July 30, 2008

Bite Size Bad News 8--Housing Capital

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As of June 30, housing prices in the US are down 15.8% from one year earlier. This is being reported as the destruction of $3.25 trillion worth of value.*

Well, sort of. The capital the business press says has been destroyed has both a fictitious and a real character.

The fictitious aspect has come to the fore because the legendary “newer sucker” of capitalist theory has failed to show up. As long as you could actually sell your house to someone for more than you paid for it, everything was copacetic. You didn’t even have to sell. You could borrow against that increased value and have real money in your bank account (and, alas, owe the lender real money too, plus real interest). Once you can only unload that house at a fire sale rate, if at all, it becomes clear that a lot of that “value” wasn’t very real at all.

But the destruction of very real concrete physical capital is ramping up, though it’s nowhere near $3 trillion worth yet, That’s actual houses which are being abandoned, and will fall into ruin and never be occupied again.

Some of this is hard to weep salt tears over, of course, like the ghastly exurban developments so recently marketed under banners like “affordable luxury.” Now they are being dubbed “ghost towns with granite countertops,” as rising oil prices have helped highlight the downside of living a long, long drive from work or even shopping. Many of those finished or nearly completed in the last year or so will never be inhabited.

Most of it, though, is houses people need to live in. Buffalo, NY is a good example. The city is among the local governments that have initiated lawsuits against big banks like Citicorp and Wells Fargo and other lenders who have foreclosed on properties or where mortgage holders have walked away, unable to afford their payments.

Buffalo sued in February for $2 million to cover not upkeep which had been neglected but the actual cost of demolishing 57 abandoned properties. 21 had already been torn down. And these are far from the only foreclosed houses standing empty in Buffalo. "It’s our first strike in a wave that would obviously focus on more,” said Alisa A. Lukasiewicz, Buffalo’s corporation counsel.

Demolition is a “lagging indicator” of the housing crisis. Houses can stand abandoned and decaying for a long time before anyone gets around to dealing with them.(or even figuring out who owns them with so many mortgages parceled up into CDOs)

And a lot of what’s been foreclosed on in the hardest hit states—fast growth areas like Florida, California and Nevada—was built relatively recently. And that’s more bad news.

These developments aren’t exactly built to last. Even the ugly but pricey new McMansions you see occupying nine tenths of a lot in wealthier suburbs are crap—nice-looking flooring laid over cheap plywood, paper-thin wood veneer on those pre-made kitchen cabinets, foam-core or hollow doors, drywall keeping the place upright as much as or more than the flimsy 24” o.c. frames.

They aren’t going to last the way old Iowa farmhouses or Philly row houses or even NYC tenements do. With no maintenance, never mind squatters, they’ll crumble fast.

And billions more in real capital will be destroyed, while those who created this mess—the predatory lenders, the executives at the big banks, the money market honchos, and the government economists who hailed it all—will not only make out just fine, but are already waiting to invest and profit when the housing market does finally bottom out.

*And that's not including the losses in value of the CDOs, the collateralized debt obligations whose collapse triggered the credit crisis (no one has any idea how much), or in the bear market in stocks which has resulted from the credit crisis ($2.3 trillion just in the U.S. S&P 100 so far).

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July 24, 2008

Teen Breakthrough, Part 2: "Resistance Bisexuality"

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[This post addresses another positive development on the gender front among teens, not as recent as the erosion of male homophobia I reported on earlier this week, but among girls.]

About 3 years ago, I noticed that girls in the NYC high school where I work were starting to call themselves "bisexual." Lots of them. Wearing rainbow logos on all kind of clothing articles. And it was becoming almost impossible for a guy to upset a girl, or pressure her into sex by calling her a "lesbian," because the term was losing its stigma. (It's still possible for guys to pressure a girl into sex, but one maneuver has been eliminated).

For teenagers, identifying as "bisexual" has often been a step toward acknowledging that they're lesbian or gay, a milestone on the road to coming out. I knew this from the literature and had heard it anecdotally from friends whose teen kids went to more elite schools. But until that point I had seldom heard the term used as a self-identifier by the predominantly Black and Latino working class kids whom I counsel.

The new self-identification, which has also been observed by my friends in other cities who are either teachers or parents of teens, has many sources as well as multiple and sometimes contradictory meanings for the girls who use it. Some of my colleagues see it as a simply a ploy by girls who are basically heterosexual to attract more boys or have more leverage in a relationship ("I don't need you, I can have romance and sex with girls") or to titillate boys with the thought of two girls doing it (and the paradisiacal possibility of joining in). These colleagues say that this new trend, which I've seen affect maybe up to 25% of the girls in a school, doesn't represent any erosion of or challenge to male supremacy.

I think that this view is a bit one-sided. Kids often try out several identities through the teen years; they'll come back in September with a whole new look, self-label ("emo," "ghetto," etc.) and group of friends. So the fact that some girls may later go straight doesn't mean that their bisexual self-classification was simply phony or a ploy. What I pick up is that they're often turned off to men by seeing how women are put down and abused by men, and they're grappling with how to live and have some agency in what is still a "man's world." That's why I like to call this very mixed and contradictory phenomenon not a conscious political act or rebellion, but a kind of "resistance bisexuality."

One girl, for example, said to me in discussing her bisexuality, "I guess I don't like the way I see men treat women, " She had a stepfather who had tried to cop a feel once or twice when he was drunk (and since that hadn't occurred recently, she didn't want to give her mother heartache by telling her about it). She'd seen her mother hit by an earlier boyfriend. She felt more connection and empathy with her female friends, and that led her to explore physical closeness with them. I heard similar statements from other girls who had experienced domestic violence or sexual abuse.

One encouraging by-product of the bisexual self-identification is that it cuts against the widespread "I don't have no females for friends" attitude, which I used to hear all the time from girls: "They act nice, but then they talk about you behind your back and stab you in the back and steal your man." While I'd be the last to minimize how mean girls can still be to each other, the bisexual girls do seem to value their female friendships more highly and are often very conscious about giving each other support.

On the down side, as someone who does conflict resolution, I have to note that this phenomenon creates endless new possibilities for drama. Two female friends find they're attracted to each other but then often they're also attracted to the same boys. So part of the girls' relationship is comparing numbers of suitors and getting jealous if the other girl is getting more male attention, and confusing or toying with a lot of guys--who then get angry and into beefs with each other...

Still, I would hold that the option of claiming bisexuality represents an advance in the deep, ongoing cultural revolution (or, using Gramsci's formulation, "war of position") against male supremacy.

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July 22, 2008

Wikipedia: "Digital Maoism" As Battlefield

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I hope to write a few short things, mainly pretty practical, about the Internet, the Web and the blogosphere in the next week. I do this mainly to think about and address a new "digital divide" I sense arising. (The first and still pre-eminent one, of course, is economic--the haves online, the have-nots cut out). The one I will be commenting on is more along generational and net-savviness lines, with many folks I know shying away, for a variety of reasons, from a lot of the interactive developments collectively called "Web 2.0".

One such development that has seen massive use, even among the Web-shy, is Wikipedia. This collectively produced and edited, free, open source, online encyclopedia has been termed "Digital Maoism"--with some using the term in condemnation (a "hive mind") and some in praise (a vivid example of Mao Zedong's Mass Line as a method for arriving at truth). It has, in any event, become the most used reference work in the world, with over 680,000,000 visitors in the last year.

For all the people who use Wikipedia, the new digital divide I mentioned becomes clearer when one realizes that only about 75,000 people actively produce and refine the content. That's one in 10,000! (With fewer than 10 paid employees, the Wikimedia Foundation has a one to 70 million staff to annual user ratio.)

I want to cite, in praise and as an example of how the thing works, one recent editing job. It is described, in the excerpt below, taken from the blog Liberation Frequency, which I found because they reprinted the nifty article, "The Young & The Leftless" which was also featured at FotM recently.

The whole piece by Brian Van Slyke, "Wikipedia History Wars", talks about Wikipedia's proclaimed underlying principle of "neutrality" and calls it idealist: "Science is not neutral. History is not neutral." I quote below a section of the article relating to revolutionary fighter John Brown, a choice which will not surprise regular readers of Fire on the Mountain.
For instance, I once searched the topic of “slave revolts.” I made my way through the article, and finally came to its discussion on North America. Here’s what it had to say about the abolitionist John Brown:

John Brown had already conducted several massacres of pro-slavery settlers in Kansas, when he decided to lead a raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia (West Virginia was not yet a state). This raid was an attempt by a handful of white men to cause a slave revolt in the South. It failed in this attempt; in fact, the first man they killed was a local freed black man.

Obviously, I couldn’t let this stand. Here is what I changed it to:

John Brown had already fought against pro-slavery forces in Kansas for several years when he decided to lead a raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia (West Virginia was not yet a state). This raid was a joint attack by former slaves, freed blacks, and white men who had corresponded with slaves on plantations in order to form a general uprising amongst slaves. It almost succeeded, had it not been for Brown’s delay, and hundreds of slaves left their plantations to join Brown’s force - and others left their plantations to join Brown in an escape to the mountains. Eventually, due to a tactical error by Brown, their force was quelled. But directly following this, slave disobedience and runaways sky-rocketed in Virginia.

My change was reverted back to the original, until some re-reverted it to [the] account I had written, and that’s what it has stayed as to this day. Now, it may have helped that my paragraph had a citation and the other did not--even though in many places the first account is often the historical portrait that John Brown is painted in by our textbooks and our national myths.

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July 18, 2008

Teen Breakthrough, Part 1: "I'm Not Racist Against Gays"

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In my workaday world in the NYC public school system, this year's big news was the growing acceptance of and sympathy for gay guys. And because male homosexuality has been, in my experience, so deeply stigmatized among youth, I think this is a tremendous breakthrough. I still don't hear many guys in high school saying flat out, "I am gay," but there's definitely less attempt to deny or repudiate or hide attributes that might brand a young man as gay.

Little things like young men casually mentioning, "My uncle is gay," or an African-American senior who is into fashion design, tends toward the flaming in his manner and shows no romantic interest in girls being elected a class officer. Or a young man saying to a female classmate who called him "fa--ot" in an argument: "Well, I don't appreciate that because you must not think too much of gay people, and my brother is gay. " In the past, the likely response would have been to hurl back an insult, and the main concern would have been to assert his own straightness in front of the peer audience. But now, he takes the offensive and critiques heterosexism!

Another example that impressed me occurred in the context of a school art project for which students chose the theme of taboos. There was a fair amount of art about gay/lesbian relationships, but one of the most intriguing paintings showed what looked like a man in his twenties and a man in his sixties embracing, The young Latino artist, who as far as I know is straight, definitely wanted to provoke reactions and sought out feedback. It really blew me away that he was challenging two stigmas by portraying, in a compassionate way, both gay male sexuality, and the need of older people to express their sexuality (which is often is often a big yuck factor for teens!).

At the same time, teens, like all of us, have contradictory consciousness and they still come up with some disturbing anti-gay practices. One glaring example is the custom of saying "That's gay" when they think something is stupid or silly. I often will challenge this by asking, "How would you like it if when I thought something was stupid, I said 'That's so Dominican' or 'That's so Black'?" Many students will reply, "It's just a saying," "It doesn't mean anything" and vehemently assure me that they get along with gay classmates or friends or relatives, etc.

One young man listened thoughtfully and replied, "No, Miss, I'm not racist against gay people." I really dig this phrasing, because it reflects the reality of racism as the primary form of oppression and put-down that he is experiences and sees in the world. And I'm encouraged that many teens are becoming less racist against gay people.

[Next up, Part 2: Resistance Bisexuality]

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July 16, 2008

Attack On Iran On The Way? Uh, Maybe Not...

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By Bill Fletcher, Jr. and Dennis O'Neil
[Originally posted at Znet]
[UPDATED, with some corrections based on information received from poligirl in an interesting discussion that developed when this was crossposted at Daily Kos.]

Once again, there's a lot of serious attack-on-Iran talk going around. We've both been following this, admittedly with no deep expertise, for several years now. During that time a number of media/blogosphere storms declaring such an attack imminent have whirled up and then blown away. (Of course, we oughtn't to forget that in the old children's story, the wolf eventually does come and eat the shepherd boy who produced the false alarms.) So we decided to sketch out these few points.

1. No matter how much Bush and his coterie may want it, we give no more than 10% odds on an attack actually taking place, and that's mainly just covering ourselves.

2. The furor is not a calculated bluff by the administration to put pressure on Iran. Neither is it a planned distraction to weaken opposition to the continued occupation of Iraq. It's the public face of a tense struggle within US ruling circles, concentrated in the state apparatus. Among those pushing for an attack are Bush, who is looking for the Hail Mary pass that will redeem his presidency in the history books; Cheney and the neocons and open advocates of empire, who are certain that the US can by force of will and arms dominate the world; a minority in the Armed Forces, mostly notably in the Air Force which hasn't been permitted to get their lethal jollies in the region; and the Israel lobby people, fronting for ruling class forces there who want to crush anything that might end Israel's regional monopoly on nukes.

Arrayed against an assault on Iran are a whole range of powerful forces in the US and throughout the world. Articles like the well-publicized Seymour Hersh pieces in the New Yorker recently are salvos in that battle. We identify a few more below.

3. First and foremost, it is the majority in the military high command that is blocking any attack on Iran--as they have, unswervingly, for the last four years. They know full well that even an assault as limited as air bombardment of "suspected nuclear sites" would put US land and naval forces in the region in an untenable position, and they are nervous about the longer term damage it would do to US power, "soft" as well as military.

Just look at three key developments in the last weeks, hardly coincidences as the pounding of the war drums by attack advocates in and outside the administration supporters grew louder.

First, the Army's Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth issued On Point II, the second volume in its ongoing history of the Iraq war--which focuses the lack of a follow-up plan for after the capture of Baghdad and victory over the regular Iraqi armed forces:
The army, as the service primarily responsible for ground operations, should have insisted on better Phase IV planning and preparations through its voice on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The military means employed were sufficient to destroy the Saddam regime; they were not sufficient to replace it with the type of nation-state the United States wished to see in its place.
This was intended to underline the fact that there is no post-attack plan for Iran, nor any feasible way to develop one, to say nothing of the absence of a plan to deal with likely blowback in other parts of the region--the preparation hasn't happened and the horses just aren't there.

Second, to follow up, the Pentagon released a report on how things are going in Afghanistan, "its first assessment of conditions in Afghanistan since the invasion began in 2001" according to the Wall Street Journal. In short: Armed attacks up, US fatalities up, narcotics production up, corruption up, Taliban influence up, stability down, and worse to come.

Third, to cap it off, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen announced at a Pentagon press gathering that the US is currently in danger of losing in Afghanistan because there aren't enough troops:
I don't have troops I can reach for, brigades I can reach, to send into Afghanistan until I have a reduced requirement in Iraq. Afghanistan has been and remains an economy-of-force campaign, which by definition means we need more forces there.
Regarding Iran, Mullen added, evidently for those too dim to draw the obvious conclusion:
Opening up a third front right now would be extremely stressful for us. This is a very unstable part of the world, and I don't need it to be more unstable.
Nor is this view limited to the Armed Forces' uniformed commanders. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates late last year spoke to the Democratic caucus in the Senate. In his remarks, as reported by Hersh,
Gates warned of the consequences if the Bush Administration staged a preemptive strike on Iran, saying, as the senator recalled, "We'll create generations of jihadists, and our grandchildren will be battling our enemies here in America." Gates' comments stunned the Democrats at the lunch, and another senator asked whether Gates was speaking for Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney. Gates' answer, the senator told me, was "Let's just say that I'm here speaking for myself."
4. The most valuable political ally the pro-attack faction has, despite Gates' warning, is the national Democratic Party. Congress voted $400 million earlier this year to fund and operationalize a secret "Presidential Finding" signed by Bush. This Finding steps up incursions into Iran by CIA and elite military units and the passing of arms and intelligence to extremely sketchy "opposition" forces within Iran. The Democrats went right along with this transparently provocative effort to create an incident inside Iran which could be exploited as a casus belli.

Now before Congress we have House Resolution 362, which 102 House Democrats have joined 117 Republicans in sponsoring. More aqgressive than its similar, but milder sib, Senate Resolution 580--introduced by Evan Bayh (Dem, IN)--it demands that Bush take steps "inter alia, prohibiting the export to Iran of all refined petroleum products; imposing stringent inspection requirements on all persons, vehicles, ships, planes, trains, and cargo entering or departing Iran." The basic idea of this non-binding resolution is that the US will take advantage of Iran's refinery shortage by stopping the flow of much-needed gasoline into the oil-producing country.

Despite a clause stating that the bills do not authorize military action, the fact is that no such blockade of shipping into and out of Iran could be conducted without force. To initiate a blockade without UN approval would be a declaration of war against Iran (and an act of aggression against any country peacefully trading with Iran).

Driven primarily by the politics of posing (The Democrats: Tough on Towelheads!) and placating (HR 362 and SR 580 are among AIPAC's top legislative priorities according to the Zionist lobbying group's website), the bills are actually very dangerous in two ways. First, they continue the ongoing demonization of Islam and of Iran and its people, and promote the idea that the US has the right to intervene wherever it wants on any pretext. To do this at a time when the invasion of Iraq has made the US population very wary of rhetoric about why "we" need to go to war is unforgivable.

Second, should Bush & Co. actually manage to conjure up a convincing Gulf of Tonkin-type incident, they could point to this resolution to justify starting an armed blockade--and a war!

Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, incidentally, blusters of Iran that the military option "is on the table" and that he will meet Iranian leaders only on his timetable and "if and only if it can advance the interest of the United States." He has not yet announced what he intends to do about SR 580, which, like HR 362, may well pass the Democratic-controlled Congress in the relatively near future.

5. Overall, the signs indicate that the majority of the US ruling class really does not want an attack on Iran. One clear indication came with the release last fall of the National Intelligence Estimate, the consensus opinion of more than a dozen US intelligence agencies (some part of the Armed Forces, others, like the CIA, not), that Iran did not even have an active nuclear weapons program!

After being rolled by the Bushies in the Iraq WMD fiasco, these crucial institutions of capitalist rule are eager to prove their position "above politics" and their worth to their masters.

It is true that the US imperialists are already in a deep, deep hole in Iraq, with no good options--they can't afford to stay (the growing budget deficit, the lack of troops, popular opposition to the occupation) and they believe that they cannot afford to leave (the damage to US interests and prestige, all that lovely petroleum). But at least most of them recognize the folk wisdom that when you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.

To concentrate their minds, we have crude oil climbing to $145+ a barrel. Economists at major imperialist institutions globally, public and private, are warning of catastrophic outcomes if the trend continues. "Two-hundred-dollar oil would break the back of the global economy," is the blunt estimate of Deutsche Bank AG's chief energy economist Adam Sieminski. Is it possible to imagine a major assault on Iran that wouldn't drive oil prices much higher than that for an indefinite period?

6. Despite chit-chat by pundits, there is no easy way for the administration to finesse these contradictions by having Israel undertake the attack. Even under the extremely questionable assumption that the Israeli Defense Forces (a) have the capacity to devastate what is claimed to be the very dispersed and hardened Iranian nuclear program without US participation and, (b) feel like going it alone in the teeth of international law and world public opinion, one brutal geographic fact stands in the way. Any IDF air and missile assault on Iran would have to pass through Iraqi airspace, which is controlled by the US occupation, and would constitute a US-approved and sponsored attack. Further, the al-Maliki regime in Iraq would have to denounce it as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty and turn hard against their own US sponsors or fall in the face of Shiite rage.

So what do we do? Journalists like Hersh are yelling like their hair is on fire, trying to forestall the attacks they predict. Activist experts like Robert Naiman of Just Foreign Policy work tirelessly to focus the attention of the left liberal blogosphere on Iran and promote options for negotiation. US Labor Against the War and others have called for a massive phone-in directed at Congress. The country's largest anti-war coalition, United For Peace & Justice, has called for protest actions on July 19-21.

Though skeptical of the likelihood of an attack, we strongly support all of these initiatives. Still, the most important thing for us to be doing at this time is to continue building an independent movement focused on ending the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and on winning the 70% of our fellow Americans who are against the Iraq war to act against the war. The stronger that movement is, the more it serves to forestall further imperialist ventures in Iran or elsewhere. Check out the Iraq Moratorium.

And this holds true even if the two of us should prove wrong. An actual attack would mean that even the implacable opposition of the high command and deep concern in the ranks of the powers that be are not enough to forestall a spectacularly unpopular lame duck administration from launching a whole new war in its death throes. Supposing our gritty but fatigued anti-war movement could shift gears to make Iran its main focus, how much more weight would that throw on the scales? They know what we think already.

We have to continue to build on our strengths, to expand the movement and draw in the tens of millions we have helped persuade, over the last half decade, that the occupation is a slow-motion train wreck causing catastrophic destruction in Iraq and irreparable harm to our own country.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is the executive editor of www.blackcommentator.com and a co-founder of the Center for Labor Renewal. Dennis O'Neil is on the national coordinating body of the Iraq Moratorium.

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