Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos a few days ago, said the “critical risks” facing the American economy this year were a worsening of Europe’s chronic sovereign debt crisis and a rise in tensions with Iran that could stoke global oil prices.
What about jobs and wages here at home?
As the Commerce Department reported Friday, the U.S. economy grew 2.8 percent between October and December – the fastest pace in 18 months and the first time growth exceeded 2 percent all year. Many bigger American companies have been reporting strong profits in recent months. GE and Lockheed Martin closed the year with record order backlogs.
Yet the percent of working-age Americans in jobs isn’t much different than what it was three years ago. Yes, America now produces more than it did when the recession began. But it does so with 6 million fewer workers.
Average after-tax incomes adjusted for inflation are moving up a bit. (They increased at an annual rate of .8 percent in the last three months of 2011 after falling 1.9 percent in prior three-month period. For all of 2011, incomes fell .1 percent.)
But beware averages. Shaquille O’Neal and I have an average height of six feet. Exclude Mitt Romney’s $20 million last year — along with everyone else securely in the top 1 percent — and the incomes of most Americans are continuing to slip.
Consumer spending picked up slightly in the fourth quarter mainly because consumers drew down their savings. Obviously, this can’t last.
Meanwhile, government is spending less on schools, roads, bridges, parks, defense, and social services. Government spending at all levels dropped at an annual rate of 4.6 percent in the last quarter – and that’s likely to continue.
Some economists worry this drop is a drag on the economy. But it also means fewer public goods available to all Americans regardless of income.
Congress still hasn’t decided whether to renew the temporary payroll tax cut and extend unemployment benefits past February. If it doesn’t, expect another 1 percent slice off GDP growth this year.
Tim Geithner is surely correct that the European debt crisis and Iran pose risks to the American economy in 2012. But they aren’t the biggest risk. The biggest risk is right here at home – that most Americans will continue to languish.
All of which raises a basic question: Who or what is the economy for? Surely not just for a few at the top, and not just big corporations and their CEOs. Nor can the success of the economy be measured by how fast the GDP is growing, or how high the Dow Jones Industrial Average is rising, or whether average incomes are turning upward.
The crisis of American capitalism marks the triumph of consumers and investors over workers and citizens. And since most of us occupy all four roles – even though the lion’s share of consuming and investing is done by the wealthy – the real crisis centers on the increasing efficiency by which all of us as consumers and investors can get great deals, and our declining capacity to be heard as workers and citizens.
Modern technologies allow us to shop in real time, often worldwide, for the lowest prices, highest quality, and best returns. Through the Internet and advanced software we can now get relevant information instantaneously, compare deals, and move our money at the speed of electronic impulses. We can buy goods over the Internet that are delivered right to our homes. Never before in history have consumers and investors been so empowered.
Yet these great deals increasingly come at the expense of our own and our compatriots’ jobs and wages, and widening inequality. The goods we want or the returns we seek can often be produced more efficiently elsewhere around the world by companies offering lower pay, fewer benefits, and inferior working conditions.
They also come at the expense of our Main Streets – the hubs of our communities – when we get the great deals through the Internet or at big-box retailers that scan the world for great deals on our behalf.
Some great deals have devastating environmental consequences. Technology allows us to efficiently buy low-priced items from poor nations with scant environmental standards, sometimes made in factories that spill toxic chemicals into water supplies or pollutants into the air. We shop for great deals in cars that spew carbon into the air and for airline tickets in jet planes that do even worse.
Other great deals offend common decency. We may get a great price or high return because a producer has cut costs by hiring children in South Asia or Africa who work twelve hours a day, seven days a week. Or by subjecting people to death-defying working conditions.
As workers or as citizens most of us would not intentionally choose these outcomes but as seekers after great deals we are indirectly responsible for them. Companies know that if they fail to offer us the best deals we will take our money elsewhere – which we can do with ever-greater speed and efficiency.
The best means of balancing the demands of consumers and investors against those of workers and citizens has been through democratic institutions that shape and constrain markets.
Laws and rules offer some protection for jobs and wages, communities, and the environment. Although such rules are likely to be costly to us as consumers and investors because they stand in the way of the very best deals, they are intended to approximate what we as members of a society are willing to sacrifice for these other values.
But technologies for getting great deals are outpacing the capacities of democratic institutions to counterbalance them. For one thing, national rules intended to protect workers, communities, and the environment typically extend only to a nation’s borders. Yet technologies for getting great deals enable buyers and investors to transcend borders with increasing ease, at the same time making it harder for nations to monitor or regulate such transactions.
For another, goals other than the best deals are less easily achieved within the confines of a single nation. The most obvious example is the environment, whose fragility is worldwide. In addition, corporations now routinely threaten to move jobs and businesses away from places that impose higher costs on them – and therefore, indirectly, on their consumers and investors – to more “business friendly” jurisdictions. The Internet and software have made companies sufficiently nimble to render such threats credible.
But the biggest problem is that corporate money is undermining democratic institutions in the name of better deals for consumers and investors. Campaign contributions, fleets of well-paid corporate lobbyists, and corporate-financed PR campaigns about public issues are overwhelming the capacities of Congress, state legislatures, regulatory agencies, and the courts to reflect the values of workers and citizens.
As a result, consumers and investors are doing increasingly well but job insecurity is on the rise, inequality is widening, communities are becoming less stable, and climate change is worsening. None of this is sustainable over the long term.
Blame global finance and worldwide corporations all you want. But save some blame for the insatiable consumers and investors inhabiting almost every one of us, who are entirely complicit. And blame our inability as workers and citizens to reclaim our democracy.
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Whether “Shame” is worth the gloomy descent into Manhattan’s scurviest recesses depends on the viewer’s tolerance for movies that offer no grand narrative or explicit meaning and instead simply provide a snapshot character study for audiences to ponder on their own. There’s no doubt that “Shame” burrows into one’s consciousness and stays there, a brooding reminder that most of us are, in some way or another, waging invisible psychic battles. McQueen ends his portrait where he began it, but with a question, leaving it up to viewers to decide whether Brandon has won the fight or is still on his suicide mission, death by little death.
Posted: Sun., Sep. 4, 2011, 8:15am PT A See-Saw Films production for Film4 and U.K. Film Council. (International sales: HanWay Films, Lon…
As self-starved IRA member Bobby Sands in “Hunger,” Fassbender gave a performance so frighteningly physical it seemed almost as committed an act of martyrdom as his character’s. He matches that achievement here and in some ways surpasses it, enacting a more figurative form of imprisonment and self-mortification. Completely unself-conscious about the full-frontal nudity and graphically simulated sex acts required of him, the actor peels back layers of lust and self-loathing to become a consummate vessel for the director’s intentions. Even when he says nothing, which is most of the time, Fassbender transfixes.
Sporting a short, bleached-blond hairdo and often clad in vintage garments that clash with David Robinson’s otherwise gray, toned-down costumes, Mulligan energizes the picture with a spirited, sassy turn that at one point also requires her to bare herself for the camera. Her character’s musical solo midway through the film, filmed almost entirely in a single closeup, is one of many exquisite interludes that give this tough-minded picture a soul. So, too, does Nicole Beharie, wonderfully real and affecting as Brandon’s co-worker Marianne, whose attempts to kindle a flame become the film’s heartbreaking centerpiece.
Movie Review Abbot Genser/Fox Searchlight PicturesOnly One Thing on His Mind By A. O. SCOTT Published: December 1, 2011 The cruel paradox…
Different as they are, these siblings clearly share a self-destructive tendency, the sources of which lie somewhere in the background, beyond the reach of the film’s curiosity. “We’re not bad people,” Sissy says in a teary message she leaves on Brandon’s cellphone. “We just come from a bad place,” a place specified only as New Jersey…
More problematic is his reliance on moments of showy cinematic beauty — a long nighttime tracking shot, a Hudson River sunset seen from a high window in the Standard Hotel — that serve at once to alleviate the film’s harshness and undermine its rigor. And the impulse to explore Brandon’s problem in some kind of narrative leaves “Shame” caught between therapeutic melodrama and melodramatic despair. The climax is, for Brandon, a chaotic downward slide that blends provocation with a scolding, breathless moralism. How far will he go? He’ll have sex with a man! With two women!
Is “Shame” the name of something Brandon does feel, or of something the filmmakers think he should feel? The movie, for all its displays of honesty (which is to say nudity), is also curiously coy. It presents Brandon for our titillation, our disapproval and perhaps our envy, but denies him access to our sympathy. I know, that’s the point, that Mr. McQueen wants to show how the intensity of Brandon’s need shuts him off from real intimacy, but this seems to be a foregone conclusion, the result of an elegant experiment that was rigged from the start.
“Shame Review”. Chicago Sun-Times. http://www.rogerebert.com/apps/pbcs.dll/ article?AID=/20111130/REVIEWS/111139997/-1/RSS. Re…
“Shame” contains unblinking truth. I have no doubt it depicts behavior that can be accurately called “sex addiction.” The film suggests no help for Brandon, although toward the end, he moves somewhat in the direction of being able to care for another human being. For him, that involves being able to care for himself, despite the truth that he feels unworthy to be known. This is a great act of filmmaking and acting. I don’t believe I would be able to see it twice.
The hero of “Shame,” Brandon (Michael Fassbender), lives in what you or I would call New York, and what St. Augustine would call a hissin…
There is a plot, of sorts, amid the pulsation. Brandon’s sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a part-time chanteuse and round-the-clock whirligig of neediness, comes unexpectedly to stay. He finds her naked in the shower, thus grazing another taboo. At one point, in a ritzy bar, she unveils the still heart of the film, her face trapped in closeup while she croons “New York, New York,” at a crawling tempo. Mulligan gives it her all, but, as so often in “Shame,” you can’t help considering the context. Would everyone in a New York hot spot go quiet for five minutes in order to listen politely to what is, in essence, a private distress call? McQueen, aided by his screenwriter, Abi Morgan, has stitched together a bespoke idea of the city rather than the place itself, in the same way that he frames erotic pursuit more as a neat conceptual art work than as the farrago of lunging, dithering, yearning, and near-farce in which most of society wallows. To Brandon’s credit, he tries to proceed normally with Marianne (Nicole Beharie), a colleague from the office, taking her to dinner and making non-horny conversation, but, when they finally arrive at the boudoir, guess what? He can’t get it up. McQueen might as well have hung a sign around Brandon’s neck that read “Warning: Cannot Mix Emotion and Sex.” If you want to see the same bafflement, vented with ten times the subtlety, check out Warren Beatty, in “Bonnie and Clyde,” slumping away from Faye Dunaway and murmuring, “I told you I warn’t no lover boy.”
Yet, for all this, “Shame” compels attention. Amid its pious devotion to the woebegone, there are scenes that manage to twitch into life and hit a nerve, perhaps because they also bump the funny bone. Take the wordless subway ride, early in the movie, that finds Brandon, impeccably swathed in coat and scarf, sitting diagonally opposite a young woman. To witness the back-and-forth of their flirtation is like watching Nadal versus Federer on clay. Topspin smiles are dinked across the car, lips are slyly moistened, and McQueen even lobs in a late twist, as the woman proves to be wearing not just a kindly smile but a wedding ring—a combination guaranteed to stir our hero’s loins. The entire sequence is perfect, and PG-rated, and if “Shame” had stopped there it would have been a poem. Instead, there is a novel’s worth of grinding still to come, and, by the end, all that I could think of, however respectful of the film’s aplomb, was the brisk advice delivered by the aging Flaubert to his satyr of a protégé, Guy de Maupassant, in 1878: “You complain about fucking being ‘monotonous.’ There’s a very simple remedy: stop doing it.”