MARSEILLE, DETROIT AND THE RATIONALE FOR RUNNING A CITY LIKE A CORPORATION

I have been following the Detroit bankruptcy story and thought the following syndicated column from David Sirota (“Don’t Buy the Right-wing Myth About Detroit”, Salon.com, 23 July 2013) worth sharing.

Sirota asks good questions and supports his arguments with statistics, even if, in my view, he fails to ask the hard question: Where is the public interest in these events?

The easy answer is that public servants should be sheltered from the negligence and incompetence of their “political” superiors. In other words, State and municipal employees should be protected by a “civil service code”. In the absence of such a code, the real answer becomes more difficult to find.

Cities are public organizations that should be managed and not left merely to fend for themselves in the harsh world of laissez-faire economics. Municipal governance is profoundly anchored in the politics of territoriality and districting with all that implies.

In granting a home rule charter, policy makers should reserve for themselves an oversight role so that imbalances can be corrected. Had public oversight of territorial organization been the rule, in both Louisiana and in Detroit, “white flight” from city centers to the near suburbs could have been addressed as a public policy issue and tax burdens more equitably apportioned. Governance reform and tax reapportionment within the Aix-Marseille metropolitan area are at the heart of the reforms recently passed in the French legislature as the “Loi sur la modernisation de l’action publique territoriale”.

Unfunded liabilities are a typically American problem, shared alike in the public and the private sector. And yet…

The smart criticism avoids asking hard questions about public responsibility for public pensions (as opposed to private pension liabilities), and further ignores the issue of state responsibility for the regulation of public institutions. What could be more public than a municipal charter? and, what could the rationale be for running a city like a corporation?

If interested, read more here:
www.salon.com, Don’t Buy the Right Wing Myth About Detroit

Published as personal commentary
on the Facebook page of “Democrats Abroad France – Marseille

Photo credits:
– Cover photo of marked-up, peeling wall paper by Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre, 2011. The Ruins of Detroit
– Packard Motors squat and Delray family pictures by Pete Brook, Captivating Photos of Detroit Delve Deep to Reveal a Beautiful, Struggling City, published by (Wired Magazine, Jan. 2013)
– Unknown source (Twilight over Motor City)

Turtle Island and European-American Settlement Patterns

Like so many of my generation of European-Americans a significant part of my conscious being has been devoted over the short span of my life to answering the question “Who am I?” In the face of the material well-being of my generation what could I possibly want? Surely, life was more than about wealth and material comforts.

I suppose the idea that I should know who I was started when my father, seeking to humor my awkward teen existence shared a cartoon parodying the “now” generation with the headline, “Who am I?”. I didn’t think it was terribly funny but I knew that adults were themselves humored by what passed for consent so I let the remark slide. My father probably never thought again about the subject or knew how deeply he had influenced my thought process.

The issue was undoubtedly that I should be constructing a focused adult life in anticipation of assuming an adult identity. He probably did not understand for all of his preoccupations that my life was already under construction and that my adolescent rebellion was already about community and my identity within that community.

The first question then concerned the observed asymmetry of power between the local production system and my privileged ‘colonial’ status. What was it about the encounter of two systems that created unfair advantage? Why was one system local, the other not? Which of these systems was my community? And if my community was the local production system, how could I accept an advantage originating outside of the local community?

[ Before I go any further, I should explain what is meant by “an advantage originating outside of the local community”. I was born and raised on Hummingbird Island, the eldest son of a professional manager responsible for a food processing business that purchased and transformed local farm produce for sale and consumption in Europe. Payment for the transformed produce was made in the United States to merchants who “hedged the risks” associated with the local production system, using the profits to finance additional production operations. ]

To my young eyes and 20/20 vision, since augmented by 40+ years of hindsight and a clear sense of what we know today as “globalization”, this international production system produced a redistribution of wealth, from Europe to South and North America. The redistribution in Europe took the form of purchasing economies (production and sale of less expensive, grain-fed livestock) resulting in lower market prices (increased disposable incomes to consumers) and for producers, lower factor costs at given market prices. For the land- and labor-rich host country this produced employment and land rents. Nothing was taken unfairly.

But this was only one facet of the colonization process. Other facets have since become apparent. The transfer of wealth from one economic system (Europe) to another (North and South America) produced a streamlining of local production processes from credit to manufacturing machinery and data processing, generating ever more wealth; it encouraged population growth and replication of European-style systems of social hierarchy, mobility and social geographies. Economic forces encouraged the progressive removal of natural ecosystems from their primary organic function supporting Earth communities of life and biodiversity. In short, this form of colonization succeeded in reproducing European-American settlement patterns, disenfranchising Native Peoples and advancing the day for “Mother Earth’s Great Purification Ceremony”.

More profoundly speaking, the success of the European colonial system, the “dominance paradigm” now fully mature and “in possession of Turtle Island” must inevitably turn to its next challenge, global scarcity and the control of food and water production systems. This is what is happening today all over Africa and in less developed areas of the world where land, water and labor are plentiful.

Where will it all end?

An old Indian friend whose life model is deeply rooted in community practice and collective intelligence, and who actively anticipates Mother Earth’s Great Purification Ceremony reminds me that the civilization disease which expresses itself as a belief in “individual”-ity, is a social cancer that can only be checked by

Human Persons in-Community, and so in-tune with the Song ‘n’ Dance of Life Herownself, whatever the geographical origins of their Ancestors…

In answering the question “Who am I?” my old Indian friend might as well have said “it is not so much ‘who’ we are that matters, but how well we DO what we ARE”.

This is in fact what he said.

Poverty and the Ohio Media Circus, or When is a circus not entertainment

Recent buzz in the blogosphere has concerned itself with Kelly Williams-Bolar (Kelly Williams) a socially ambitious, presumably single mother of two young girls “trapped in poverty” and condemned to substandard schooling.

I became aware of the facts through an article on the progressive website, Truthdig: A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste–Except in Ohio. The dramatic headline was accompanied by a picture of a straightened, nappy-haired black woman whose bloodshot eyes were on the verge of tears. Nothing like the attractive, forty year old woman pictured in the press

The reading trail led me to essayist, Marcia Alesan Dawkins www.marciadawkins.com and an abundance of media spin, from local ABC affiliate WEWS’ report on the sentencing, Woman Gets Jail Time in School Residency Case, to the Cleveland Leader’s confusingly headlined article, Mother Gets Jail Time for Lying to Get Kids in a Better School System and the Akron.com Community News and Notes website, Walsh Defends Prosectution of Williams-Bolar, moves to dismiss deadlocked charges

Headline writers and editorialists must be having a field day.

But this is the way a free press works.

The contest is between those who feel justified, by virtue of professional achievement or material wealth, living in an exclusive neighborhood and school district and those who believe that the dominant, materialistic discourse of our society has condemned a large segment of our citizens to permanent social disadvantage, an attitude we might forgive among certain minorities. The entire process, if one believes the Summit County Prosecutor (and we should believe her as the legitimate representative of the public order), was exacerbated by defendant Williams’ brinkmanship and insistence upon access to neighboring public spaces.

Did Kelly Williams and her father bring the problems upon themselves?

Only the people of Ohio and Summit County can say for sure. Even then, it may take judicial remedy, a lengthy appelate process and possibly even legislative remedy for justice to be served.

So where then does the issue lie?

At issue are the social values that define our public spaces, the right of public access and the old question of separate but equal. In a larger sense it is about how citizens in outlying counties, townships and municipalities insulate themselves from the social problems of neighboring jurisdictions. It is about metropolitan governance and a shared idea of citizenship.

The problem is not Ms Williams’ social ambition nor even her questionable character, but the failure of the State’s education system to anticipate and remedy the special needs of individuals trapped in poverty, the failure of the State to remedy something that is obviously separate and just as obviously, not equal.

The war on poverty is not something that is happening in far away Africa, South Asia or in the favellas of Rio de Janeiro. The war on poverty is happening in our own backyard. Ms Williams’ fight and the media circus that she inspired simply call attention to the rigidities of a system built around economic priviledge and material access.

The Kelly Williams case reminds us that ours is a shared destiny and that poverty has no place in the equation.

Three reasons why Julian Assange should be released

A friend wrote yesterday to ask whether I thought Julian Assange should be prosecuted.

A response was not easy. I have a sense of the harm Assange has done, but I also see the humor and I understand that unfair prosecution would only further damage America’s credibility and reinforce America’s ‘bully’ image.

First, the humor. The American diplomats who were exposed for their less than flattering undergarments, have done nothing that diplomats the world over and from time immemorial have not themselves done: spoken freely in private.

The publication of the correspondence is like an embarassing statements made over an open microphone by a careless politician.

The second reason the incident should be ignored is that nothing good can come of suppressing the urge to ‘expose the truth’, especially when that ‘truth’ is tainted and America’s credibility challenged as it has been following the manipulations of the press and public opinion by the neo-conservative “Project for a New American Century”, PNAC.

Finally, the decision to prosecute Jullian Assange should be perceived not as an act of revenge by embarassed public servants, but as a political act. A case for prosecution should be made and defended publicly. More harm will come from an arbitrary act of political censure perceived as a surrender of political control than would come from simply letting the storm “blow over”.

Political control is the key. America, under George Bush surrendered political control to a conservative clique operating as the PNAC. A clueless, populist president surrendered control in favor of revenge, mobilising American forces and invading Afghanistan even before there was sufficient proof of Osama Bin Laden’s personal responsibility and before anybody knew Al Qaida was the name given by the CIA to the list of proxy operatives they funded and fielded in their Cold War crusade against the Soviet “Empire of Evil”.

Symbols are important and Assange has been transformed into a symbol of personal freedom, truth and justice. The authorities would be well advised to think twice.

Post-script, added 10 January 2011.
The Alternet.org website on January 3rd posted a carefully argued and convincing piece in support of Jullian Assange. I recommend it to anyone who still wonders about the justness of Wikileaks’ actions. You will find the article here:

WikiLeaks’ Most Terrifying Revelation: Just How Much Our Government Lies to Us

Defending and promoting the commons in a globalized world

All of life is local.

One might be forgiven for quickly passing over such a banality. And yet, the local is at the very heart of our system of values and the “globalization” debate.

Vital goods (organic matter, oxygen and drinking water) and the biological communities that evolved under these conditions are the quintessence of “localness”. As biological communities grow and become more dense–somewhat like the mega cities of the 21st century–they become more specialized and diversified. Historically that which was produced locally was consumed locally and, according to the first law of thermodynamics, the total energy in an isolated system tended to remain unchanged and in the system. (This of course, raises the issue of scale and interoperability between systems, matter for another debate and discussion.)

The Mediterranean biotope is such a “closed system”, naturally defined as a subtropical marine system conditioned by the earth’s orbit around the sun, producing warm dry summers and mild rainy winters. Within the Mediterranean biotope there are a number of micro-environments formed by mountain systems (Alps, Atlas, Pyrenees), river and estuarine systems (Nile, Rhone, Danube) and a marine topography dominated by coastal systems, continental shelves and deep water environments.

At some point in the evolutionary process, Man’s penchant for socializing led to the creation of local commons as specialized communities producing regular surpluses. Such surpluses were traded as a reliable means toward increasing the material well-being of the commons. Such local surplus led to the development of a class of professional merchant traders and then, to entire societies specialized in colonial settlement.

The expansive colonial settlement practiced by the Romans eventually proved unsustainable and gave way to a system of competing city-states and then to nation-states whose purpose was to serve an ever greater collective interest more or less democratically defined. Individual will was subordinated to the collective weal (the commonwealth) and predatory colonization once again became the order-of-the-day.

In the latest transformation, mechanized transportation, telecommunications and rights enforcement once again threaten the commons (sedentary communities locally nourished) and a new collective ideal is called into existence. But the question precisely, is what can be the validity of such a collective ideal? Who will negotiate it and, under what authority?

My participation in and adherence to a local commons is welcome and indisputable: my existence as a human and the greatness of anything I might accomplish depends on the commons and the nature of relations with distant commons. Such a system is disrupted when relations between commons become unequal and the self-sufficiency of one is threatened by the predatory practices of another.

In the end, why would I want to “harvest” my fish, my wheat or olives beyond the limits of local sustainability? Why would I want to pollute my rivers or disfigure my landscapes when the surpluses acquired are non-sustainable or when market practices predatory? And, what should we do about biological species (such as ourselves) that are not by nature sedentary and thus defy assignment to one or another geographic locality?

Defending and promoting the commons in a globalized world is perhaps the highest calling.

Another “MUST” read, this one harking back to the Savings & Loan Bailout

See : A Nation of Village Idiots in The Huffington Post (www.huffingtonpost.com).

What will it take for America’s middle classes to finally understand their own interests? or even, to speak with one voice?

There is nothing wrong with the creation of wealth.

What is wrong, is that in the name of “free market capitalism” we lie down and pretend to be rugs for the selfish men and women who not only understand their self-interests but define these in terms of personal wealth, pleasure and aggrandisement.

Our own interests would be better served helping our neighbors, educating our children and sweeping before our own front doors.

A Debate Worthy of a Great Nation in Trouble


The following is a full-text reproduction of an op-ed opinion by Robert L Borosage, published in the www.huffingtonpost.com. For the original, go to A Debate Worthy of a Great Nation in Trouble.


Lipstick on pigs, sex ed for pre-K, earmarks gone wild — this presidential campaign is descending to a bridge to nowhere. We cannot let that happen again. This country is up against it: The worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, Gilded Age inequality, Iraq and Afghanistan, catastrophic climate change, the lawless presidency and more. The next president will face stark challenges that cannot be ignored. We need a debate worthy of a great nation in trouble. And the only way that will happen is if citizens insist on it.

Today in the New York Times, the Institute for America’s Future begins a series of “op ads” designed to highlight critical crises this country must address — and to enlist others in challenging the media and campaigns to address them. For the first of these op eds, go here. We should all join in this effort. Challenge the gotcha journalism, the politics of diversion, lies and posturing — and demand that this presidential campaign get down to the real questions the next president must face. (Full disclosure: I co-direct the Institute, although I post here in my individual capacity.)

For example: How do we make this economy work for most Americans?

Bear Sterns, Lehman Brothers, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — the metastasizing financial cancer now threatens global recession or worse. How and whether to bail out the banks, how to avoid a severe downturn should be at the center of our debate.

But for the next president, the financial mess shouldn’t obscure this economy’s deeper problems. Underneath the current crisis is a stark reality: even when it is doing well, this economy hasn’t been working for most Americans. In the last seven years, for example, when the economy was growing, when Treasury Secretary Paulson was hailing the “strongest world economy I’ve seen in my business lifetime,” when President Bush and Senator McCain were declaring — McCain as recent as yesterday — that the “fundamentals of the economy are strong,” working and middle income families did not share in the benefits.

From 2000-2007, corporate profits were up, productivity was up, but incomes did not keep up with prices. For the first time since the Census Bureau started publishing the records in the 1940s, the typical family actually lost ground over the seven years of “recovery.” And the costs of basics — health care, housing, gas and home heating, college tuitions — soared. Poverty spread. More Americans went without health care. Savings were consumed. More added debt, tapping into their home’s equity, providing the kindling for the mortgage inferno. And that’s when the economy was “good.” (For detailed analysis see EPI’s new Stateof Working America) No wonder the Rockefeller/Time Magazine poll released in July revealed that fully half of Americans no longer believe the American dream is attainable by working hard and playing by the rules. Something is fundamentally wrong.

And it isn’t like the weather. It isn’t an act of God. Some blame “technological change,” but America’s middle class was built on the technological revolutions of the post-World War II period; technological change may expand the pie; it doesn’t determine who gets what slice. Others blame globalization. It’s true that the US strategy in the global economy has given corporations a club in negotiations with workers. We lost one in seven manufacturing jobs over the past seven years. But service jobs that don’t compete in the global economy haven’t fared well either. Others say the workers are at fault, for they lack the education they need. But as the Wall Street Journal reported last week, even incomes for college graduates also didn’t keep up over the cycle.

The fact is that the very few captured the benefits of growth. The 15,000 richest families — one one-hundredth of American households — captured fully one quarter of all the growth of national income. The vast majority of households lost ground. (See Scott Lilly’s analysis here)

This hollowing out of the American middle class is rather a direct expression of policies designed to benefit wealth at the expense of work, to empower CEOs and weaken workers, to privilege Wall Street over Main Street.

Over the last 30 years, conservatives and their ideas dominated Washington. Both parties joined in. Under Reagan and Clinton, banks were deregulated and a casino financial system grew in the shadows. Global trade deals protected property rights, not worker rights. Taxes were lowered on the wealth and raised on work. With the crushing of the PATCO air comptrollers strike, Reagan declared open season on unions. The minimum wage was frozen for a decade, lowering the floor. Companies under pressure from speculators and global competitors began shredding the promises once made to workers — cutting health care, abandoning pensions, ignoring rules on hours and overtime. Undocumented workers were easily exploited. Even Microsoft, the most profitable monopoly of the time, resorted to using permatemps — permanent temporary workers — to avoid paying folks full-time benefits. Under Bush, this all came to a head.

What’s needed is a fundamental change of direction. Instead of trickle down growth, we should be driving the economy from the bottom up. Instead of focusing on freeing up capital and executives, we should be empowering workers. The IAF ad suggests three fundamental reforms that reflect a growing consensus among progressive economists.

First, empower workers to organize. Unions help workers gain a fair share of the profits they help generate, and help to enforce agreements on hours, conditions and treatment. Since companies now systematically squelch organizing efforts, pass the Employee Free Choice Act, which would allow workers to choose how to organize — either through by getting a majority to sign membership cards or by holding an election, and mandate negotiation of a first contract.

Second, forge a public social contract to replace the private one that the companies are now shredding. Mandate companies to provide basic health care, contribution to a public pension, paid vacation and sick days, a decent minimum wage, pegged to inflation. These mandates can be phased in over time; mom and pop stores can be exempted. The point is to enforce — as other industrial countries do — basic minimums in law so that companies can’t compete on the low road, by driving wages and conditions into the ditch.

Third, make full employment the stated goal of our economic policies — both the fiscal and trade policies of the administration and Congress and the monetary policies of the Federal Reserve, with the government acting as an employer of last resort to keep employment levels up. Over the last 30 years, market fundamentalists — reflecting the priorities of Wall Street’s investors — have made inflation the priority, not full employment. But wages rose across the board only — as in the last years of the Clinton administration — when the economy neared full employment. When jobs are plentiful, workers can negotiate a better deal from their employers because they are better able to abandon a bad deal.

The Presidential Debate

How do the presidential candidates stack up on this agenda? McCain declares himself a “foot soldier in the Reagan revolution,” embracing the basic mantra of market fundamentalists — lower taxes (particularly for the wealthy and the corporations), less regulation, less domestic spending. He is skeptical of unions, and has voted repeatedly against raising the minimum wage, much less extending a public social contract to workers. He wants to unravel employer based health care, not mandate it. His basic promise is to shake up government, make it less wasteful, reduce taxes for companies and the affluent, and get out of the way. In this election, he is the proud representative of the course we’ve been on.

Obama, due in part to the contested Democratic primary race, has put forth a bolder agenda. He pledges to support the Employee Free Choice Act, and to reverse Bush’s anti-union executive orders. He hasn’t called for a new public social contract, but favors raising the minimum wage, and pledges health care for all. He’s said little about running a full employment economy, much less about government as an employer of last resort. But he does call for a public investment bank, and large public investments in new energy and conservation, in modernizing our infrastructure and in investing in education and training.

The Debate We Deserve

Presidential campaigns aren’t policy seminars. Candidates need to inspire voters, define themselves and their opponents. Insult, invective, lies and distortions have been part of American elections from the beginning.

But Americans also deserve a debate that exposes the choices each candidate would make on the fundamental questions facing the country. Why not make this a feature of the TV debates, rather than rehashing old distortions or trying to gin up personal conflicts? What if a debate stated with this question:

Most Americans saw little of the benefits of the last years of economic growth. Wages didn’t keep up. Poverty spread. More people went without health care. And that’s when the economy was growing. Both of you claim to be candidates of change. What fundamental changes would you make to insure that this economy works for working people?

Wouldn’t that be a more interesting question than whether Sarah Palin was for the bridge to nowhere before she was against it?

A debate worthy of a great nation in trouble. That’s not too much too ask. Nor too much to demand.

The American Commons In One Morning’s Readings

In one morning’s readings I read about how Carly Fiorina disparaged the candidates’ ability to run a large multinational like Hewlett Packard saying that running a large multinational is not like being President. She’s one to talk: she was ousted by Hewlett Packard in 2005 and she has never served as President. What is she doing giving advice?

I also read about U.S. bail-outs for under regulated corporate behemoths like AIG, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, about the acquisition of the banking and real estate assets of the failed Lehman Brothers or the acquisition of Merrill Lynch by BankAmerica.

Such a whirlwind of destruction… Here truly is the collapse of a house of cards, a fantasy of unfettered exuberance and unregulated greed. And here also lies the problem.

I do not subscribe to the idea that greed is a “mortal sin” visiting the wrath of God upon humans, but a selfishness that is endemic to liberal, unregulated capitalism and a selfishness that has cheapened the American commons. It is in fact, the same selfishness that creates inequality at home and in the world.

As far as my personal freedoms are concerned, I wholly subscribe to the idea that that government is best that governs least. But there is a cost to such freedom, and that cost lies in regulating the commons; The role of government lies in, must lie in regulating the commons for the greater good.

Occupy the High Ground

For heaven’s sake, Barrack, occupy the high ground!

Attacking McCain and his lapdog, the ambitious, beautiful and clueless Sarah Palin, concedes the impression that they are setting the agenda.

Impressions matter. If you are not careful you will find yourself all too soon debating the issues framed by the republicans. Stick to your guns. A strategy of attacking the McCain-Palin ticket on their terms “ignores” the fact that the American people have spoken countless times through opinion poles, saying that the 2008 election is about fairness and equity, about America’s standing in the world, about productivity, responsibility and self-sufficiency.

Do not let yourself be derailed by the rhetorical tricks and distractions of a well heeled public relations machine.

We are the moral majority. We opposed an immoral, opportunistic war that has visited misery on thousands of homes and families. We support fair trade and rightfully earned personal wealth.

Come on. Repeat with me: WE ARE THE MORAL MAJORITY.

A Little Humor, Please!

This morning’s readings brought Colbert King’s OpEd column in the Washington Post, “Jesse Jackson’s Unkindest Cut“, (July 12, 2008, A14) to my attention.

As a born and bred WASP refugee of the New Orleans battle front (see below), I desperately wanted a black man to address the, you know, virility issue. When Colbert refused to go there [he dismissed this, “setting aside all of the highbrow speculation about the deeper meaning of (Jackson’s) words” adding “This whole thing is silly.”], I wasn’t sure I would read any further.

Well I would have been wrong.

Virility is a matter of self-image (just as attractiveness may be for others) and like one’s racial heritage, has absolutely no bearing on whether one is a responsible citizen. Citizenship, not self-confidence is the issue at the bar. So, after ironizing about Jesse Jackson’s remarks and the media establishment’s prudishness regarding race relations and penchant to sanitize denial (my own words) with the politically correct, Colbert concludes:

There’s only one aspect of this episode that still concentrates the mind. Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) angrily denounced his father’s comment, saying in part: “I thoroughly reject and repudiate his ugly rhetoric. He should keep hope alive and any personal attacks and insults to himself.”

Now there’s a bright and courageous young man who, given his father’s predilections, could do with an iron jock strap

After thinking this through, perhaps it is Jesse Jackson, Sr. who should wear the iron jock strap.