Joe Bageant

Our Plunder of Nature Will End Up Killing Capitalism and Our Obscene Lifestyles

As an Anglo European white guy from a very long line of white guys, I want to thank all the brown, black, yellow and red people for a marvelous three-century joy ride. During the past 300 years of the industrial age, as Europeans, and later as Americans, we have managed to consume infinitely more than we ever produced, thanks to colonialism, crooked deals with despotic potentates and good old gunboats and grapeshot. Yes, we have lived, and still live, extravagant lifestyles far above the rest of you. And so, my sincere thanks to all of you folks around the world working in sweatshops, or living on two bucks a day, even though you sit on vast oil deposits. And to those outside my window here in Mexico this morning, the two guys pruning the retired gringo's hedges with what look like pocket knives, I say, keep up the good work. It's the world's cheap labor guys like you -- the black, brown and yellow folks who take it up the shorts -- who make capitalism look like it actually works. So keep on humping. Remember: We've got predator drones.

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Holy smoking Jesus, America is losing its middle class! "We're taxing the middle class out of existence," charge the conservatives. "The middle class is being hollowed out," wail the liberals, pouring forth great mock turtle tears (although one wonders how such a vacuum, as middle class life in America could be further hollowed).

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How Unions Gave My Redneck Family a Chance at the American Dream

In looking back on growing up, I always remember 1957 and 1958 as "the two good years." They were the only years my working-class redneck family ever caught a real break in their working lives, and that break came because of organized labor.

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Only in America Could Misery Be Turned Into a Commodity

HOPKINS VILLAGE, Belize -- Sitting down here in Central America, happily abusing my health, occasionally, between the hangovers and the bouts with sand fleas and mosquitoes comes an insight or two, or at least what passes for insight in my lowbrow take on life.

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The Really Hard-to-Swallow Truth About the Bailout

Myriad cultural historians have noted the American belief that success is a sign of God's favor. Over the past couple of decades, He has had a downright lovefest with the already-rich -- so much so that the richest 400 Americans now have more money stashed away than the combined bottom 150 million Americans. Some $1.6 trillion.

This was accomplished by selling off or shipping out every available asset, from jobs to seaports, smashing usury and anti-monopoly laws, raiding the public coffers and manipulating the medium of exchange and blackmailing the peasantry regarding common needs such as health care and energy to keep their asses warm, to name a few. The ultimate coup was to convince the entire nation that the well-being of the rich, meaning the well-being of Wall Street, was indeed the common man's well-being.

All went well for a while. People went into credit card hock up to their noses in order to provide 26 percent credit card interest to Wall Street, etc. And when that became untenable, flimsy mortgages were cranked out by the millions, ensuring that every American who could hold a crayon could sign to purchase a home. To facilitate this, all sorts of shaky "mortgage instruments" were created -- balloon (sign here Jeeter, you're gonna flip it in a year and make a hundred K on this house trailer), interest only, and finally, negative-balance mortgages where you only paid part of the interest and the rest was rolled back into the principal balance. And joy of joys, you could refinance a couple of times while the inflated value of these houses was on the way up. Life was good for everybody.

The bill was never gonna come due because God, in His wisdom, had deemed that capitalism would defy the second law of thermodynamics and expand forever. So every time a bank made a mortgage loan of say, $400,000, even though the debtor hadn't even made a payment yet, the loan was declared a bank asset and another $400,000 was loaned against it. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve Bank yelled whoopee and printed another $800,000 in currency. Of course, at some point the country had to run out of customers, so the loans got easier and easier. No matter that debt is not wealth. Wink and call it that, and most folks won't even look up from their new big-screen high-resolution digital TVs.

The problem was that all the jobs to pay for this stuff were stampeding off toward places in China with names containing a lot Xs and Zs and praying for a vowel. It was becoming clear that the entire economy was running on fumes -- in fact, less than fumes. It was running on the odor of paper. Mountains of the stuff. Bundles of mortgages and very strange securities and derivatives of unknown origin and value. Paper that stated its own worth and signed by some mystic hand no one could quite identify though the blurry signatures looked to read Greenspan, Paulson and Bernanke.

But there was a rub. Things reached the point where there simply was not anything left to defraud the public out of, nothing left to steal from the nation's productive capability, no matter how much paper Jeeter and Maggie signed for that trailer house, no matter how secure Brian and Jennifer out there in Arlington, Va., and Davis, Calif., thought they were. So the only thing left to do was steal from future generations of Americans and accept an I.O.U., which the government would happily sign on behalf of the people and enforce. By the wildest coincidence, under the Bush administration this I.O.U. happened to tally up to about $700 billion.

Seeing the oncoming train of financial disaster, the financiers just about wet their pants and screamed, "We want it all now! And if we don't get it, the 'economy' will lock its brakes and crash. Remember, we control the medium of exchange. Nobody gets a paycheck if we don't. Remember that it's lines of credit from us that back every working man's and woman's paycheck in the country. So pay the hell up."

Folks, they've got us all by the nuts and nipples. McCain knows that. Obama knows that. In the end, regardless of the so-called dissenters in the House and the Senate, we will pay up. It's election season, and the dissent is for show. So it looks like we will get some "concession." For example, we will get shares in these "toxic assets" that are stinking up the joint. The rich need to dump them and dump them fast. In another magnanimous concession, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation will raise the insurance on "our savings" to $250,000. (How many readers have $250K in the bank?) But it will be redeemable in even more inflated currency amid an inflationary environment. And, in case you didn't know, the FDIC has up to 10 years to pay up on that insurance. So don't get any ideas about running off to Mexico, to which, by the way, we are a net debtor nation.

We will pay. We will pay because the European banks holding all that bad paper we wrote demand that we make good on it so even more of their banks will not fail. We will pay because the Chinese, the Japanese and everyone else will cut off the loan tap with which we pay the interest (not the principal) on our exploding supernova of national debt. We will pay because God loves the rich. We will pay because we will not be offered any other choice. We will pay because George Bush worked hard for all those Ds in school and became the first MBA president. We will pay because our media has internalized the capitalist system so thoroughly they can only talk in Wall Speak. We will pay because the only language we have to describe our world is that of our oppressors because we have been taught to think in Wall Speak. We will pay because we hitched our wagon to last-stage capitalism and even though the wagon has now two wheels over the cliff and roars forward, we don't know where the brake handle is located. And because we don't know any better or understand any possible resistance to the system because we have been kept like worms in a jar and fed horseshit.

And as we all know, worms do not rise up in revolt.

That takes a backbone.

Getting Out the Bling Vote

HOPKINS VILLAGE, BELIZE -- I know it's unpatriotic as hell, but I just cannot get a hard-on about the '08 American presidential elections. As in I haven't read or heard a word about them in a couple of weeks and could care less whether Hillary showed some emotion, which was the big news when I left the States. The will just isn't there. And it's even more difficult from here in this Central American village, where so many people have real problems. The kind that come with being born under one empire, the British one, and living in the shadow of the present American living in the shadow of its walled fortress of armed privilege. One of those problems is who to sell your vote to and for how much.

"I wan too hunred an feefty dollah for my vote," Marie declares as she chops up bananas to make tapo for dinner. I got feefty for my vote las' time, but some people got two feefty."

"Well you're not gonna get any more than fifty, babe," I tell her. "You gotta be more important to get two fifty for your vote. Did you bring anyone else to the polls?"

"No. Le' dem get dey own money."

"End of story then. If you'd brought along some other voters, you might have been up to two fifty by now"

"Den I no vote jus to spite dem."

Belizean politics works that way. Next Feb. 7 Belizeans will cast their ballots in the national election for candidate of either the liberal People's United Party (PUP) or the conservative United Democratic Party (UDP). Between now and then, the People's United Party will hand out a lot of cash and pay off a lot of voters' outstanding bills. Once every five years, it's payday for the poor, who consider their ballot a net cash asset worth 50-100 Belizean dollars (USD$25-$50) or more. Here in Hopkins, 50 Belizean dollars pays the village utilities' water bill for a year. Then too, voters here often feel that their "vote money" is likely to be all they'll ever get from what they consider an unresponsive government. It's hard to argue against this "one in the hand is worth two in the bush" reasoning if you live their lives. There's certain pragmatism, even ironic fairness in vote bribery here. On the other hand, it's a sorry system in which the actual voters are monetarily corrupted by the politicians. I'm more accustomed to the American system, where voters are corrupted morally and intellectually by media. In either case, free market politics is the handful of corruptive mud thrown into the fishbowl. We cannot see a damned thing but what is closest to out noses, usually put there by a politician.

It ain't the Mayo Clinic, but the needles are clean

Indeed, the Belizean government is fucked up, misled, inefficient and corrupt. All things taken into accord, however, in some respects Belizeans get back more than Americans get in return from their government, considering how much Americans work and pay (15 times more than Belizeans), beginning with healthcare. Belizeans at least have free health clinics in the cities and villages, and dirt-cheap higher education, about USD$15 a credit hour. These systems may not be as glossy as their profiteering American equivalent, especially the public hospitals here. But it ain't China, where hospitals do blood transfusions out of Pepsi bottles (according to American media, anyway) and it's not rural India, where poorer patients often sleep under the beds of more heeled patients. In any case Belize does not have 47 million people with no access to healthcare at all, and a not-so-good hospital beats no hospital. In fact, a not-so-good hospital beats even Johns Hopkins if Johns Hopkins won't let you in because you cannot pay the freight.

Same goes for public schools. The school system is a wreck. But so is the American system. Both graduate kids who can't find their own country on a map, the main difference being that Belizean kids don't demonstrate it on YouTube. As an underdeveloped country, we are also way behind in school shootings and sexual assaults, and have yet to install a metal detector anywhere, so far as I know, even in airports, much less schools. Hope remains of catching up: U.S. Bloods and Crips moved into Belize City last year and have been shooting up the joint.

As for the Belizean trade school and higher educational system, my wife and I are helping a Garifuna boy through one, and I cannot say it is inferior to ours, just less plushly equipped. In fact, I'd say on the average the Belizean kids work much harder once they are in college, simply because it's harder to get there in the first place. Our guy in trade school over in Dangriga Town, James, is making perfect grades, while working uphill against hardships such as an arduous daily bus ride and seldom even having lunch money. In the end, though, American or Belizean, it all depends on the young person's grasp of reality. James grasps that studying computer science has removed him from the village streets, where so many of his peers now languish and probably will for the rest of their lives -- or at least until the gringo resorts hire them as slave wage gardeners and maids. Meanwhile, his mom's $50 vote bribe buys a fair slug of lunch supplies. Once every five years during national elections.

Buy mi vote, but don't tief it, mon

The people's democratic voice may be bought and sold at the voter level, but on the other hand, as a Garifuna friend Harry pointed out yesterday, "This is not the United States. It is impossible to "tief" (steal) an election here." Which is sure enough true. Combined forces of international and party monitors intensely watch the utterly countable and recountable paper balloting process like frigate birds circling over a pile of fish guts. Voters may arrive at the polls for less than savory reasons, but the vote count, at least until Diebold gets into Belize, is secure as hell. Until then the only way to undermine the power of the vote is to buy it.

When Belize gained independence in 1981, optimism ran high; Election Day was a jubilant one of national pride. Vote bribery was rare, if at all, and politics, though yeasty with its own intrigues, was fairly uncorrupted and diverse as hell. Crazy, yes, but straight up as the sick game of politics goes. Before the International Monetary Fund, the DEA, the foreign "investors," foreign banks, cruise ship lines, and everybody else got Belize by the short hair, there was a leftist vitality not possible today. You had political activists declaring solidarity with the American Black Panthers, indigenous peoples of the planet, human rights and Cuba. Malcolm X and Che were not yet media trivialized into $10 posters and $19 T-shirts. Most of that day's young Belizean radicals are now silver-haired PUP politicos buying votes today. But back in 1968, even current prime minister Said Musa (a Palestinian-blooded Belizean native) was a young firebrand lawyer organizing protests against American imperialism, capitalist exploitation and the Vietnam War. Along with Assad Shoman, who would later become foreign minister, he struck blows for black nationalism in a wary, conservative, British colonial Belize. Which is why it is so disheartening today to hear that over $7 million is missing from the passport receipts, which are directly under Mr. Musa.

Both of Belize's main parties are crooked as a dog's hind leg. The only difference is where they toss the swag, they do not mismanage or steal. A billion dollars seems to be missing from the national kitty as the shadier elements of both parties in the government scam Belize's oil, tourism and retirement/leisure condo development bucks. (To give some idea of scale, a billion dollars would give every household in this tiny country $100 a day for over 140 years.) The PUP tosses more money to the people, recently instituting a social security program worth about USD$40 a month, and most of all, schools. When it comes to throwing money at the nation's education problems, PUP gets no better results than the U.S. Democrats. After building 1,100 classrooms and improving teacher training, and funding college education for teachers, the country's student failure rate has jumped to an all time high -- 65 percent. The dropout rate keeps climbing. The conservative UDP, which resists money for education, doesn't miss the opportunity to say, "I told you so." Meanwhile, word is the UDP is coming up with a No Child Left Behind clone. Left behind whom? Where are these public school children who are ahead?

As with the U.S. Democratic Party, PUP is the party of immigrants, and presently that party is rushing to naturalize as many Latino migrants as possible so they can vote PUP. Among the shit storm of problems involved here is that the HIV rate is high among these immigrants, many of whom are single young men of migrant labor. They constitute an increasing strain on the nation's rickety healthcare system, which is fighting, rather successfully so far, to stave off a full-blown epidemic. Many also feel the immigrants take away too many Belizean jobs. Moreover, immigration issues stew the same as in America, and like America, it's politics as usual, but with a few different twists.

One twist is that Belize has some fighting partisan newspapers the likes of which America or Great Britain has not seen in at least 60 years, if at all. The newspapers, however partisan, are loaded with the voices of common citizens, not made up of quotes from powerful officialdom like U.S. papers. Whatever can be said about the lack of libel laws here, it enables citizens to name the bastards out loud. And they do. Sadly though, little comes of it unless some big dog in the government wants it to. But the bastards have not yet worn all of the people down.

Whoa hoss, this just in! Marie's shot at that $250 just got better. Hugo Chavez has dumped $10 million into the PUP government, ostensibly for development, but much of which is being passed out to voters as I write this. That's a lotta lunch money and water bills. When choosing between such political bullies, best to go with the one who gives you lunch money instead of beating you up and taking it. Go, Hugo!

Not being the majority party at the moment, the UDP cannot get its hands into the coffers deep enough to spread around the loot even if it wanted to (nor is Uncle Hugo likely to open his wallet for them in an act of solidarity with their hard-liner capitalism). Which makes them somewhat less corrupt for the moment than PUP. This makes some poor voters see them as being more honest. Many poor people vote the same way working-class Americans vote Republican, and see the UDP as a force for stability, evidently, like their North American counterparts, mistaking meanness and transference of wealth for stability. The bad news here is that much of the fiscal talent and administrative skill rests in the UDP, a party in which, in violation of Belizean law, every elected member flat out refuses to declare his or her assets and business connections and gets away with it -- now that's solidarity.)

In any case, the UDP is counting on high-powered U.S.-style media paid for by the Bush administration to do the job on Feb. 7. All TV and radio are owned by the parties or party interests, and while biased, between the two camps you get the real dirt on everybody if you can sift it. Nearly all electronic media here is owned by the parties or their associate interests. Thus the UDP's Channel 7 mouthpiece has been showing news footage of voters lined up at the PUP representative's offices to get their vote money. Strangely, they do not show the nationwide burst of road improvements, free televisions, deeds and even a few trucks that get distributed. In all likelihood, if they showed the free refrigerators, the PUP lines would stretch from here to the Mexican border.

The news footage of the vote bribe lines flickers on the TV screen at Kibby's Cool Spot (taverns are "cool spots" here), where I am sucking down Beliken Stout with a small group of older Garifuna, plus a few mixed-race Creoles and Mayans -- Belizeans all. Some for damned sure are paying for drinks with vote money, given that they said so. Yet they are incensed at the vote bribery lines shown on the screen. The Belizean TV anchor person looks piously concerned as she delivers her script. Now call it a cultural bias if you want, but I have a hard time taking seriously black women with brightly bleached and straightened blonde hair cut like Katie Couric and wearing heels in these soft, sandy palmetto scrub lands. But it seems to work for Belizeans. Anyway, the drinkers are indignant about the news of such widespread vote bribery. Am I missing something here?

"Huh? You sell your votes, right?" I ask.


Then why is it so bad they do?"

They just laugh knowingly.

"So are you going to vote PUP?"



"Because dey paid de moneh for my vote."

Thus followed an absolutely serious discussion regarding how it is every person's patriotic obligation to vote, for the sake of the nation and our village. "In wi hans de fuchah." Something like that. Caribbean and Creole syntax comes hard for me. Do these people know something I don't know? Do they care to know anything at all, at least in the way I think I know things? Obviously not.

Outside the open doorway of Kibby's, silhouetted against the glaring subtropical light, three Garifuna girls float by, tall and cranelike, a mirage of brilliant headscarves and parasols, all Giachometti elbows and necks, seemingly without feet. They nod and bob, as if in suspension over the deep purple black spots that are their noon shadows. The oldest cannot be more than 18, and already they are as inscrutably African as the Mother Continent herself.

From Malcolm X to MasterCard

Looking back on earlier visits to Belize, I think it's safe to say there was a time here when a common man's vote directly affected national policy, what there was of it, and directed the nation's finances, what little there were. Perhaps in America too. Almost nobody believes that today. Not in Belize or America. Oh sure, "national progress" has been made here, roads are sort of better, folks are healthier, there are more "jobs." The people are swimming in knockoff symbols of affluence, Chinese-made duds, styrene plastic washing machines that fly apart after a couple of months, crappy cell phones that sort of work. In fact, for most Belizean citizens, everything is "sort of." There is a sort of middle class emerging, based mostly on the Chinese bling and sort of usurious home loans. But the majority of citizens are poorer today in real quality of life terms. Most of the housing stock, especially in Belize City, consists of the rotting structures of the British slave era. Bank credit cards, hawked night and day in the media, are causing people to lose the free land granted to them as citizens of Belize -- particularly if it has beachfront. The kids are getting dumber, quick payday loan offices are springing up everywhere, and even with gas now at $12 a gallon, more people are driving. We are all Americans now. In Belize or in the U.S., the business of local and state politics is the business of turning virgins into whores. The business of national politics is polishing up whores to look like virgins. Of course some whores are nicer than others, but in the high stakes back room poker game of power politics, one does not get to play by being nice. One comes to the table with a lot of dough, a good cover story and a knife stashed in the boot. And even if you win, the really big guys running the game still own the country where it is being played. In Belize it's the shadow governments such as land development, tourism and drug trafficking. In the U.S. it's the financial corporations, Big Pharma, the war-making industries, energy companies, etc., who don't even have to do the shadow government act; they run the joint openly, and if you don't like it and refuse to pay taxes to support them, well, they are in the privatized prison business too, buddy! Hence, while a guy like Obama, who presumably does not take corporate campaign dough, may win, you'll never hear him call for the complete dismantling of the rapacious big healthcare or financial corporations, or big media corporations that own our consciousness and awareness of our nation and the world, and upon which he must ultimately depend to gain access to the public at all. In America every player has some smaller player by the balls under the table. In Belize they just divvy the money up without even dealing the cards.

"In America, there is food to eat,
No more runnin' through the jungle scuffin' up your feet …

--Randy Newman, Sail Away

Belizeans love the hell out of Obama, mostly because he is black, or somewhat so. When I remind them that nearly all their own politicians are black, they are not impressed. Poor Belizeans follow the U.S. presidential race more as entertainment than anything else. And so as long as Obama can buy TV ads and deliver greeting card platitudes that have a sort of righteous sound, he has entertainment, emotional and dramatic value here, as well as to liberal couch taters up there in the Nembutal Republic. As for Hillary, entertaining she ain't. ("A hard an' sour wooman," agree the Kibby's drinkers, "like de green orange.") Frankly, I'd like to see Clinton wear Lewinsky's blue dress on American Idol and sing "A Man Ain't Nothin' But A Man" as a campaign ad, or maybe deliver Lady Macbeth's "Out damned spot!" lines in an episode of American Housewives. But I suppose that's asking too much, even from the rancid freak show of American politics.

As Lady Macbeth quipped, "Hell is a murky place." Politics is even more so. The capability for any president to make big progressive changes has become nil in the U.S., and maybe here too, although the capability to fuck things up remains boundless -- to wit, Sparky the Chimp. If all of the U.S. Congress cannot effect change because they are owned men, no candidate sucking down corn soup on the Iowa campaign trail is gonna either. And besides, America is dead broke and in hock up to her eyeballs. Even little changes in America country cost big money because there must be big profit in it for Big Corp or big dough to slosh around inside the gullet of big government bureaucracy. For instance, a Katrina victim reader of mine, who happens to be a cost accountant, tells me that it cost the U.S. government $38,000 NOT to get his family into one of those emergency FEMA trailer homes, hundreds of which are still sitting in storage areas unoccupied. He moved to Panama, and swears the quality of life there is much cheaper and far better, and that despite inefficiencies and fixes, it is more bearable. Which is rather the way I feel about this tiny country.

I dunno. Come November '08, assuming I can find the stomach for it, I will vote. My choices are not even as good as in Belize, where the candidates are flesh-and-blood people, not holographic media illusions. In November I can cast a vote for the manufactured candidate of my manufactured choice, vote Democratic as they vote PUP, on the grounds that at least some of the national swag will land in poor people's laps, after it passes through the innards of bureaucratic waste, the fraud of government contractors and privatization. I can write-in vote my conscience as I have traditionally done, which would necessarily mean Kucinich. That's assuming I don't get cut from the voter list through fraudulent voter caging tactics (not too likely, since I am white and few felons are likely to be named Bageant). I'll be punching a touch-screen voting machine with no accountability because no recount is possible. And my vote will legally be reduced a set of digits that instantly become the undisclosed intellectual property of Diebold.

Neither a Ron Paul nor a McCain nor a Huckabee nor an Obama or anybody else going to blow the trumpet and have the walls of Jericho's corporate gulag/surveillance state fall down. They'll fall down as the walls of empires always do, when the rot inside them becomes too great, when it is stretched too thin and runs its course. Until then, if a single righteous candidate ever does make it through the bullshit to get close enough to throw a Molotov cocktail over the walls of power, I'll light the goddamned wick. But maybe it's the subtropical heat. Maybe it's the distance from the fray. But right now, when it comes to voting, I'd take 500 for my vote and head back to Kibby's Cool Spot.


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