In Time of Trouble
There have been bleaker Thanksgivings, to be sure, than the one Americans celebrated yesterday. The circumstances of the storied first feast in 1621, (very interestingly discussed on this site this weekend by David Yearsley and Mike Ely) on the Massachusetts shoreline actually took place in the ruined Indian village of Pawtuxet. As every schoolchild knows, the Wampanoag Indians brought the little band of Puritans wild turkeys. Cortez had shipped turkeys back to Europe from Mexico and a decade later, by the 1530s they were well-known in Germany and England, hailed at the festive board as part of tradition immemorial. The Puritans had domestic turkeys with them in New England, gazing out at their wild relatives, offered by the Indians who regarded them as somewhat second-rate as food. They also brought along with corn and seasonal squashes.
The Indians had scant reason to rejoice since their numbers had been reduced by some 95 per cent by smallpox introduced in 1614 by an earlier British expedition. If he heard the thanks raised to heaven by the Puritan leader John Winthrop, the English-speaking Indian known as Squanto probably declined to translate it for his fellows. Winthrop saluted the epidemic as a miracle. As he wrote later to a friend in England, “But for the natives in these parts, God hath so pursued them, as for 300 miles space the greatest part of them are swept away by smallpox which still continues among them. So as God hath thereby cleared our title to this place, those who remain in these parts, being in all not 50, have put themselves under our protection.”
Afforded their toehold in the New World by the blessings of plague, the Puritans prospered and the hectic tread of land grabs and capital accumulation carried America on its great journey towards this last 387th Thanksgiving, one marked by economic circumstances more frightening than most raised in this country have experienced in their entire lifetimes. An American would have to be over 75 to remember as a child the desperate circumstances of the late 1930s when, after five years of Roosevelt’s New Deal, there were still 20 million unemployed. The economic darkness only lifted with the arrival of World War Two. Someone born in 1961, the year John Kennedy was inaugurated, would have been a seven-year old amid the joyous Thanksgiving when the postwar boom crested. There were some gloomy economic Novembers in the late Seventies, early Nineties and the expiring balloon of the .com boom eight years ago, but nothing like today’s grim landscape.
I spent Thanksgiving Day on St Simons Island, Georgia. Two days earlier, on neighboring Jekyll Island –- another of the four Golden Isles – they unveiled a sculpture of three large, curved sails, representing The Wanderer, the last slave ship known to have landed in the United States, docked on the south end of Jekyll Island in November, 1858, fifty years after Congress had officially outlawed the slave trade. This floating prison disgorged 400 African men, women and children to be sold at auction.
Before Thanksgiving I’d driven down I-26 and then 1-95 from Campobello, in the north-west corner of South Carolina, where a friend of mine owns a small trailer park. By the late summer as local factories started closing, long-term tenants said goodbye and went on the road in search of work. The vacant trailers were soon filled by families walking away from mountains of mortgage debt and foreclosed homes. They live on budgets so tight that my friend says that they can just make the $500 monthly rental, but $550 would put them under. He pointed to one where an older man had just arrived from Michigan, 650 miles north up Interstate 75, heart of the US auto industry and already in economic ruins long before the major auto companies went begging for bailout in Washington DC in the last couple of weeks. States in the industrial heartlands, like Michigan or Ohio, have been reeling for years as the factory owners redeployed to China, but others like New York or California or Washington and Oregon in the Pacific northwest now face budgetary implosion and cuts in services of up to 25 per cent.
This is the first time since I came to America in 1972 that I’ve heard almost every day of well-off people sounding somewhat distraught at the money they’ve lost. From this richer crowd one hears daily stories of portfolios worth half or less of their value three and four month ago, of people losing high salary jobs, often only months shy of log-scheduled retirement on full benefits.
Amid the plunge in the nation’s economic fortunes, as in any hospital ward, gloom alternates with determined good cheer. Flying across the country last week I could hear snatches of optimism in airport lounges from the tv sets blaring CNN news bulletins. The market “may have hit bottom”. The bounce back after the Citibank bailout was “the quickest two-day climb” up the graphs since the recovery from the crash of ’87. Walking down Las Vegas Boulevard, I watched five huge cranes just south of the Bellagio and Caesar’s Palace busy servicing a enormous new hotel/casino complex about halfway to completion. The sponsoring party here is MGM Mirage, the owner of Bellagio, New York-New York and MGM Grand and other properties, and the project is the 68-acre “CityCenter”, scheduled to include more than 6,000 condo and hotel rooms, 165,000 square feet of casino space and its own power plant based around a 60-story casino and hotel. Its $7.4 billion budget schedules it to be the single most expensive privately funded project ever in the Western Hemisphere. All told, in Las Vegas right now, there are seven major projects budgeted at $23 billion.
It’s hard to tell whether these huge gambles are being staked on economic quicksand. The local housing market certainly has been soft. The man at Dollar Car Rental, a Hispanic fellow, said he’d come to Las Vegas because he couldn’t afford the $400,000 or so a decent house in Los Angeles would have cost him. The house in Las Vegas he’d just bought had been advertised at $240,000 and he just signed on the dotted line for $165,000. He was happy.
“Inexplicable enrichment” often features in criminal charges leveled against Americans running afoul of the law. Watching the fistfuls of $100 poker chips being tossed down by the tourists, I thought once again that America’s underground, off-the- books economy must be far larger than official estimates.
Against this larger Thanksgiving backdrop of high national anxiety the tone adopted by the impending Obama administration is, unsurprisingly, one of measured gravity and regular advisories that although help in the form of a half-trillion stimulus program is on the way, recovery will be a long, very slow business. Even this somberly soothing news thread is somewhat undercut by the familiar, shopworn features of those being picked by president-elect Obama to mastermind the salvage operation. Here’s prospective Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, currently head of the New York fed and therefore one of the architects of the present reeling rescue program. And here too as Obama’s White House adviser is Lawrence Summers who ran the Treasury for part of Clinton-time and fought savagely against those warning that the subprime boom was about to blow and take the economy with it.
Reality had to raise its ugly head. Barack Obama was elected with overwhelming approval to inaugurate an era of change…. No doubt he will bring about a welcome change in race relations, environmental regulations, and a more civil rule of law…Where losses cannot be avoided, the government will bail out the rich on their financial investments, but not wage earners on their debts…this week’s appointment of the “Yeltsin” team who sponsored Russia’s privatization giveaways in the mid-1990s – Larry Summers and his protégés from the Clinton’s notorious Robert Rubin regime – shows that he knows his place when it comes to the proper relationship between a political candidate and his major backers….after resembling President Carter by running a brilliant presidential primary campaign to win the nomination (will a similarly disappointing administration be about to come?), Obama is looking more like Boris Yeltsin – a political umbrella for the kleptocrats to whom the public domain and decades of public wealth were given with no quid pro quo.
Obama’s ties with the Yeltsin administration are as direct as could be. He has appointed as his economic advisors the same anti-labor, pro-financial team that brought the kleptocrats to power in Russia in the mid-1990s. His advisor Robert Rubin has managed to put his protégés in key Obama administration posts: Larry Summers, who as head of the World Bank forced privatization at give-away prices to kleptocrats; Geithner of the New York Fed; and a monetarist economist from Berkeley, as right-wing a university as Chicago. These are the protective guard-dogs of America’s vested interests.
“It is not too late for the US to save itself and the dollar standard, but it would require a rapid transition from arrogance to humility. The rest of the world can bring America down by not lending to us, in which case neither the trade nor budget deficits could be financed.”
That’s Paul Craig Roberts. In the latest edition of our subscriber only newsletter Roberts lays out the big economic picture with bleak and compelling vigor. It’s must reading if you want to know the shape America is really in. Subscribe to read his powerful essay.
Subscribe too, and read Judy Gumbo Albert’s risposte to Sarah Palin. Judy writes a great memoir of the late Sixties, from the Yipster perspective of one who famously said, when the Weathmen blew up a lavatory in the Capitol, “We didn’t do it, but we dug it.”
You also get co-editor Cockburn writing about food in the modern age, so different from those exalted moments in the history of balanced diet which I describe in the newsletter, “with Australopithecus healthily subsisting on ‘fruits, leaves, larvae and bugs,’ along with modest gobbets of carrion. ‘His large teeth, powerful jaws and oversize gut were all adapted to coarse, fibrous plant matter … Even his small size – he stood barely four feet tall and weighed forty pounds – was ideal for harvesting fruit among the branches.’ Three million years later, we arrive at the far end of an inexorably descending arc, with 400-pound, low-income specimens of Homo sapiens swollen by excessive intake of calories, their guts compromised by lack of fiber, many of them diabetic, draped over their scooters, harvesting the aisles of Albertsons or Safeway for sugar, salt and fat-saturated snacks that will hike their blood pressure, clog their arteries, and propel them to an early grave.”
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ALEXANDER COCKBURN can be reached at email@example.com