Tuesday, September 16, 2014

What Do We Do With Our Bodies?

This is a half formed thought, so children and Republicans be wary.

The more I observe the structures of social control, the more I come to understand fundamentally that - at the end of the day - it is behavior that matters. Martin King said it - the law cannot make a man love me, but it can make him stop lynching me. Martin was not talking about "the law" in the sense that lawyers do; he was thinking about it as the people do: as The Man. The Law - that is, the monopolizer of violence - has the capacity to stop lynching. To actually monopolize violence.

So when I walk around CU's campus and I see the "safety and access" railings partitioning public gathering space like Norlin Quad into neat, orderly, rationalized spaces that can be controlled and contained, I see the monopoly of violence. Coercion. Force.

Behavior control. Control; as in the limitation of options. The application of cost to action such that only the desired action is taken.

We are our behavior. I have long ascribed to the idea that I have absolutely no way of knowing what anyone else is thinking, only what they do. As a biologist, I look at the verb "do" and see - literally - every material process that makes up the organism. So, of course, finical transactions and speech and breathing and mitosis are all things that people "do".

So what do the structures - and I use that physically evocative word intentionally - of social control do? How do they behave to restrict human behavior to those actions that reinforce the status quo? This is why the norm violating hippies so frightened these structures. If they were going to behave differently, do different things even within the confines of their bourgeois white privilege, then who knows what other behaviors they would embrace. They might even be for economic democracy. They might even behave as though they owned the means of production - at least in part - and had the right to have to a role in the processes that directed their productive activity.

In the end, the elite know that human behavior has the element of the swarm. They call it a mob, but it is not. The swarm is a complicated thing in human activity, but in the end, I would call a strike a swarm. I would call a sit-in strike a swarm. And once you have a sit-in strike, you're one step away - literally just a condition - from your workers literally seizing the means of production and making demands on power.

This collective action, this adoption of new rules, is a a direct threat to the status quo in that it literally deviates from it. But the behavior of the individuals can still be influenced by coercive methods. Thus, unless The Law is altered to enshrine the new rules, there will be violence.

This is why Democracy has been accepted by the elites, since it actually provides a more efficient mechanism for the maintenance of the status quo and a gradual evolution of the acceptable mechanisms of their repression.

That is why I walk across the grass, whenever possible. To break a social norm and violate the physically imposed rationality of the engineered space. To demonstrate that it is still possible to do things they haven't made easy.

Also because the grass is a waste of water, and wearing it down makes me feel good about myself on my way to teaching 18 year olds who are the product of both NCLB and RTT and have little to no civic awareness. Questions must be asked.

Teachers, sit-in. When education is the product, the means of production are in fact the teachers themselves...

Thursday, August 21, 2014

One is Historical...

... and shocks us in school...

The other...

... isn't, and doesn't...

hands up, don't shoot

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Generational Arbitrage: An Open Letter to Jared Polis('s staff)

*small talk*

I went to the town hall yesterday by the main Boulder office, but it was rather busy and I didn’t get a chance to pose a question or comment. Since I have your email address, I thought I would send this along now so there would be one less person standing between Jared and his evening.

Almost all of the disparate issues that were brought up last night by my fellow Boulderites are related by the fact that they either foretell a worse future for young people or impact young people worse already. There is a long line of events that evidence social decay since 1980, and people born since then have faced a completely different economy and society than those over 35.

There is a kind of generational arbitrage going on, where young people, because of a lack of organization and experience, are being taken advantage of by the political class. The institutions that built this country have been systematically dismantled in favor of a dog-eat-dog race to the bottom; by the nature of things, young people start at that bottom. The three areas where this is most obvious and important, and where I will have a question for Jared, are:

1) The escalation of the security state, NSA aside, where seemingly any suspicion will land a violation of the Fourth Ammendment, a conviction will land you in a private prison’s solitary cell or work line that more resembles a slave plantation than a rehabilitation facility, and “free speech zones” take away the rights of protest even from those not ensnared by the security state itself.

2) The privatization of education, where we have moved from a public good model to a private good model, such that adults in America have effectively told their children, “You must pay us for the privilege of being educated by us - we don’t care about you enough to educate you just because you’re our children.” This has resulted in a $1T sub-prime borrowing crisis (i.e. people with degrees not using them) and created a generation of indentured servants, unable to take risks, invest in their futures, or start a family, stuck instead working dead end service jobs to make payments on debts the banks would have had forgiven.

3) The crisis of environmental justice, specifically the fact that for the past 40 years we have known what technologies would allow us to move off of fossil fuels and yet have not done so. What reasonable society says to itself, “In 30 years our children could never have to deal with pollutants and environmental destruction from fossil fuels,” but instead adopts a “carbon first” energy strategy to appease the old and dying oligarchs?

These issues converge around the need for true choice, true freedom, in how we organize our society. We need to give young people the opportunity to live a life without debt and with dignity as they choose; that is, to persue happiness. Society ought to ask young people (that is, its future self): "What do you want to do?" and then make that possible.

The way I see to do this that addresses these three key issues is to begin programs that train people to be small scale sustainable farmers who don’t use fossil fuels in any meaningful way; to put people on the land doing work no machine can do as opposed to in cubicles doing work machines will do soon anyway. Use the university systems, state and community colleges, high schools, USDA, EPA, etc. to empower the people to live a life that doesn’t hold the threat of prison like a life in an urban city does, or the threat of a life stunted by debt or of permanent debt, and that makes the earth better rather than worse and puts quality food on American tables.

I’m getting a PhD in Environmental Studies, but I already see the jobs available as ultimately counter to my values and probably obsolete in a decade anyway. Young people, Americans, want autonomy, freedom, choice and non-harm. Where is the government program that subsidizes young people in this way? There are billions of dollars in agricultural subsidies given each year; where is the subsidy - not the loan - for young, small scale farmers interested in doing the right thing by the planet, their families, and their communities? Where is the grant that allows young people to enter into a training program and come out with the capital to start a small urban, suburban, or even rural farm?

Such a program emphasizing individual food security and self-sufficiency would give people the opportunity to lead a life without the temptation of crime to feed oneself, without the threat of homelessness due to debt hanging over ones head, and without the threat of health crises due to terrible food. Additionally, changing the food system even slightly would have valuable benefits related to climate change, energy use, employment, and water and air pollution.

Of course, if you’d rather us laborers all just be interchangeable parts for capital, keep the generational arbitrage going. A nation of indentured servants to the banks would be easier for technocrats to manage anyway.


P.S. The GOP is keen on showing young people how bad things are and how the Democrats are trying to screw them with this damn social safety net that's only there for old people. The Democrats need a counter narrative about generational conflict, and giving us an out would certainly show the GOP for what it is: the party of contractual slavery.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Detroit's Fake Crisis: Water is the Leash

I got my MS in Environment Studies from CU Boulder, and my thesis was basically about water utility management and regulation. The Detroit water shutoff is preposterous. Some basic research is all you need to see that they're targeting the poor rather than the wealthy, and that this is strategic in terms of moving union backers, workers, and voters out of city limits to make way for gentrification.

There are also rumblings of privatization, this being an effort to make the "public" water utility prove its ability to garner payment (which is what its bonds are rated on and its interest rates are determined by; see here for good coverage of the bond insurance companies and demands for their pound of flesh). And, if we know anything from experience, privatization will result in even more massive rate hikes than 8-9% and even less competent service for small account holders. And if insurance companies are suing to avoid a cramdown, at the end of the day, they're just upset about making a bad bet and having to pay for it.

But how bad of a bet is it? This is the 2012 "in words" audit of the 2012 financial statement of the Detroit Water and Sewage Department. The 2013 report is not available on their website.

It shows, basically, that as of 2012 the DWSD was doing fine.

Not great, given the depopulation of Detroit (as concerns about declining water sales show), but fine: its margins were 20% for water and 22% for sewer, more than enough to cover their debt obligations. Let's ask the report, shall we?
The current ratio (current assets divided current liabilities) of 1.9 for water and 2.21 for sewer (M) indicates that the system is in a good position to meet its short term obligations, a key measure of fiscal health.
And let us not neglect the figure which shows this in detail:

So, the "$5 billion in debt" the media keeps talking about is the COMBINED debt of the WATER ($2.6B) and SEWER ($3.3B) operations, which have different revenue streams... and besides, that's not a very big number. For comparison, the water utility that serves Las Vegas has $3.6 billion in debt, not counting any sewage operations (which is a separate utility). There are more people in Las Vegas now, true, but should we expect Detroit water bills to be the same as the nation's average per capita, given its recent depopulation and aging infrastructure? Of course not.

Any justification for cutting off users based on debt is bullshit. Public water utilities have debt for very large capital investments that they pay off for very long periods of time. To cover the interest, they deliver water to customers basically at cost (they're regulated, after all), plus a legally required margin to cover debts. Detroit followed the law, and in fact exceeded the required margin.

Now, if a utility has a revenue problem, there are many ways to deal with it. One is charging more of the people who can pay more (i.e. industrial, commercial, and large residential customers such as apartment complexes). You can also tier rates among classes of user so that larger users (e.g. in residential, white suburbanites with lawns) pay more for each marginal unit of water, thus subsidizing basic human needs (drinking, cooking, washing) for others. OH WAIT!!! DWSD does charge variable rates, but they charge LESS for each marginal unit you use, and their tiers are incredibly weak (there are only two, really). This is awful financial management, and represents the exact opposite of how you should organize your water rates if you have any sense of environmental and social responsibility.

Utilities can even vary charges for the kinds of connections and pipes demanded by users and property owners (as the Las Vegas utility did in the 2000s). DWSD does this, but obviously isn't charging enough of the people and corporations who can afford to pay. DWSD has not been shutting off commercial customers who owe them money. I wonder why.

There are many more ways to get people's attention than shutting off their water. Public utilities are unique in that they are public, and there can be assessed penalties in other areas of life, seizure of assets, liens on properties, for non-payment. What moral person denies anyone else the right to drink water? To literally survive? Has the power to give someone life, but instead takes it away?

I mean this deeply: after three days without drinking water a human being dies. I don't expect anyone to die of thirst, but to avoid it, people will leave their homes in short order if that home doesn't have water in it. Shut off the power, shut off the cable, shut off the heat even and people will gut it out. But if I can't flush, I'm probably not living in the house for long.

DWSD will not free up significant resources, or improve operating revenues, by cutting deliveries: the less water DWSD delivers, the less money they make (they worry about that out-loud in their reports!). They say a little more than half the accounts are paid? Then this shows how easily they could have gotten the money other ways. There is no conceivable way that cutting off water increases revenue for DWSD under their current model, since one less address receiving water is one less resident able to pay in the future (no water, no people). Asking people to pay now when they cannot only increases poverty. Cutting delivery (rather than assessing a fine or *reducing delivery* as a signal to pay up) only serves to depopulate Detroit further, thus destroying the city that demonstrated the greatest successes of Labor in America and inspired a generation of workers to organize.

This is about undermining unions: nothing more, nothing less.

Well, perhaps more (or less, depending...) Two other facts: Having your water cut off means child protective services can come and take your kid, and getting your water turned back on requires at least some of the following: deed to the property, lease agreement-notarized, mortgage documents, tax records, driver’s licence, social security cards, notarized statements from the owners of the property, background checks...

Water is the leash... tug it, and the people move.

The elites have the leash now, not the people (emergency financial manager/dictator, anyone?), and now the leash is getting shorter, rapidly.

So you tell me what's going on. Is it about debt? Debt that DWSD has plenty of ways to continue paying? Or is it about waging war on the poor, working, minority citizens of a great American city that showed the way towards workers' - and peoples' - rights?

Ask Romney. He'll tell you.

Update 7/31/2014 - So, from my understanding it was almost exclusively people in Detroit itself that were shut off. If that's the case, the 15,500 people who lost water represent 2.2% of Detroit's population. Orr recovered (assuming the $111 per account rate in June across the shutoff) just 1.9% of the overdue accounts ($89 million). Even if I'm missing something on the margins, Orr *definitely* didn't target the large overdue accounts and instead focused his avarice at the easy target: the poor. And the result, again, isn't that impressive. Take a look from the Detroit Water Brigade's social media arm. What this shows, assuming $209,000/mo average over the previous two years, is that DWSD only amassed $1.79 million (off by less than $70,000 from the math I did based on the article, about $1.72 million).