Jun 162015
 
 June 16, 2015  Posted by at 8:14 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , ,  


Dmitri Kessel Protest against Britain’s murders of partisans, Athens 1944

Next week, on June 25, I will come to Athens (I wish Nicole could join me, but she moved to New Zealand and will be there for now). There is no large fixed agenda set, but through contacts with readers of the Automatic Earth -they’re absolutely everywhere- it’s already clear that there will be a lot to do. Obviously, I will continue to publish everyday on the Automatic Earth site as well, so we may be in for some busy days. Nothing new there.

Still need to secure a place to stay, but I’m sure something will come up. And there are of course never enough readers and friends to get in touch with, so please drop a line at “contact •at• theautomaticearth •dot• com”. I would love to meet as many of you as possible, get you in touch with each other, practice our ouzo toast, dance a zirtaki and have a ball.

Where I’m coming from is talking with people on the street is something that interests me far more than talking to politicians, though I’ll be certain to drop Varoufakis a line, and less visible members of Syriza would undoubtedly make for good conversations as well. What I want to find out, and write about, is how people have experienced the past five years, how they see the next five, and how they hold together.

That last bit is especially poignant since the structure of Greek society is very different from that of America or western Europe. In a good way, if you ask me. Not only is the economy much more ‘self-contained’ -for lack of a better word-, which by the way would make a switch to an -domestic- alternate currency much less painful then it would be in richer, export-dependent nations, but Greek families stick together way more than those elsewhere too.

Ironically, that’s why they can at times -try to- make do with a single pension to feed an entire family, something that would be unthinkable in Holland, Germany, Canada, US. And it’s those very pensions that the troika insists must be further reduced than the 40%+ they’ve already been cut. What goes for families stretches beyond them to a larger circle of friends too.

Meanwhile, my planning could be either way off or right on the nose, depending on one’s view. I see talk of a Lehman moment as early as this weekend, but it looks more likely the whole thing will go down to the wire, which is June 30.

No matter what comes down, I very much think Athens is the place to be as per next week. As you probably know, I have great sympathy and admiration for what Syriza, especially Alexis Tsipras and Yanis Varoufakis, are trying to achieve, as well as for their intelligence and even more, what they stand for.

Now, I don’t think I can go to Athens and not try to see if there’s something I can do to alleviate some of the misery in my own small way. But since that way would be extremely small given where the Automatic Earth’s financial situation and funding stand at the moment, I thought of something.

I’m hereby setting up an “Automatic Earth for Athens” fund (big word), and I’m asking you, our readership, to donate to that fund. I will make sure the revenues will go to clinics and food banks, to the worthiest causes I can find. To not mix up donations for Athens with those for the Automatic Earth, which are also badly needed, I suggest I take any donation that ends with 99 cents, as in $25.99, and single those out for Greece. Does that sound reasonable? Let me know if it doesn’t, please.

I’m not expecting a flood of cash, but I hope that you, like me, think that in a civilized country people shouldn’t have to bring their own bedsheets to a hospital, or that these hospitals should be forced to work their doctors into burnouts, or simply lack basic treatments, medicines, etc.

Or for that matter that children should go hungry.

If Brussels and Washington refuse to solve these simple problems, or even attempt to make them worse, in my view Syriza is right to stand up to them, and we, us, the Automatic Earth, have an obligation to do what we can.

But that’s just me.

Feb 282015
 
 February 28, 2015  Posted by at 9:11 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,  


Fenno Jacobs Schoolchildren staging a patriotic demonstration, Southington, CT 1942

In an article about NATO exercises in Estonia, just 300 yards from the Russian border, Daniel McAdams at the Ron Paul Institute makes a point that I want to use to make a much broader point. Not the provide answers, though, just to provide questions. McAdams quotes the Guardian review of a book by George Sakwa:

NATO’s Russia Border Games

Russian military plane over international waters 25 miles from the UK coast is “real and present danger” to NATO. Yet… Yet yesterday US combat vehicles conducted a military parade and show of military force in Estonia just 300 yards – yards! – from the Russian border. That is just over 60 miles from downtown St. Petersburg. This is not a provocation, we are to believe. This is not a “real and present danger” to Russia. NATO is exempt from the rules it imposes on its enemies. In the Guardian’s review of a new book by Politics professor George Sakwa, the current fallout from a near quarter century of post-Cold War NATO policies is perfectly captured:

The hawks in the Clinton administration ignored all this, Bush abandoned the anti-ballistic missile treaty and put rockets close to Russia’s borders, and now a decade later, after Russia’s angry reaction to provocations in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine today, we have what Sakwa rightly calls a “fateful geographical paradox: that NATO exists to manage the risks created by its existence”.

That line bears repeating: “NATO exists to manage the risks created by its existence.”

Yes, that line bears repeating, but it bears much more than that: the line doesn’t go nearly far enough. Because NATO doesn’t only exist, it develops and changes. In fact, to justify its prolonged existence, NATO has turned from a force for peace into a warmonger. That way, the organization argues, consciously or not, it provides itself with a reason to exist. It now doesn’t just exist to manage the risks, it exists to create them. In doing so, NATO itself has become the biggest risk.

Regular readers will be well aware that I, like Ron Paul, have said many times that NATO should be dismantled (and not just NATO). Not only because it’s long outlived its original purpose, based in the Cold War, but because it increasingly attracts as leaders people who use ever more aggressive language for ever more elusive reasons. The latest in the series are new General Secretary Stoltenberg and General ‘Warhead’ Breedlove, both of whom seem hell bent on outdoing even Ukraine’s leadership pair of Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk when it comes to making unsubstantiated claims about Russia, and about the situation in Ukraine – and Eastern Europe – in a broader sense.

My thesis is that all supranational organizations will eventually attract a certain kind of people as their leaders, and that these are inevitably the last kind of people we should want in these positions. But in the absence of effective democratic oversight, they end up there anyway. Therefore, the only way to counter this mechanism is to dismantle and abandon the organizations, while we still can. Which is not a given, since they function like power pyramids, in which ever more active power flows to an ever smaller top, until they become ‘untouchable’ by the nations that founded them in the first place.

These organizations don’t just fail to meet their originally stated purpose, they become entities dangerous to those they were meant to serve. That’s true for NATO, for the IMF, the World Bank, and the EU. They all end up serving only their most powerful members, at the cost of the smaller and less powerful. Since there is no mechanism to prevent this from happening while they exist, we must dismantle them.

There’s a strong correlation with an example from the economic world, in which corporations were originally incorporated for a specific project (e.g. building a bridge), a specific budget and a specific duration. And look at corporations now: there is no time limit to their existence, they are free to buy political control over our societies across generations, and they have even been granted person’s rights, though persons die and corporations no longer do.

What is true for corporations is just as true for supranational organizations: it’s all about scale. They are all – well, mostly – founded by well-meaning people, but these people ignore – willingly or not – to set time, financial and legal limits to them. And that’s a surefire recipe for disaster. The IMF upon its inception had lofty ideals behind it. But look at the damage it’s done across the globe. The World Bank was intended to help fight poverty in poor nations, but, like the IMF, has become an instrument for the rich to control these nations and prey on them.

And NATO has been busy ever since the Berlin wall came down, to resurrect the Cold War, without which it knows it must fear for its continued existence. It’s a twin sister of the American military complex, which creates threats out of nowhere and fights wars that all end in disaster, creating chaos along the way that forms the reason, and the cradle, for the next theater of war.

I’ve said before that I’m somewhat hesitant to include the US in the list of supranational organizations that should be dismantled, but if the country, the union, can’t find a way to reform and refind itself, I don’t see much reason for it to live on. The concentrated power bastion in Washington simply does too much harm to too many people, both at home and abroad. Nobody should have that sort of power.

If you have an entity that comprises 300 million people, it’s inevitable that ‘rulers’ over that entity need to be curtailed and limited in their powers from the get-go, or things will go awfully wrong. In the US, arguably, that has long since started to happen. The solution – in theory – is real simple: decentralize power. The solution in practice is much less obvious, since the people in power won’t volunteer to give up what they’ve got. A critical mass has been reached from which it will be very hard to retreat.

‘Once it reaches a certain threshold, the process of institutionalization becomes counterproductive’

Those are the words from a man I’ve been thinking about for quite a while, when pondering these issues, 20th century philosopher/priest Ivan Illich, whose criticism of ‘institutionalization’, mostly published in the 1970’s from Latin America, was largely inspired by, and directed at, the Catholic Church, not coincidentally the world’s – by far – earliest truly multinational corporation. Illich basically asserted that institutions tend to monopolize parts of societies that they should leave alone, because they belong to the people, and are essential to their well-being. From Wikipedia’s entry on Illich:

[e]lite professional groups . . . have come to exert a ‘radical monopoly’ on such basic human activities as health, agriculture, home-building, and learning, leading to a ‘war on subsistence’ that robs peasant societies of their vital skills and know-how. The result of much economic development is very often not human flourishing but ‘modernized poverty,’ dependency, and an out-of-control system in which the humans become worn-down mechanical parts.”

[2] Illich proposed that we should “invert the present deep structure of tools” in order to “give people tools that guarantee their right to work with independent efficiency.”[14]

Schools should not be able to declare themselves the only valuable source of education, nor hospitals that of health care. To Illich, the fact that he did see them do this anyway, meant people were being robbed of their freedom to learn, and to heal. In the same vein, NATO should not have a monopoly on defending us from ‘evil’ enemies, because it will create that evil just to justify its own apparatus, in the process robbing people of the ability to judge what is evil and what is not.

‘[I]nstitutions create the needs and control their satisfaction, and, by so doing, turn the human being and her or his creativity into objects’

And that of course moves us real close to what I said about supranational organizations and multinationals, and to what Sakwa said: “NATO exists to manage the risks created by its existence.”. It shirks close to the Completion Backward Principle, in which first a need and a market is created and only then the product that fills that need.

My perhaps favorite Illich quote, which with a little imagination is one on one applicable to the entire institutionalization issue, is this:

Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby “schooled” to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is “schooled” to accept service in place of value.

Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work. Health, learning, dignity, independence, and creative endeavour are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions which claim to serve these ends, and their improvement is made to depend on allocating more resources to the management of hospitals, schools, and other agencies in question.

I never liked the education system I grew up in, any more than I like supranational institutions (it just took me a while to figure out the connection). High school was fine, because it was a breeze. But university was like running into a wall, multiple times. I just never had the idea that these people had anything I wanted. Just perhaps a degree that would have given me a ‘better’ job. But to go through 4-5-6 years of something I absolutely didn’t want, or saw the use of, seemed to be far too high a price to pay. This was way after Illich wrote what he did, though I didn’t read it until even much later again, but when I did, I still had a feeling of redemption, of: I’m not the only one who saw what I did.

And of course people will say that I’m an idiot to throw away a university degree when so many others would kill to have one. That all, however, proves Illich’s point, and it leads back to the same issue: universities have a monopoly on learning, which means people learn less and less, they only ‘learn’ to be cogs in a machine. And if you don’t get the degree, than no well-paying job for you. And that’s exactly what Illich says. It makes for societies of unhappy people, who can’t even provide for themselves, as all their ancestors could, because all they’ve learned is to be that cog.

I wanted to bring Ivan Illich into the discussion about NATO we’ve been having for a long time, with Ron Paul and myself saying it should be banned and its pieces ritually incinerated, because Illich makes the idea far more accessible that this is all part of a much larger pattern. That is to say, we tend towards centralization at all levels, mostly at first – seemingly – innocently, but soon with control moving beyond our perception.

Who controls NATO, or the IMF? I’m sure you understand it’s not you. Still, when an organization exhibits aggressive behavior in your name, or lends out your money in your name, you should at all times feel that you are in control, through those you elect to represent you. Well, do you? Or are you merely thinking: that’s too far away from me?

Organizations, like so many things in life, don’t scale up well, if at all. Beyond a certain critical mass, they become counterproductive, as Illich states. They become predators on their own creators. That goes as much for NATO, IMF and EU as it does for schools and hospitals.

Modern societies appear to create more and more institutions – and great swathes of the way we live our lives become institutionalized. ‘This process undermines people – it diminishes their confidence in themselves, and in their capacity to solve problems… It kills convivial relationships. Finally it colonizes life like a parasite or a cancer that kills creativity’ (Finger and Asún 2001: 10).

Experts and an expert culture always call for more experts. Experts also have a tendency to cartelize themselves by creating ‘institutional barricades’ – for example proclaiming themselves gatekeepers, as well as self-selecting themselves. Finally, experts control knowledge production, as they decide what valid and legitimate knowledge is, and how its acquisition is sanctioned.

Schooling – the production of knowledge, the marketing of knowledge, which is what the school amounts to, draws society into the trap of thinking that knowledge is hygienic, pure, respectable, deodorized, produced by human heads and amassed in stock…..

[B]y making school compulsory, [people] are schooled to believe that the self-taught individual is to be discriminated against; that learning and the growth of cognitive capacity, require a process of consumption of services presented in an industrial, a planned, a professional form;… that learning is a thing rather than an activity. A thing that can be amassed and measured, the possession of which is a measure of the productivity of the individual within the society. That is, of his social value.

It’s a trap we’ve set for ourselves, and over which we’ve now long lost control. Technology seems to make the world ‘smaller’, and to increase our control, but in effect it ends up doing the opposite. It makes us dumber, since we are now only cogs in a machine that others control, and over which we have no oversight. If the machine gets orders to go to war, the cogs will have to obey. That’s our world today, and that’s what the NATO issue teaches us. NATO is our Frankenstein. And if we don’t stop it now, it will end up coming after us.

Feb 052015
 
 February 5, 2015  Posted by at 6:39 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,  


NPC Auto wreck, Washington, DC April 1917

This is a post by Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism (see original here), who shares my worries (and quotes me) – as well as Syriza’s, of course – about what’s happening in Greece. She’s dead on in making the connection between #BlackLivesMatter and #GreekLivesMatter. What’s being done to Greece in this Chicago School style experiment is reprehensible and immoral. Europe is busy creating its own generation of gutter dwellers, first in Greece, and its own Untermenschen, yet again, just 70 years after WWII ended. Shame on them, and shame on you for letting it happen. Don’t!

If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem an accomplice.

The Troika’s willingness to turn Greece into a failed state first, as a side effect of its “rescue the French and German banks” operation, and now, as part of its German hegemony protection racket, is killing people and in the longer term will only accelerate the rise of extreme right wing elements in the Eurozone. As Ilargi wrote last week:

In what universe is it a good thing to have over half of the young people in entire countries without work, without prospects, without a future? And then when they stand up and complain, threaten them with worse? How can that possibly be the best we can do? And how much worse would you like to make it? If a flood of suicides and miscarriages, plummeting birth rates and doctors turning tricks is not bad enough yet, what would be?

If you live in Germany or Finland, and it were indeed true that maintaining your present lifestyle depends on squeezing the population of Greece into utter misery, what would your response be? F##k ‘em? You know what, even if that were so, your nations have entered into a union with Greece (and Spain, and Portugal et al), and that means you can’t only reap the riches on your side and leave them with the bitter fruit. That would make that union pointless, even toxic. You understand that, right?

Greece is still an utterly corrupt country. Brussels knows this, but it has kept supporting a government that supports the corrupt elite, tried to steer the Greeks away from voting SYRIZA. Why? How much does Brussels like corrupt elites, exactly? The EU, and its richer member nations, want Greece to cut even more, given the suicides, miscarriages, plummeting birth rates and doctors turning tricks. How blind is that? Again, how much worse does it have to get?

Does the EU have any moral values at all? And if not, why are you, if you live in the EU, part of it? Because you don’t have any, either? And if you do, where’s your voice? There are people suffering and dying who are part of a union that you are part of. That makes you an accomplice. You can’t hide from that just because your media choose to hide your reality from you.

It is time to take action, both here and in Europe. I hope you’ll send this post, and our related posts on the the ECB and Greece (see here for the overview and here on why the Fed is complicit) to people who would be sympathetic to the plight of Greeks, as well as to members of the Greek community themselves. Even if our suggestion is not a fit, it will hopefully spur them to come up with social media and public events to raise the visibility of the damage being done to Greece and other periphery countries in the name of misguided, destructive austerity policies.

Readers in the US know that the #BlackLivesMatter campaign has succeeded in bringing people of all races together to protest police brutality against African Americans. The protest shown below was held at the American Embassy in London.

UK - Candle Light Vigil for Michael Brown at US Embassy in London

This effort has sufficiently rattled the New York Police Department, one of the targeted abusers, to start targeting peaceful protestors with an “anti terrorist” unit, leading public interest groups to lodge yet more objections.

One of its most successful means of raising public awareness has been to stage “die ins”:

die-in

Grand Central has been the site of many #BlackLivesMatter protests.

The idea would be to bring the protests to central banks themselves, to the ECB in Frankfurt, to the Eurozone central banks, and to the Board of Governors and the New York Fed. Central bankers have managed to hide from public scrutiny and accountability. It is time to put them on notice that the public realizes that their bank-supporting policies are not just destroying economies and futures of young people, but causing deaths. The British Medical Journal attributed a 35% rise in the level of suicides in Greece to austerity. And that’s before you get to the harder-to-calculate impact of the damage austerity has done to the medical system, with many prescription medications beyond the budgets of hospitals. Extracts from a report at OpenDemocracy:

I joined healthcare workers and the Greece Solidarity Campaign to visit hospitals, clinics and food markets. I spoke to healthcare staff, volunteers, politicians and local government officials.

What I witnessed appalled me – and brought tears to my eyes.

In Greece’s biggest hospital, the Evangelismos Hospital in Athens, conditions were worse than those I have seen in developing countries.

The moment the hospital doors open on ‘emergency’ days, people flood in. The collapse in official primary and community health care services means everyone who needs healthcare comes to A+E – whether for a major accident, medication for a long term condition or to get their child immunized. Staff told me that serious trauma cases often have to wait hours for X-rays and treatment due to understaffing and that, if too many cases come in at the same time, people die before they can be treated…

Social solidarity health clinics have been set up all around Greece staffed by volunteers who try to provide basic care for those with no access to healthcare. Doctors, nurses and pharmacists volunteer in these clinics, but not nearly enough to meet the needs.

I visited the Social Solidarity Clinic in Peristeri, a district of Athens with a population of about 400,000 people. The volunteer staff, doctors and nurses who worked there told me that most local state run health clinics had been shut. The government had closed all the polyclinics then reopened some recently but with only 30% of the doctors that they need. Whereas previously there had been 150 doctors providing services to the district, there were now only 50. A polyclinic for a population of 400,000 people had no gynaecologists, no dermatologists, and only two cardiologists.

“We want our doctors back” – said one of the volunteers I spoke to. Thousands of doctors have left the country. Those that remain – including senior hospital doctors – earn about €12,000 a year….

Clinic volunteers said that people with long term conditions like diabetes or with cancer had particular problems getting the treatment they needed. Uninsured cancer patients can’t afford chemotherapy. The solidarity organisations appeal to people on chemotherapy to donate one day’s worth of medication for patients who can’t afford to the drugs themselves.

The Greek government passed a law in January allowing so that if people get into debt their property can be confiscated. Some people decline further treatment rather than accrue debt from healthcare costs that might lead to their family losing their home.

Greek mothers are now charged €600 to have a baby and €1200 for a Caesarian or complications. It’s twice that for foreign nationals living in Greece. The mother has to pay the fee on leaving the hospital. When the charges were first introduced, if the mother couldn’t pay, the hospital kept the baby until the payment was made. International condemnation led to that practice being discontinued and now the money is reclaimed through extra tax – but if the family can’t afford that then their home or property can be confiscated. And if she still can’t pay she can be imprisoned. An increasing number of newborn babies are abandoned in the hospital. One obstetrician I spoke to called it the “criminalization of childbirth.”

Contraception is unaffordable for many – health insurance does not even cover it. There are many more abortions – 300,000 a year –and for the first time the death rate in Greece is outstripping the birth rate. People can’t afford to have babies. It’s hard enough to feed and care for existing children.

Please circulate this post widely and tweet it, using #GreekLivesMatter. If you live in a city where a central bank is located, get this idea in front of organizers. They can no doubt adapt and improve upon it. And above all, send it to all the Greeks you know, even those in Greece who might send it on to friends and family in the diaspora.

If you are in the US, please contact your Congressman and express your dismay that the Fed is tacitly supporting the ECB in its reckless and destructive Eurozone policies and has the stature and the leverage to weigh in. Remember, many Republicans are as unhappy with the lack of transparency and undue concentration of power at the Fed. Even a small step supporting this effort is a step in the right direction.