Friday, March 14, 2014

Greed: Tales of the Tolls

Austerity for the many and prosperity for the few is taking its toll, big-time.

Ask not for whom this deafening dissonant clanger of a bell tolls, proles. It tolls for thee.

Thee who drive in cheaply made overpriced cars with stuck accelerators and faulty airbags. Thee who ride the rusty rails from upstate New York backwaters in a quest for stagnating wages in the Income Disparity Capital of the nation. Thee who work and live in crumbling buildings heated by gas coming from pipes constructed, as Charles Pierce points out, during the administration of Grover Cleveland.

Ironically, those iron pipes were laid right in the middle of the last Gilded Age. Back then, of course, the Age of Excess also included manufacturing jobs. The free labor market of slavery had only recently ended, forcing the robber barons of yesteryear to either hire people, or go without their roads, bridges, railroads, newspaper chains and mansions.

The robber barons of the 19th century still had way too much, and the workers and citizens far too few protections and rights. But despite semi-regular financial panics and widespread political corruption, the economy was booming. And as the economy boomed, the labor movement began to thrive. Rights -- like the eight-hour day --  were hard-fought, but they were eventually won, despite the best efforts of the plutocrats.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and the modern robber barons have amassed even more than way too much, having reaped more than 90% of the gains since the meltdown which they had an integral role in creating. The 21st century economy has been financialized, the jobs and the profits have gone offshore, and the politicians running the government at the behest of the obscenely wealthy have not put the maintenance of the commons at the top of their to-do list. Regulations, with the public safety as their quaint raison d'etre, are going the way of the dinosaur.

And so came a triple-whammy of a week of tragic news. The deadly explosion and collapse of two buildings on the poor part of Park Avenue was immediate and newsworthy. It bled, so it led.... in spite of its usually ignored locale, on the proverbial wrong side of the crumbling tracks. The irony is that the poorly maintained Metro-North line nearby had to be shut down because some debris from the blasts landed right on top of them. Decay, meet Decay.

Utterly preventable tragedies usually come at fairly wide intervals, thus making them easier for us forget and for complicit politicians to sigh "Nobody could ever have predicted that deregulated greedsters couldn't have policed themselves!" And to be sure, the two scathing reports on General Motors and Metro-North, though coming only a day apart, address a monoculture of greed whose tragic effects have been generations in the making, whose death and dismemberment tolls have been insidiously mounting in plain sight in front of blind eyes for many years.

The reports' impact is as shocking as the cataclysm in Harlem. How much longer can we ignore the human toll that the big money-controlled Caligula Caucuses of our state and national legislatures have exacted and will continue to exact unless we radically change the Greed Culture itself? How long must we wait before we replace sadism with sanity?

If the damning report on Metro-North in the wake of December's derailment and quadruple fatality is any indication, it might be awhile. Because it turns out that the only meaning of time in the world of the railway executive -- and any profiteer worth his salt, for that matter -- is money. "Punctuality Beats Safety at Metro-North" reads the headline in the New York Times:
 The review, from the Federal Railroad Administration, found that the commuter railroad’s operations control center pressured workers “to rush when responding to signal failures,” and that workers struggled to secure the track time needed to perform essential repairs. Even policies as pedestrian as the use of cellphones have created dangers: Amid confusion about the rules, cellphone use is “commonplace and accepted” among track workers on the job.
The report is all the more stunning, says the Times, because Metro-North had been considered one of the safest railway systems in the nation. And now we find out that the workers don't attend even perfunctory safety meetings, that they work long, sleep-deprived hours, that the tracks are not maintained adequately, and that getting commuters to their stagnating-wage jobs on time trumps everything else. Everything. Remember: time is money.

It's bad enough that General Motors, whose millionaire executives were so richly rewarded with much taxpayer largesse at the expense of the auto union and its pensioners, had been deliberately hiding the effects of ignition problems in some models for over a decade. But now comes news that 303 people had died in crashes in the recalled models after air bags failed to deploy.

It gets worse. The watchdog group Center for Auto Safety has also accused the now ignorance-pleading National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) of ignoring complaints about the problems for years. "The only way NHTSA could not see a defect trend," said the Center's Clarence Ditlow, "was if it closed its eyes."

Oops. There go those willfully blind eyes peering at a plain-sight spectacle again.

But, as retired NHTSA researcher and crash victim advocate Lou Lombardo observes, there has long been "a strange indifference to highway carnage" by the leaders of this country. Part of it is the revolving door phenomenon, in which government regulators and the industries they supposedly monitor become, in effect one and the same entity. And both safety regulators and the auto industry have long fought implementation of a national electronic crash notification system to better track and stop possible mechanical defects in the vehicles involved in crashes. Such a system could save hundreds, if not thousands of lives, says Lombardo. Such a system also assumes that the people in charge of safety are humane, and that car manufacturers are not letting their need for greed get in the way of the safety of their customers. It also assumes they aren't stupid, since dead and maimed drivers don't go shopping for new cars.

As Lombardo and former Dept. of Transportation official Ben Kelley write on the FairWarning blog:
 ... Car companies still are racing to add infotainment features to new models – some of them featuring video display screens on their instrument consoles – that are bound to further divert drivers’ eyes and attention from the road. The mounting safety risk from infotainment systems seems to be widely viewed as inevitable and beyond society’s ability to control. Meanwhile, Texas has adopted an 85 mph speed limit for a soon-to-open toll road, a move likely to be copied by other states, but that would be off the table if safety was a prime concern.
 Are you detecting a pattern yet? The protection of life and limb may no longer be much of a basic human right as guaranteed by the United States government. But your leaders will protect to the death your right to possess your precious electronic gizmos. It's the American, multi-tasking, need for speed, profits-over-people way.

The tolls of greed, the tolls of privatized toll road death-traps, the tolls of political visual impairment, the tolls of the fingers on the electronic gizmos instead of on the steering wheels. Clunk, clang, crash, ka-ching.


annenigma said...

Karen, I think I speak for everyone when I say that we're all thrilled that you have an even wider audience now that you're at Truthout. Congratulations! Onward and upward.

Can you somehow let us know when you have a piece running there? That would be much appreciated.

Keep up the great writing.

Will said...

Anne said it perfectly. So cool, Karen! Congrats. :)

Here's an animated audio clip from the mind-blowing 1999 film "Fight Club" where Ed Norton's character describes his responsibilities as a recall coordinator for a car company. Now granted, this is fiction, but I clearly remember thinking at the time this HAS to be the way these guys operate in real life. Sickening.

Karen Garcia said...

Thanks everyone. So far Truthout is cross-posting some of what I write here, but I also hope to do separate pieces for them. In that event, I will definitely link to them here on Sardonicky.

I want to thank Pearl for her role in all of this. She had sent some of my work to Henry Giroux, who then very kindly reached out to me and introduced me to the Truthout editors.

4Runner said...

Tales of Un-Tolled Wealth

According to the IRS, there is over $300 billion/yr in uncollected taxes. Knowing this, you might enjoy learning that a tiny smidgen of tax-dodging plutocrat perps do get nabbed. Some of those actually prosecuted were clients of UBS (Union Bank of Switzerland) and they are listed @ the IRS website under Offshore Tax Avoidance. Interestingly, the IRS pays whistleblowers, so be sure to tell 'em about your fat cat friends who fail to file.

Jay - Ottawa said...

Yes, Bravo! Karen.

There are a handful of notable sites that aggregate articles of a kind. Huffington, I suppose, is the big player in that field. But Huff repeatedly demonstrates it has no taste, no discrimination, no real fight in the fight for democracy. TruthOut has all that, and it’s where Karen’s stuff belongs.

At TruthOut, within the “Opinion” section, Karen’s columns now stand shoulder to shoulder beside those of other imports like Solnit, Goodman, Krugman (yeah well, TruthOut can’t be expected to have pitch perfect taste all the time), Hedges and Goodman, plus other writers I should get to know better.

The difference between TruthDig (see my previous teeth grinding comment) and TruthOut is the difference between the dark side of the moon and the noonday sun. In addition to following Karen’s columns under the “Opinion” section at TruthOut, you might also want to click over to their “Speakout” section with more articles with a hard-edge.

Can’t keep up? Spending all your days searching the web for good writing? TruthOut is that one-stop department store for lefties (and wobbly conservatives still searching for their souls). I was surprised to see there an article by one Ed Kinane, one of the best I knew from the Syracuse left.

And also to Pearl, Bravo! Say, Pearl, do you also have connections to Greenwald and Omidyar?

James F Traynor said...

Geez, I've never been in distinguished company before (except at an occasional dinner, wedding, etc. of the in-laws where I would be one of the unavoidable, though regrettable guests). Again, great news, Karen. And I don't feel to be avoidable (though sometimes perhaps a little regrettable) here.

Apropos of your post: I've just read an op-ed piece in the NYT, 'Work Like A German' by a Glenn Hutchins. The man simply doesn't understand the American psyche.For God's sake doesn't he know about the reasonable position of the VW Company's attempt to set up worker's councils in Tennessee and the vicious response to its sensible attempts? Obviously not, or he wouldn't have written such an naive piece.

Pearl said...


I agree with your evaluation of Truthout. I have found several excellent articles about Obamacare for example, which spell out in detail why it is such a poor excuse for delivering health care to people. As for my connection with Henry Giroux, it was a lucky incident and when I mentioned
Sardonicky to him and described the work Karen has done, he must have immediately recognized her worth and asked me for her e-mail address and sent her gratis a number of his books. He also gave her permission to include any excerpts from his writings in her columns and comments. He is
not only a brilliant writer but a kind and generous man. I also should give credit to my husband who inadvertently allowed me to contact Henry Giroux, as I would not have had the courage to write to him without the excuse of
mentioning my husband's connection to McMaster. I have a friend who always tells me ' there are no coincidences' (but then she also believes in karma and past lives)!

James F Traynor said...

Pearl, you're a gem.

Pearl said...

Jay@ I would like to add that I had read an article by Henry Giroux whom I had never heard of, "Why Don't Americans
Care about Democracy at Home"
which I believe you had put into your comment in Sardonicky about October 2012 which started my correspondence with him. If so you deserve credit for getting it all started.

Jay - Ottawa said...

@ Pearl

2012? I can't remember that far back. If so, you've already paid (me/us?) back many times over since then.