The increasing maturity of most consumer markets in the industrialised countries was becoming a noticeable constraint to economic growth in the industrialised world by the end of the 1960s. This meant that in addition to static demand for non-durable goods (food, drink, clothing) the markets for most durable products (automobiles, television sets etc.) tended more and more to be governed mainly by replacement demand rather than by the continuous opening up of new groups of first-time buyers, which had been possible throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. Hence demand for goods generally began to grow more in line with population—which was in any case increasing more slowly than in the immediate postwar period—rather than at the rapid rates recorded up to the mid-1960s.

I would argue that these brute economic facts had more to do with the advent of neoliberalism than ideology, which of course is the point that Shutt makes throughout this excellent study. If anything, the current implosion of US auto (and Japan’s problems as well) has a lot to do with the market saturation described by Shutt in 1998 and which has only deepened. While Keynsian ideology might dictate keeping the auto industry thriving with well-paying jobs, the CEO’s might have other ideas whether they are rock-ribbed Republicans or liberal Democrats. Indeed, the distinction between the two types has almost vanished in recent years.

While the decline of manufacturing would certainly explain the rush toward the types of investments that have come under scrutiny over the past year or so (packaged subprime mortgages, derivatives, etc.), Shutt had his eye on other novel investments back in 1998:

The maturing of established consumer product markets helps to explain the intensifying effort to open up new areas of consumption and the consequently growing pressure on governments and legislators to relax constraints on the range of goods and services that could be respectably offered to consumers. In the United States this was manifested notably in the abolition of legal restrictions on pornography in 1973 and in more explicit depictions of violence in television and motion pictures, even including such critically acclaimed films as The Godfather (1972). Likewise in Britain this tendency was reflected in moves to relax restrictions on gambling and pornography—a symptom of the “permissive sixties” which many current detractors of that era continue to profit from.

The same kind of thinking is apparently at work today as reported in Alternet :

Is our recession-plagued present a good time for a joint? Legalizing, taxing and regulating marijuana, would pull the rug out from under pot dealers in urban America, and create a crisis for them, but it would likely prove a boon for state budgets. In an oft-cited 2006 report on U.S. marijuana production, expert Jon Gettman used “conservative price estimates” to peg the value of the annual crop at $36 billion–more valuable than corn and wheat combined.

Three national polls this year showed a surprising number of Americans think marijuana should be legal. Zogby, CBS News and Rasmussen all recorded support for legalization hovering at around 40 percent. Nadelmann of the DPA believes support would have been higher if the question was whether or not marijuana should be taxed and regulated.

California Assemblyman Tom Ammiano has proposed a bill to tax and regulate legal marijuana, which he says would generate $1 billion in revenue for the Golden State’s anemic budget. Ammiano, who represents areas of San Francisco, says his proposal, unveiled last month, is “simply common sense,” considering the unprecedented economic emergency. The measure would also save California an estimated $150 million in enforcement costs.

I would only conclude with this observation. Judging by Obama’s failure to enact anything vaguely resembling New Deal legislation at this point, I doubt that prohibition laws against marijuana will be lifted any time soon. Indeed, the only thing that did get the U.S. out of the Great Depression was deficit spending associated with the arms build-up after Pearl Harbor. I suppose that we can envision increased arms spending under an Obama administration but I doubt that this kind of deficit spending would do much to endear him to his liberal base. Yesterday the Washington Post reported that Public Opinion in U.S. Turns Against Afghan War. Given the almost certain continuation of economic hard times and a waste of life and treasure abroad, dissatisfaction with Obama will mount. Under such circumstances, working people and the poor will benefit more from a revival of Marxism than in Keynesian illusions and it is our job to make the case for socialism even as the current occupant of the White House is undeservedly given that august label.

Mea Culpa

Filed under: Obama — louisproyect @ 2:59 pm

David Lindorff in today’s Counterpunch:

Last fall, I and many progressives urged voters to elect Obama, not because we thought he was a progressive, but because we hoped that his background—community organizer, raised by a single mother, experience living in a third world country (Indonesia), multi-racial—would lead him to make at least some right decisions. We, or certainly I, hoped too that the energized young and working class electorate that came out for him in the fall would continue to press him aggressively to do the right thing on war, environment, civil liberties and the economy.

I was wrong on the first count: Obama has been a corporatist through and through on all the major issues that matter. And I was wrong on the second. Most of the left in the US, from the labor movement to the environmentalist movement to the anti-war movement, has to date remained glumly quiescent as Obama has sold them out on each of their key issues.

Read in full

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