Risk Rap

Rapping About a World at Risk

Gulags and Gitmos

For participating in an Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) Survey I received The Pocket World In Figures for 2009. Its filled with all kinds of interesting statistics to measure, compare and contrast economic and social indicators for countries of the world. Included in this useful little tome is the usual mundane statistical econometric measures like GDP, income levels, life expectancy, agricultural output and similar macroeconomic indicators. The Survey also includes many other quality of life statistical measures and one that immediately grabbed my attention were the entries concerning Crime and Punishment.

The Survey tabulates Crime and Punishment statistics in four areas; murders, death row inmates, total prisoner count and prisoners per 100,000 of a country’s population. Sadly the EIU Survey reports that the United States leads the list in two out of the four categories. Those include prisoner population and prisoners per 100,000 of total country population. The US holds the dubious distinction of the number two spot behind Pakistan in the number of death row inmates.

I find these telling statistical measures most perplexing and equally disturbing. The United States prison population of 2.253,000 is 30% higher then second place China with 1,566,000 inmates and third place Russia with 885,000 inmates. These numbers become more significant when measured as a percent of 100,000 of the country’s population. The United States again occupies the top spot with 751 inmates per 100,000 followed by Russia with 627 per 100,000. As a percent of total population the US incarceration rate is 17% higher then that of Russia. China which occupied the number two spot in total prison population falls off the list of the top 23 nations with the highest level of incarceration due to its large overall population.

One needs to ask what is it in the cultural, social, political and economic DNA that places the United States as the world leading gulag?

It has been long known that people of color comprise the majority of death row and prison inmates in the United States. The glaring racial and social class dimensions of imprisonment and how it is disproportionally borne by minorities and the working poor is a direct causal effect of the dismantling of the manufacturing base of the US economy. This has exacerbated the inequality of wealth distribution in the US economy. It has accelerated the deterioration of our urban economic zones thereby fostering the growth of illegal underground economic activities and petty economic crime.

The economic and social factors that contribute to crime and imprisonment are usually the central topics that take center stage in the debate between conservatives and liberals. Ironically this debate obfuscates underlying causal factors that can be ascribed to the political culture in the US. The preponderance of law and order candidates running for public office, the political clout of police and public safety unions, the emergence of industry sectors that build and manage prisons, the vibrant security and protection industries, the use of cheap prison labor and dramatic wealth disparity creates powerful market and cultural forces that incubate and sustain the growth of penal industries and the political sentiment that supports it.

Since 9/11 our political culture has been saturated with messages of fear, suspicion , demonization of “the other” and the pervasiveness of terrorism. This political climate has spawned two wars, the dramatic growth of prison privatization, suspension of some basic rights of privacy with the passage of FISA and the creation of special rendition prison camps like Gitmo that suspend habeas corpus and other internationally recognized standards of basic prisoner rights. The revelations about the Iraqi prison Abu Ghraib has shamefully placed torture at the forefront in the political debate concerning appropriate practices and acceptable tools interogators can use in the fight against terrorism. The US is clearly in danger of losing the moral high ground in its self proclaimed defense of human rights as it continues to extol the righteousness of its law and order society by building and populating an ever expanding network of gulags.

Sadly our penal culture creates some horrific abominations. The US taxpayer conveys its eager willingness to pay up to $40,000 a year to incarcerate a prisoner; while claiming that its good fiscal policy to balk at paying anything over $8,000 to educate a child in a public school.

This Sunday we will be marching in Newark NJ in Support of Solidarity Sunday. Our mission will be to join forces with those who are dedicated to ending violence and crime in our communities. We believe this objective can only be realized if we respond with unity, love, peace, hope and help.

Information on Solidarity Sunday can be found here.

It is our fondest hope and most fervent prayer that we will build more schools and factories and less prisons. We also pray that our fellow citizens and elected officials will find mercy in their hearts and proclaim 2009 as a Jubilee Year and grant amnesty and set free those who are worthy of freedom and have paid the price for their crime. We also pray that those who imprison others will recognize the humanity of their captives.

You Tube Music Video: The Midnight Special, Odetta

You Tube Music Video: Gil Scott Heron, Angola Louisiana

Risk: civil liberties, rule of law, Bill of Rights, social justice

November 26, 2008 Posted by | commerce, crime, culture, folk, jazz, prisons | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Riding The Acela Express

I don’t really know what Acela means.

I imagined it to be a Greek or Latin word perhaps the name of a divine conveyance or swift footed messenger from Roman mythology. It’s probably nothing that deep. Most likely it is one of those made up words invented by a high powered marketing firm on Madison Avenue. Most know it as the rebranding of Amtrak. A kind of corporate rechristening available only to the well capitalized and those blessed with fat marketing budgets. They had to do it. After the supply-sider victory of the Reagan Revolution the legacy of losses and unending government subsidies to the failing railroad industries had to be purged from the new American political lexicon. It’s kind of like when Khrushchev was removed from power in the USSR. History books had to be rewritten to exclude the memory of Khruschev’s glorious contributions to building a workers’ paradise with Stalinist absolutism.

Riding the Acela Express from Newark New Jersey to our nation’s capitol in Washington DC provides a front seat view of a sad and sobering survey of our quickly evaporating manufacturing base and our country’s diminished industrial strength.

Riding the Acela Express down the spine of our county’s once formidable east coast industrial corridor presents a sad irony. The former Soviet Union unintentionally destroyed its economy due to its inefficient deployment and allocation of capital. While the United States, the USSR’s great historical antagonist and seeming victor of the cold war, destroyed it’s manufacturing base through the carefully considered rationalization of our industries by reallocating capital to foreign markets in search of superior returns.

In practice, this meant closing old inefficient factories and moving them overseas. From an economic standpoint it makes perfect sense. Capital seeks its best return. If that return can be found in an overseas market where labor costs are lower, tax rates are more favorable and regulatory oversight is non-existent the shareholders of the firm that closed the doors on US workers will realize a better return on their equity investment. That’s how capital markets work. Michael Milken and other predators would have a ball and build many fortunes instructing corporate America on the finer points of financial alchemy and demonstrate how easy it was to spin gold from the junk of old rust belt industries.

At first it kind of made sense. We didn’t want those kinds of jobs anyway. They were dirty and caused pollution in our communities. These types of businesses were highly unionized and susceptible to industrial disputes that only antagonized the uneasy relationship between labor and capital. Many of these industries were too capital intensive and the investment needed to maintain world class competitiveness was just too high to see any kind of acceptable return within the required time frames that benefited management and shareholders. The US was moving to a service oriented economy that obviated the need to manufacture anything. We would be an economy of designers, merchants, consultants, marketers and bankers. We did retain some clean, high tech, lite and lean factories that would rely on assembling machines from various components sourced just in time from overseas manufacturers. That was the industrial and economic vision of post cold war America.

But the vision outside my window on this Sunday morning Acela Express ride looks very different. They say that Georgian’s know their home when they see the red clay soil of their beloved state. As I pass through the metro areas of Trenton, Camden, Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore I see miles and miles of half demolished factories whose crushed emulsified bricks have turned the earth of these abandoned industrial brownfield to blazing acres of red ochre.

The landscape offers a view of row after row of empty disassembled and decaying factories. They litter the landscape like forgotten industrial sarcophagi that was long ago broken into and pillaged, its contents whisked away by savvy tomb raiders.

The abandoned shipping docks whose bills of lading long since posted last orders that disembarked decades ago. Old forges, not fired since our Great War now stand as furtive tombstones to a productive past. These committed sentinels still stand post, watching over rusted rails that once creaked under the weight of bulging freight cars delivering goods to defend the arsenal of democracy. Now the rail yards serve no purpose other then rusted planter boxes for some invasive plant species. Closed beer gardens stand next to empty Union Halls whose cheap tin signage proclaims solidarity from a bygone day. You can still barely make out the union local number if you catch the right light from this mornings emerging sun. And the church steeples and factory smokestacks both covered in many layers of hard earned coats of gray soot stand in each others holy presence reminding us of the solemn Shaker proverb, “hands to work hearts to God.”

Last we witness the awful toll the dismantling of our industrial base has claimed on our urban communities. We pass archaic schools that rise like Gothic anachronisms, resembling prisons not Lyceums of learning. We see the tiny wooden row houses of Philadelphia and Baltimore and wonder how the inhabitants will sleep through a night where temperatures will remain uncomfortably hot. Nature and capital both abhor a vacuum. In the absence of legal industry and commerce such areas will become incubators for the growth of black-markets whose social cost and commercial thrust poses great risk to the heath and efficiency of free markets and the personal liberties of free people.

The USSR failed miserably in its attempt to build a workers state. Centralized bureaucratic planning, totalitarian political control, and the parasitic drain of capital by a class of ruthless self serving party elites strangled all entrepreneurial initiative and any hope for an efficient economic system. The possibility for workers to fully enjoy the fruits of their labors vanished as nothing more then an idealistic dream.

The current state of our manufactures and how we got there may turn out to be one of those funny ironies of history. What the Soviets did to their economy by accident and incompetence, we did to ourselves through intention. The industrial policies and practices we have pursued have strengthened the economies and industrial capacities of Russia and China. Both countries economies are experiencing robust growth. Russia due to its extensive oil and natural gas reserves is once again an emerging superpower that the United States must consider in its global political, economic and military strategies. China due to its rapid development of its manufacturing capacity now boasts tremendous balance of trade surpluses. China’s exports far more then it imports and it puts its surplus into its massive Sovereign Wealth Fund. This SWF is an investment vehicle that loans money to the large US banks to bolster their fragile balance sheets so we can get through this dangerous and debilitating credit crisis. The tables have dramatically turned.

The Acela Express. What a window it provides on the state of the American economy. After an exhaustive search I discovered a reference to Acela. In a far eastern language it refers to “a cloth less one.” Or in other words naked, as in the emperor has no cloths or perhaps we are vulnerable and exposed as a naked child in a blizzard without a strong industrial and manufacturing base? Or as in the “clothless one” hides nothing and always presents the naked truth. However you interpret Acela, let us hope that the Midnight Special continues to shine an ever loving light on you.

Music: Lonnie Donagen, Midnight Special

Risk: capital flight, manufacturing, labor unions, urban communities, political, global competitiveness, balance of trade, railroads,

June 14, 2008 Posted by | China, culture, folk, manufacturing, sovereign wealth funds, unions | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment