Sunday, March 20, 2011

Progressive Music Classics. The Dead Kennedys' "Kill The Poor"



Welcome to another edition of Progressive Music Classics.

Has any First World nation ever had more contempt for the poor than America does today?

Hating the poor has become as American as apple pie. Particularly since the Reagan era, we Americans have been taught from an early age that the poor deserve no sympathy. For a "Christian" nation, we seem to be clueless about Christ himself had to say on the subject.

What's bizarre is that many Americans, particularly the Rush Limbaugh crowd, are under this delusion that the poor are actually treated well in this country.

Supposedly, there are all these lavish, generous welfare programs out there to take care of all the poor. In fact, we Americans supposedly have such expensive programs for the poor that this is the real cause of our nation's titanic deficits.

No, not George W. Bush's $3 trillion war crime in Iraq. Not the insane mega-trillion-dollar cesspool of graft, corruption and fraud that is laughably known as "Defense Spending." Not Bush's trillion-dollar tax giveaway to the crooks on Wall Street.

No, the real reason America is going broke is that we're just too damn generous to the poor. The welfare states of Sweden, France and Germany have nothing on us.

Of course, there's only one problem.

All these supposedly lavish government welfare programs for the poor simply don't exist. Don't believe me? Ask a poor person sometime just how much he's raking in from the government. Odds are, he'll laugh in your face.

If the poor were really raking it in from lavish welfare programs, then they wouldn't be poor, would they? And the reality is that the ranks of the poor are growing rapidly in America. The current trend started under George W. Bush, (particularly after the economy essentially collapsed in 2008).

The fact is, until you've experienced true poverty yourself in America, you probably have little idea of just how much utter contempt this government has for people at the bottom of the economic ladder.

In fact, because of regressive taxes (like sales and gas tax), not only are the poor butt-f*cked daily in America, but they pay more of their income into taxes than "successful" rich people like Paris Hilton and Rush Limbaugh.

People like Limbaugh remind me of the likes of Marie "Let Them Eat Cake" Antoinette. Although the quote is apocryphal, it's clear the rich and royal leech classes in France thought everything was fine and dandy in the late 18th century. I'd suspect they were so out of touch with the peasant class that the fury of the French Revolution took them by surprise.

Despite today's widening income inequality in America, I'd suspect a lot of the rich and powerful in this country give little thought to the growing ranks of poor. And they have little idea of the coming People's Revolution that will likely result someday.

After all, history has shown time and time again what happens when the rich gorge themselves while the peasants starve. It happened in England in the 1300s. It happened in France in the 1700s. It happened in Russia in 1917.

Don't think it can happen here? If so, you're kidding yourself. After all, America was born in a revolution.

Among the rich, there are a few astute observers (like Warren Buffett) who realize the current situation in unsustainable.

When Buffett argues that rich people like him aren't paying their fair share of taxes, I'd suspect it's not because he's a big fan of paying taxes. Rather, he's an astute money man and financial genius who realizes that if America goes broke and the nation's social fabric is ripped to shreds, then the rich are going to suffer with the rest of us.

But for now, the rich in America are living the high life. And they're doing it in large part with our tax dollars (see Bush's trillion-dollar bailout of the crooks on Wall Street).

America's rich have nothing but contempt for the poor. And, thanks to their stooges like Limbaugh, they've even managed to convince a sizeable (and gullible) portion of the American people to hate poor people as well.

In this brilliant song (the lead-off track on their 1980 album, Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables), San Francisco punks the Dead Kennedys take this argument to its logical conclusion: since we Americans despise the poor so much in America, let's just kill them all.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Today's Music Selection: Japan's Masterful Psychedelic Band, The Mops



With the ongoing horrific crisis in Japan, that nation has been on my mind quite a bit lately. And as I've tried to steer my thoughts toward a less-depressing topic, I got to thinking about Japan's amazing popular music scene, which has long been virtually (and unfairly) ignored in the West.

As we Americans never tire of reminding ourselves, the U.S. has the world's dominant culture, in everything from cinema to music to literature. We export "culture" to every corner of the earth.

It's a shame, though, that it's not a two-way exchange with the rest of the world. By and large, Americans remain completely ignorant about the cultures of other nations. In fact, when it comes to popular music, Americans these days are completely clueless about music outside of the U.S. (Indeed, the only other country that we've ever paid any attention to, pop music-wise, is Britain).

This is a shame. Not only does this state of affairs leave Americans hopelessly ignorant about the rest of the world, we're also missing out on some incredible music.

Japan's popular music scene is, for my money, one of the most interesting and dynamic on earth. Maybe not necessarily the J-Pop teenybopper music, which clogs up the charts there. In Japan, as is the case with other nations, the really interesting stuff is what's going on underground.

The brilliant British musician and author, Julian Cope has been one of the very few Westerners to document this music scene and bring it to the attention of the West. His 2009 book, Japrocksampler: How the Post-War Japanese Blew Their Minds on Rock 'n' Roll conclusively demonstrated (at least for me) that Japan is easily the equal of the U.S. and Britain when it comes to popular music creativity.

The artists Cope writes about may be unfamiliar to many in the West, but they are well worth checking out. They include the heavy early 70s rockers, Flower Travellin' Band, the trippy and mystical Far East Family Band and the legendary Taj Mahal Travellers. For my money, the greatest of them all is the mysterious and radical Les Rallizes Denudes, whose scorching and defiantly anti-commercial sound makes the Velvet Underground seem tame by comparison.

But since I'm bummed out these days by Japan's terrible tragedy, I thought I'd serve up a uplifting tune by The Mops, one of Japan's best 1960s psychedelic bands. These guys are definitely one of the great garage bands---they equal the likes of Stateside groups like the 13th Floor Elevators. Their song, "I Am Just a Mops" (sic) was, as a YouTube commenter noted, "the reason the fuzz pedals were invented."

Thursday, March 10, 2011

How Unions Make a Nation Competitive


Note: welcome to readers of

Like Rodney Dangerfield, unions in America have long struggled to gain respect, especially since 1980. I've long been amazed at all the workers I've talked to over the years who are reluctant to support the union movement.

"Maybe unions were needed back in the 19th century era of Robber Barons," union foes argue. "But these days, unions are a dinosaur. They're no longer needed."

I've heard variants of the above argument repeatedly over the years, from both Republicans and even some Democrats. Of course, it makes no sense. It's like saying, "We already have Free Speech in America, so we no longer need the First Amendment."

Indeed, unions tend to get blamed for all kinds of ills facing present-day America. After all, wasn't it "greedy, overpaid" union members that resulted in America losing its manufacturing base?

That seems to be the Conventional Wisdom these days.

But there's only one problem. It's not only bullsh*t---it's the total opposite of the truth.

Unions, in fact, help make a nation more competitive.

Don't believe me?

Take a look at two of the most heavily unionized nations in the world: Germany and Japan. Both nations are thriving and have jobless rates far below the U.S. rate. Both nations still have large manufacturing sectors, which are heavily unionized. And both nations are exporting more than ever---even to low-wage nations like China. (Japan, for example, is one of the few nations on earth that has enjoyed a trade surplus with China much of the time in recent years).

In short, Germany and Japan are the polar opposite of the U.S. these days. While the U.S. continues to rack up record trade deficits, both Japan and Germany enjoy vast trade surpluses.

Not only are Germany and Japan heavily unionized, both nations have strong pro-worker laws that back up their labor movements. In both nations, for example, it's virtually impossible to fire full-time workers. Mass layoffs are very rare in both nations.

Every worker in Germany enjoys a minimum of six weeks' paid vacation per year. In fact the average is two months. And even in Japan these days, employees work fewer hours on average than Americans (who work the longest hours of any developed nation).

According to the International Labor Organization, "Americans work 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers."

Americans, in fact, are the most overworked people in the First World.

We're the only industrialized nation without a national paid parental leave benefit. We're the only nation without a legally mandated annual leave. We're the only First World nation with no required paid sick days.

All of this, of course, is due to the fact that organized labor in the U.S. is much weaker than other industrialized nations. In fact, unions having been going downhill since Ronald Reagan declared war on them in the 1980s.

But getting back to the original point of this article. One might ask: what does all this have to do with America's competitiveness?

A lot, actually.

It's clear that unions haven't been a hindrance to the economies of nations like Japan and Germany. In fact, it's clear that organized labor has been a key part of both those nations' success in growing their high-tech manufacturing export powerhouse economies.

If this sounds counterintuitive, consider the following question. Why has the U.S. consistently had a difficult time competing in high-tech manufacturing in recent decades? It's clear that a good part of the reason is that (unlike their counterparts in Germany and Japan), U.S. corporations have long been short-sighted.

While German and Japanese corporations typically plan decades ahead, U.S. corporations look no further ahead than the next fiscal quarter. In short, U.S. corporations have sacrificed their long-term health in return for short-term profit.

Which raises a question: why, exactly, have German and Japanese corporations consistently always planned way ahead? For example, why are both nations now working hard on industries of the future---industries that may take decades to reap financial rewards (think high-speed trains, advanced wind power, solar power and other green technologies).

The answer to this question is the fact that both nations have strong unions and pro-worker laws.

The fact that it is very difficult to fire workers in both nations seems like a recipe for economic decline. The reality is the total opposite. Japanese and German corporations plan very far ahead because they are forced to.

When it is extremely difficult to lay off staff, corporations find that they must take a very long-term view. It isn't sufficient (as is the case with U.S. corporations) to simply plan ahead for the next fiscal quarter. Instead, Japanese and German corporations must plan ahead at least a decade. And the lack of mass layoffs in both nations---which helps social harmony---is a bonus of the system.

Another advantage that unions bring the Japanese and Germans is the very fact that they work to bring generous benefits and pay to workers in those nations. When workers enjoy 6 weeks paid vacation, as the Germans do, you tend to have a workforce that isn't chronically burned out.

If you've ever driven a top-of-the-line Porsche, an Audi, a BMW, or a Mercedes, you know that the Germans make some of the highest quality products on earth. You don't get high-quality, top-of-the-line manufactured products when your nation's workforce is burned out (as most American workers are these days).

Another advantage: workforce stability, which encourages corporations to spend heavily on worker training. (U.S. corporations spend much less on training workers than Japanese and German corporations do).

True, the Japanese have a reputation for being an overworked people. But this is (at least compared to overworked American employees) an increasingly outdated stereotype. As I mentioned previously, Japanese workers these days actually work less hours than do Americans. And the laws preventing layoffs in Japan are even stronger than those in Germany.

In short, one could say that strong unions have the effect of "disciplining" corporations into taking the long-term view. Since organized labor in the U.S. is very weak, American corporations are under little pressure to look far ahead. Hence the short-sighted U.S. CEOs who only work to ensure that the next fiscal quarter is as profitable as possible.

Such short-sightedness has long been a disaster for U.S. industry. For example, Detroit's short-sighted policies have transformed U.S. automakers from a formerly world-beating industry into one that is currently only a pale shadow of its former self. Detroit's short-sightedness for example, was a disaster in the 1970s when U.S. automakers were cranking out gas-guzzling monsters that rapidly fell out of favor with consumers after the 1973 oil shocks. Detroit never really recovered.

True, there are other factors behind the strong high-tech manufacturing prowess of Germany and Japan. These include strong secondary public education, patient capital, and smart industrial and trade policies. But it's clear that unions and strong pro-labor laws play a key role, as well.