THE LOWDOWN: Not dizzy enough from politics today? Take a spin on our summer county fair Tilt-a-Whirl!
C’mon down! It’s our late-summer County Fair issue of the Lowdown—a mix of Blue Ribbon political/economic/social progress, some hog stuff from corporate America, a visit to the always-popular dunking tank, how-to demonstrations of community quilting, a sideshow of prize-winning nuts, something on a stick, and … well, like every fairground, wafts of both manure and fresh air.
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Family farmers work the land to produce top quality, down home goodness for our tables, but it's not an easy row to hoe. They have to cope with calamitous weather, monopolistic corporations, bad ag policies, assorted pests ... and Bill Gates.
Yes, the Microsoft gabillionaire. He's now poster boy for a new, fast-spreading plague afflicting farmers, especially young people trying to get a start at tilling the land. Step one for these start-ups is finding affordable land to till. That's become a problem because the price of fertile farm acreage is being grossly inflated by two voracious groups of wealthy urbanites: (1) second-home buyers imagining the bucolic lifestyle of having their own farmette, and (2) Wall Street speculators and land developers out to make a killing on the land. The first group sometimes tries to be accommodating (and garner tax deductions) by offering to lease a bit of their property to actual farmers. But the two cultures tend to collide when the new ruralites start requesting that their farming tenants eliminate unpleasant manure odors, tractor noise, bellowing animals, etc. And, oh, please don't farm on weekends. This odd-fellow arrangement tends to become, as one exasperated farmer put it, "a modern-day feudal system, gussied up for Instagram."
But back to Bill. Ultra-rich, soft-handed speculators like him are aggregating huge holdings of America's productive dirt, mostly grabbing the land for future development bonanzas, but meanwhile profiting by milking government subsidies meant for real farmers. With 270,000 acres of ag land in his corporate portfolio, Gates is already the USA's Number One farm owner, but he's going for more. And with a personal fortune of $120 billion, he can certainly outbid anyone who really wants to be a farmer. Last month, he bought up 2,100 acres of good cropland in North Dakota--even though the state has a proud historic law prohibiting corporations from owning farms. But billionaires don't obey laws; they hire lawmakers to make laws fit. Sure enough, the state's Repub- lican attorney general promptly found a workaround so that the Seattle software billionaire qualifies as a North Dakota farmer.
To find reason for optimism about our environmental future, don’t look to Washington or the high-tech schemes of space-cadet billionaires. Instead, check out the grassroots feistiness in places like Memphis’s Boxtown, a historic Black neighborhood settled by former slaves about 160 years ago. Deeming low-income residents-of-color politically power- less, oil giants and other polluting profiteers deliberately target such places when locating their dirty and dangerous facilities. So when two plunderers, Valero Energy and Plains All-American, decided in 2019 to ram a crude-oil pipeline through the Memphis area, Boxtown was their chosen route. They sneeringly called this community, “the point of least resistance.”
So wrong! It’s a long story, with many ups and downs, but the inspiring essence is that the regular people of Boxtown did resist—fiercely and smartly. Forging a grassroots coalition, Memphis Community Against the Pipeline (MemphisCAP.org), they rose up, unified, reached out to allies, persevered. And they’ve now defeated the big money, brutish tactics, and raw racist arrogance of the absentee corporate elites who disrespected them.
A STATE OF PROGRESS
While it’s depressingly easy to name state governments that have turned grossly repressive, regressive, and plain nasty, one state has become the most innovative, pragmatic, and progressive problem-solver in America. Surprisingly, it’s the little-BIG state that can: New Mexico.
Start with this: Tuition-free higher education for all residents. While Biden gave up on his pledge to provide free community college access for Americans, NM has done that and more, enacting—and funding!—a bipartisan program to cover tuition and fees at all state colleges, universities, community colleges, and tribal colleges. Yes, bipartisan—the state seems to be blessed with a gutsy governor and some GOP legislators who’ve been persuaded that education, not extremist ideology, is the real path for peoples’ progress, and that higher education for all is a public resource, equivalent today to what free universal enrollment in high school was a century ago.
And how about this? Ranked as one of the poorest states in the country, New Mexico has prioritized free child care as an essential need and common good for families, the economy, and the state’s future. The product of a decade-long grassroots push by groups like NM Voices for Children (NMvoices.org), the program is open to all zero to five-year-olds—and it also provides decent pay (starting at $18 an hour) to attract quality caregivers and instructors. The “Land of Enchantment” has become the Land of Can-do.
SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL
Local bookstores went extinct, right? Jeff Bezos ate most of them, and the internet snuffed the rest. But don’t tell that to the owners and customers of Yu and Me Books, Readers Block, Libros Bookmobile, Kindred Stories, and more than 300 other new independent bookstores that have cropped up like beautiful wildflowers in nearly every state in the past couple of years. Many have been launched by women and non-white booksellers, often specializing in titles by and about the wide diversity of people usually overlooked by conglomerate publishers.
American Book Sellers, an advocacy group for independents (BookWeb.org), reports that these upstarts are flourishing, enjoying a surge of readers and profits. Their success is a direct result of their local uniqueness, creative outreach, and simple openness—offering a welcoming gathering spot in a cold commercial world that increasingly disdains any human touch. “It really is a de facto community space,” says one devotee of Yu and Me Books, located in Manhattan’s Chinatown. “I don’t think we realized we needed a bookstore until we had one.”
"Union YES!" stickers don't only adorn the lunch pails of industrial workers these days. They're also showing up on the laptops and backpacks of workers in businesses and institutions long assumed to be immune to, often disdainful of, labor organizing -- places like Starbucks, M.I.T., Netflix, Amazon, Uber, Google, and even luxury magazines like Vanity Fair and Architectural Digest. But as the saying goes, "Even a dog knows the difference between being stumbled over and being kicked." And all sorts of employees are increasingly aware that they're being kicked by a corporate hierarchy that is aloof, arrogant, and structurally abusive. Thus, unionization is booming in nontraditional sectors (including among so-called "professional" employees), where pay is meager and arbitrary, schedules are sporadic (and arbitrary), overtime hours are demanded with no additional compensation, sexual harassment is winked at, physical safety is ignored, etc.
Importantly, this renewed unionizing energy is organic. Rather than arising from drives by national union staffs, it’s coming directly from workers who’ve reached their not-going-to-take-it-anymore moment. They’ve been organizing themselves, even forming their own independent start-up unions that seek advice and support from professional organizers, but retain control as worker-led unions. More and more leaders of long-established unions are coming around to this democratic model of what are called “solidarity unions.” As Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union and a fiery, innovative leader of the progressive movement, puts it: “We have to be homegrown. We have to be driven by workers.”
DEM PARTY DEMOCRACY
Political reform doesn’t come by saying “pretty please” to the power structure, but rather by steadily organizing to gain enough force that you can jettison the powers that be.
You could ask Joe Manchin about it. Even considering his sign-on to the strategically renamed Inflation Reduction Act, the West Virginia senator has not only been a corporate reactionary blocking national progressive policies that the US majority wants and needs, but he’s maintained his base of power back home with a tight, authoritarian grip on the Democratic Party structure, rigging the rules to put Little Joes in every party position. In turn, this has let him control who gets to run as Democrats for West Virginia’s down-ballot elected offices.
That is, until June 18. That’s when a “little-d” democratic rebellion that had been organizing for six years elected a slate of over 50 candidates to oust the Manchinites on the party executive committee, replacing practically all officers with grassroots activists. Danielle Walker (now vice-chair of the committee and the first person of color in state history to sit on the party’s governing body) summed up the significance of this turnaround: “There’s a new beacon of light shining down on the government with people energized and ready to strategize with a return to the democratic process.” For guidance on bringing this kind of progressive reform to your local/state Dem Party hierarchy, go to Our Revolution, the key national group prioritizing work on this fundamental democratic change (OurRevolution.com).
DUNK A BILLIONAIRE
It's been an all-time record year of runaway wealth for the 0.0002 percent of Americans who are billionaires, with this tiny clique of 724 ultra-elites vastly widening the chasm separating them from us hoi polloi. For example, Number One Rich Man, Elon Musk watched his personal fortune peak at $340 billion in 2021, nearly double the previous year. (Elon has had a rough 2022, though. His net worth is this year is down to $210 billion - only three million times more than the median US household income.) Second place finisher, Jeff Bezos, saw his net worth rise to $197 billion last year (that's more than $360,000 for every single minute of his life).
So much taken by so few who harm so many. Both Musk and Bezos erected their corporate empires on the backs of hundreds of thousands of non-union workers they routinely exploit, plus millions of taxpayers they bilk. Indeed, their recent surge of wealth comes not from hard work or innovation, but from Wall Street stock manipulation windfalls, further-enriching them without either one lifting a finger.
Yet corporate media and politicians hail them as geniuses, Big Thinkers, FUTURISTS! Seriously? Take Big Thinker Bezos. He's the self-centered ego whose top achievement this year was to commission the world's largest superyacht: A luxurious, half-billion-dollar, 400 foot-long, sea-going palace that--oops!--can't actually get to the sea, because it's too tall to go under a bridge just downriver from the Dutch port where it was built. No problem, thought Boss Bezos. He simply instructed local officials to dismantle their century-old historic bridge so his toy could pass through. But, no go. Outraged locals learned of his imperious scheme and quickly organized a massive rotten-egg brigade, pledging to pelt the colossal yacht (and possibly the mayor). Very bad political optics. So the American mogul's billions were not allowed to buy this special treatment, and it's still unclear how he'll get his yacht out to sea. But as one Dutch wag suggested in a tweet, "You can still take your giant boat out for very short trips." (Jeff can cruise the nine miles from the shipyard to the bridge, and then back. The turnaround, though, might be a bit tight.)
Meanwhile, Musk has demonstrated his clueless brilliance by recently condemning government subsidies for big businesses: "It's insane," he bleated. "I'm literally saying, 'Get rid of all subsidies.'" Uh, your highness, shhhh: Your entire conglomerated empire (Tesla, Solar City, SpaceX, and Starlink), as well as the personal fortune you've amassed, would not even exist without the hundreds of millions of dollars in federal, state, and local subsidies you've already extracted from taxpayers.
If these privileged ones are so smart, why are they so stupid? My wish is that such narcissistic billionaires should have to go on our county fair circuit and face the public they so blithely treat as rubes and serfs. Put them up on every fair's dunking tank and give each fairgoer three-throws-for-a-dollar. Lines would stretch clear across county lines--and for once, people would get their money's worth.
Let me say one word to you: Nuts.
Now, let me say one name to you: Ted Cruz.
Those two terms have become synonymous, with the Texas senator perennially topping every national list of goofy, right-wing political partisans. He can't really be called a lawmaker, for he's not a serious participant in that process, instead devoting his senatorship to cockamamie political stunts and picking silly PR fights with an ever-growing list of enemies (Insider Joke: Why do his senate colleagues take an instant dislike to Cruz? Answer: It saves time).
Running out of humans to attack, Ted has recently found another species for his vitriol: Fictional icons. Yes, he's been padding his right-wing credentials by going toe-to-toe with Mr. Potato Head, Mickey and Pluto, and now, believe it or not, Muppets. This mighty US senator had dedicated the power, prestige, and public resources of his office to demonize Sesame Street's popular creatures, specifically attacking Big Bird nine times, and lately going after a loveable 3-year-old, little Elmo. In an embarrassing imitation of Joe McCarthy, the vile commie-baiting demagogue of the 1950s, Ted rants that he has proof that Muppets are covert tools of "government propaganda." So, this ridiculous excuse of a senator is saving America from ... what exactly?
But for a whole bag of assorted nuttiness, you just cannot beat Sen. Rick Scott's 11-point plan "to Rescue America." A disgraced former healthcare mogul, this mega-millionaire reinvented himself as a wingnut Florida senator, and now chairs a political arm of the Republican Party.
In February, he set forth a stunning policy agenda of far-out, right-wing extremism that he says his party will push if they re-take the Senate this November, including: Implementing new federal taxes on the poorest half of Americans so, as Scott so patronizingly puts it, everyone will "have skin in the game"
"Stopping socialism," which Scott says includes sunsetting Social Security and Medicare Spending unlimited billions to build Trump's folly of a wall across the entire, 1,200-mile US-Mexican border--and, just to rub in the partisanship, name the thing after The Donald.