The Ghosts of 1968

The hope of 1968 that public demonstrations can actually change the power structure has been lost.
1968 was a tumultuous year globally and domestically. The Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia–a very mild form of political and cultural liberalization within the Soviet bloc–was brutally crushed by the military forces of the Soviet Union.
The general strikes and student protests of May 1968 brought France to a standstill as demands for social and political change called the entire status quo into question.
On the other side of the planet, the Cultural Revolution was remaking China’s still-youthful revolution, to the detriment of the political status quo, the intelligentsia and the common people.
The U.S.was convulsed with assassinations, civil unrest and mass demonstrations against the war in Vietnam and the political status quo (the Democratic Party convention in Chicago).
Ironically, much of the world was benefiting from two decades of rising prosperity and the demise of colonialism. When expectations exceed actual opportunities, discontent is the result. When the power structure is deaf to the discontent, a cycle of repression and disorder feed on each other.
Fifty years on, the ghosts of 1968 are still with us. With the advantage of hindsight, 1968 was the culmination of the belief that it was still possible for the common people to change the political and social order in a positive fashion– to remake the status quo power structure into something more humane, accessible, just and fair.
The Western status quo bent but did not break. Nothing in the developed-world power structures actually changed. The status quo did break down in China, but the breakdown was not liberating; it was a catastrophe of injustice and destruction without precedent.
A new winter of discontent is chilling the air. Though the current state of affairs seems quite different from that of 1968, the basic context is eerily similar: decades of economic growth have ushered in widespread prosperity, but the benefits and power have gone disproportionately to the few at the top of the wealth-power pyramid.
The status quo power structures are deaf to the discontent of the common people, and respond with blandishments (Universal Basic Income, etc.), propaganda and a spectrum of repression.
In the context of 1968+50=2018, Chris Hedge’s incisive essay from 2010 bears re-reading. 2011: A Brave New Dystopia (truthdig):
The two greatest visions of a future dystopia were George Orwell’s ‘1984’ and Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World.’ The debate, between those who watched our descent towards corporate totalitarianism, was who was right. Would we be, as Orwell wrote, dominated by a repressive surveillance and security state that used crude and violent forms of control? Or would we be, as Huxley envisioned, entranced by entertainment and spectacle, captivated by technology and seduced by profligate consumption to embrace our own oppression? It turns out Orwell and Huxley were both right. Huxley saw the first stage of our enslavement. Orwell saw the second.
We have been gradually disempowered by a corporate state that, as Huxley foresaw, seduced and manipulated us through sensual gratification, cheap mass-produced goods, boundless credit, political theater and amusement. While we were entertained, the regulations that once kept predatory corporate power in check were dismantled, the laws that once protected us were rewritten and we were impoverished. The state, crippled by massive deficits, endless war and corporate malfeasance, is sliding toward bankruptcy. We are moving from a society where we are skillfully manipulated by lies and illusions to one where we are overtly controlled.
It’s also worth re-reading Mario Savio’s extemporaneous speech to the Free Speech Movement’s sit-in on December 3, 1964, on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. Though the speech predates the Prague Spring and the Paris general strike by four years, it embodies the core dynamic of those social uprisings: the system itself is fundamentally flawed, and we are the raw material and product that keep the system operating.
There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!
The hope of 1968 that public demonstrations can actually change the power structure has been lost. The ghosts of 1968 inform us that there is no reforming the status quo power structure, there are only simulacrum reforms that fulfill the PR requirements of being seen as effecting reform. But people are losing faith in do-nothing policy tweaks; those tossed aside as detritus by the winner-take-most status quo realize the system is failing not just those on the margins but the entire citizenry. Those who look at the stripmined seas, polluted air, depleted soils and aquifers know the system is also failing the planet.
The system needs us as raw material, as “product,” as consumers of the output of the machine. That we are consumed by the process–that awareness has faded into the shadows inhabited by the ghosts of 1968.

After December In Housing, No Miracle

by Jeffrey P. Snider

While there are those who saw October and more so November spikes in real estate and housing estimates as the beginning of the something big, all the December 2017 statistics suggest nothing more than the easily anticipated hurricane anomalies. Housing construction was back in line with weaker earlier 2017 estimates (particularly starts), while resales were, too. Today we found that sales of newly constructed homes also pulled back last month after a run in November.

The prior month’s big jump was revised to a seasonally-adjusted annual rate of 689k, well above the 599k posted in October. The estimate for December was 625k, just above the 6-month average.

The November figure was widely hailed as some kind of meaningful milestone simply because it was the most sales since August 2017. The media loves to write stories that contain the phrase “highest in ten years.”

This is not to say that the housing market isn’t growing; it is. Nor is it exhibiting any warning signs that it is close or about to collapse; it isn’t. The issue here is the same as it is for the overall economy, which is what matters as to whether November’s increase was the start of something bigger, or an aberration leaving the real estate market in the same shape as before.

In other words, anything that has been written about home construction making it seem like a positive is totally overwhelmed by the chart above. In December 2017, the Census Bureau figures that 43k (unadjusted) newly built homes were sold across the United States. That’s fewer than were turned over in December 1995 (45k), or December 1985 for that matter (47k).

As noted yesterday, there is a big problem in housing as it relates to the economy given this shrunken state. It’s far too consistent with the non-full employment view of circumstances. If things are really improving as is always claimed and characterized, then home sales would be brisk, as would resales.

The latter are not because they are being held back by a serious and sustained reluctance of home owners to sell. What we find here in new home sales is that reticence is obviously shared among buyers, too, particularly at the lower end starter homes.

Like shrinking available-for-sale inventory, the permanently reduced market for new homes isn’t really a mystery. If you ignore, as Economists do, the millions upon millions (as many as 16 or more) of Americans who don’t count for the unemployment rate, none of this makes sense given the “exceptional” job market that one statistic might indicate. Factor them into your economic equation, however, and your interpretation, and therefore outlook, changes dramatically.

Given that, it wasn’t ever very likely that October and November represented the start of something meaningfully different. That would have been just too far of a leap, to get to rapid growth finally after a decade of truly stunning shrinking and stagnation, and for what legitimate reason? In truth, it would have been a miracle, a verdict that I think will be applied to a lot more than the housing statistics in the months to come.

NAR Warns Upper-End Home Prices Set To Slide


Following the plunge in New- and Existing-Home Sales, expectations for a 0.5% acceleration in Pending Home Sales in December were met.

 

However, YoY, Pending Home Sales NSA dropped 1.8%.

 

The Northeast dominated the weakness (after a big jump in Nov):

  • Northeast fell 5.1%; Nov. rose 4.1%
  • Midwest fell 0.3%; Nov. fell 0.1%
  • South up 2.6%; Nov. rose 0.1%
  • West up 1.5%; Nov. fell 2%

 

Since the start of the year, Housing-related data has disappointed notably, after ramping remarkably since the storms…

Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, says pending sales edged up in December and reached their highest level since last March (111.3).

“Another month of modest increases in contract activity is evidence that the housing market has a small trace of momentum at the start of 2018,” he said. “Jobs are plentiful, wages are finally climbing and the prospect of higher mortgage rates are perhaps encouraging more aspiring buyers to begin their search now.”

Added Yun,

“Sadly, these positive indicators may not lead to a stronger sales pace. Buyers throughout the country continue to be hamstrung by record low supply levels that are pushing up prices — especially at the lower end of the market.” oops “In the short term, the larger paychecks most households will see from the tax cuts may give prospective buyers the ability to save for a larger down payment this year, and the healthy labor economy and job market will continue to boost demand,” said Yun.

“However, there’s no doubt the nation’s most expensive markets with high property taxes are going to be adversely impacted by the tax law.”

However, Yun ended on an ominous note…

“Just how severe is still uncertain, but with homeownership now less incentivized in the tax code, sellers in the upper end of the market may have to adjust their price expectations if they want to trade down or move to less expensive areas. This could in turn lead to both a decrease in sales and home values.”

Tesla Tumbles On Further Model 3 Delays

Elon Musk’s week just got worse as Tesla’s share tumble after CNBC reports the problems with battery production at the company’s Gigafactory in Sparks, Nevada, are worse than the company has acknowledged and could cause further delays and quality issues for the new Model 3, according to a number of current and former Tesla employees.

These problems include Tesla needing to make some of the batteries by hand and borrowing scores of employees from one of its suppliers to help with this manual assembly, said these people.

The reaction was instant and lower…

CNBC goes to report that more than a month after Musk’s initial warnings, in mid-December, Tesla was still making its Model 3 batteries partly by hand, according to current engineers and ex-Tesla employees who worked at the Gigafactory in recent months.

They say Tesla had to “borrow” scores of employees from Panasonic, which is a partner in the Gigafactory and supplies lithium-ion battery cells, to help with this manual assembly.

Cutting a Hole in the 4th Amendment

 

Hidden beneath the controversy stirred up last week by the publication of a book called “Fire and Fury,” a highly critical insider’s view of the Trump White House that the president has not only denounced on national television but also tried to prevent from being published and distributed, are the efforts of the Trump administration and congressional leadership to bypass the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.

Here is the back story.

After the excesses of the Watergate era, during which the Nixon administration used the FBI and the CIA unlawfully to spy without warrants on the president’s real and imagined domestic political opponents, Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. FISA prohibited all domestic surveillance except that which is pursuant to warrants signed by federal judges.

The Fourth Amendment — which guarantees privacy in our persons, houses, papers and effects — permits the government to invade that privacy only when a judge has signed a warrant that authorizes surveillance, a search or a seizure. And judges may only issue warrants when they have found probable cause to believe that the government surveillance or invasion of the target’s privacy will produce evidence of criminal behavior. The Fourth Amendment further requires that the judicial warrant describe specifically the place to be searched or the person or thing to be seized.

All these requirements are in the amendment so as to prevent any court from issuing general warrants. Before the Constitution, general warrants were issued by British courts that met in secret in London. They were not issued based on probable cause of crime but issued based on the government’s wish to invade the privacy of all Americans living in the Colonies to find the more rebellious among them. This was the king and Parliament’s version of protecting national security.

General warrants did not describe the place to be searched or the person or thing to be seized. They authorized the bearer — usually a British soldier physically located in the Colonies — to search where he wished and seize whatever he found.

FISA did not interfere with the standard understanding or use of the Fourth Amendment by the government and the courts. But it did add another way for the government to invade privacy when its wish is to surveil people for national security purposes — a return to general warrants — as opposed to solely gathering evidence of crimes.

The FISA-created procedure, enacted in defiance of the Fourth Amendment — which makes no distinction between government evidence gathering and government intelligence-gathering — permits a secret court in Washington to issue general warrants based on the government’s need to gather intelligence about national security from foreigners among us. It pretends that the standard is probable cause of foreign agency, but this has now morphed into the issuance of general warrants whenever the government wants them.

Since 1977, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has issued well over 99 percent of the warrants that the government has requested. And these warrants do not specifically describe the place to be searched or the person or thing to be seized. A typical FISC-issued warrant authorizes government surveillance on all landlines, mobile devices and desktop computers in a given area or ZIP code. One infamous FISC-issued search warrant permitted the feds to surveil all Verizon customers in the U.S. — in excess of 115 million people — without any evidence of crime or even suspicion about any of them.

Now back to the Trump administration’s work below the radar. Even in the fresh aftermath of 9/11, when the government’s respect for constitutional norms was at a lamentably low point, the government interpreted the Fourth Amendment as requiring the government to separate its intelligence functions from its law enforcement work. The government recognized that its trigger for mass surveillance — namely, looking for a foreign agent among the populace — was a far lower standard than probable cause of crime, which is what the Fourth Amendment requires.

Today, the federal government’s computers are permanently connected to the mainframes of all telecoms and computer service providers in America, so the spying is in real time. Today, the federal government employs more than 60,000 domestic spies — one spy for every 5,500 Americans. Today, if any of them come across evidence of crimes while listening to your telephone calls or reading your texts or emails ostensibly for intelligence purposes, there is little they can do about it.

Until now.

Now, hidden beneath the “Fire and Fury” controversy is the muffled sound of the Trump administration and Republican congressional leaders plotting the enactment of an addition to FISA that would permit the use of evidence of crimes in federal court even when it is discovered during mass surveillance authorized by general warrants.

If enacted, this radical, unconstitutional hole in the Fourth Amendment would bring the country full circle back to the government’s use of general warrants to harass and prosecute — general warrants so odious to our forebears that they took up arms against the king’s soldiers to be rid of them.

I am surprised that President Donald Trump supports this. He has himself been the target of unlawful foreign surveillance and unconstitutional FISC-authorized domestic surveillance. “Fire and Fury” even quotes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair warning a newly elected Trump about this. And now he wants to unleash upon us all the voracious appetite for surveillance that was unleashed upon him and prosecute us for what is found, the Constitution be damned.

Whatever happened to the public promise to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution as it is written? That’s in the oath all in government have taken. That is the oath that the president and his Republican allies reject.

Are You One Of The 170 Million Americans Drinking Radioactive Tap Water?

According to a new bombshell report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), tap water for more than 170 million Americans contains radioactive elements that may increase the risk of cancer. The group examined 50,000 public water systems throughout the United States and found from 2010 to 2015, more than 22,000 water utilities reported radium in treated water.

Radiation in tap water poses serious health threats, particularly for children, and women during pregnancy.

The most common radioactive element the EWG found was radium. Studies show that radium above the EPA legal limit may cause depression of the immune system, anemia, cataracts, fractured teeth, and of course cancer.

Radium is a naturally occurring radioactive element that resides on the earth’s crust. The EWG emphasizes that higher radium levels in tap water occur when uranium mining or oil and gas drilling exploration companies disturb the earth’s geology. The process triggers radiation called “ionizing because it can release electrons from atoms and molecules, and turn them into ions,” explained the EWG. The EPA warns that all ionizing radiation is carcinogenic, implying that radium above the EPA limit is all too prevalent in America and it could be causing lots of cancer.

In 158 public water systems serving some 276,000 Americans in 27 states, the EWG found that radium exceeded the federal legal ceiling for radium-226 and radium-228.

The EWG’s Tap Water Database covers six radioactive contaminants, including radium, radon, and uranium. The database shows radium-226 and radium-228 are the two most common forms of radiation in every state.

The EWG expresses frustration with the 41-year old federal drinking water standards that are not designed to protect human health. New public health goals were set in 2006 by the California Office of Environmental Hazard Assessment, but have been widely overlooked by the federal government.

Federal drinking water standards are based on the cost and feasibility of removing contaminants, not scientific determinations of what is necessary to fully protect human health. And like many EPA tap water standards, the radium limits are based on decades-old research rather than the latest science.

The EPA’s tap water limits on the combined level of the radium isotopes and the combined level of alpha and beta particles were set in 1976. They were retained in 2000, when the uranium standard was established.

To more accurately assess the current threat of radiation in U.S. tap water, we compared levels of the contaminants detected by local utilities not to the EPA’s 41-year-old legal limits, but to the public health goals set in 2006 by the respected and influential California Office of Environmental Hazard Assessment.

California public health goals are not legally enforceable limits, but guidelines for levels of contaminants that pose only a minimal risk – usually defined as no more than one expected case of cancer in every million people who drink the water for a lifetime.

California standards are hundreds of times more stringent than the current EPA limits for radium-226 and radium-228. If the federal government adopted the new tests, it would mean that no more than one case of cancer per million people per water supply. That would likely cause a public health emergency across the United States, but apparently, that is something the government has no intentions in doing in the intermediate time. So, for now, Americans will enjoy a higher risk of cancer one glass of water at a time, because, perhaps, cancer is very profitable for pharmaceutical companies, or the country is just flat broke and cannot afford new infrastructure.

“Most radioactive elements in tap water come from natural sources, but that doesn’t take away the need to protect people through stronger standards and better water treatment,” Olga Naidenko, senior science adviser at EWG, said in a statement.

“Millions of Americans are drinking water with potentially harmful levels of radioactive elements, but the outdated federal standards mean many people don’t know about the risk they face when they turn on the tap.”

Radium contamination in public water systems nationwide:

Radium concentrations in drinking water are drawn from EWG’s Tap Water database, and represent the average of all samples of treated drinking water collected from 2010 to 2015 for each water system. Samples reported as non-detections are entered as zero, which could underestimate the actual radium concentration in drinking water.

Federal drinking water regulations set a Maximum Contaminant Level, an enforceable legal standard, of 5 picocuries per liter (pCi/L) for the combined level of two isotopes of radium: radium-226 and radium-228. Some water utilities and states report individual levels of these isotopes, while others report a single combined radium value of a specific sample. When the combined level was not reported by the water utility, EWG added measurements of radium-226 and radium–228 to calculate it, as available.

This map displays radium data for 1,850 community water systems serving more than 10,000 customers, and 1,620 community water systems serving between 3,301 and 10,000 customers. The water system locations were mapped based on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Safe Drinking Water Information System, or SDWIS. Locations are approximate and are meant to visualize the general area served by a specific water system – not to give the specific address of the water treatment plant. The map does not include water systems that did not detect radium between 2010 and 2015. It also does not include those water systems for which EWG could not confirm geographic locations.

Click here for interactive version.

On the map, dots indicating water system locations are color-coded according to the combined radium levels. Dot size reflects the water system’s size of above or below 100,000 customers. Any changes in water sources and treatment, and water quality after 2015, are not reflected in EWG’s analysis. For more detail on data reporting methods for EWG’s Tap Water Database, read our Methodology.

Credit Card Debt Hits All Time High As Consumers Unleash Historic Shopping Spree

It’s official: the reason behind the recent rebound in the economy can be explained with two words: “charge it.”

Readers may recall that one month ago, we reported that with Republicans in Washington on the verge of passing their first major piece of legislation in the form of comprehensive tax cuts that will allow Americans across the income spectrum to keep a little more of their hard earned cash in 2018, it appeared that U.S. consumers already “pre-spent” their savings using their credit cards.

And now we have confirmation that this is precisely what happened, because in the month of November, between revolving, or credit card, and non-revolving debt, largely student and auto loans, according to the latest Fed data, total consumer debt rose by $28 billion, or the most since November 2001, to $3.827 trillion, an annualized increase of 8.8%, or roughly 4 times faster than the pace of overall GDP growth.

asd

Broken down, consumer credit rose by $11.2 billion in revolving credit, or credit card debt, which pushed it a record $1.023 trillion, the highest credit card amount outstanding on record. This was also the second highest monthly increase in credit card debt on record.

asd

Meanwhile, non-revolving credit – or auto and student loans – rose by $16.8 trillion to $2.805 trillion. Nonrevolving lending to consumers by the Federal government, which is mainly student loans, rose to $1.142t, on a non-seasonally adjusted basis.

This was to be expected: as we showed last month, US consumers appear to be tapping out, and as a result, the Personal savings rate dropped to 2.9%, the lowest since November 2007.

So, in addition to all the usual holiday trinkets that US consumers buy year after year, what hot new Christmas gadget has Americans suddenly willing to max out their credit cards?  Well, if Google search trends are any clue, it might not be a gadget, or anything tangible for that matter, at all.