Just who capitalizes on 21st century capitalism?

My brother and I talked today about his employer refusing to deal honestly with him about his retirement benefits, after a 30-year career with 2 corporations now merged into one company. We agreed that big corporations all too often take advantage of their employees. 

Ken Lewis, former CEO of Bank of America where I once worked, is being sued by shareholders for misleading them about the size of Merrill Lynch losses prior to the 2008 shareholder meeting to approve B of A’s ill-fated acquisition of Merrill.

If corporate management tramples employee and shareholder interests, just who do they serve? Their customers?

Earlier this week, I called Duke Energy to add electrical service at a new address. Because I was going to have 2 accounts for a couple of weeks, my call did not fit the pattern that the automated phone service is programmed to handle.  I had to go through numerous automated menus before I was able to get a real person on the line to help me. At the end of our conversation I was transferred to someone else to “verify the transaction.” Prior to “verifying the transaction,” he insisted on trying to sell me something I did not want or need. I couldn’t get a real person to help me with what I did need, and I could not get rid of the person selling me something I did not need.

I think that many big corporations are clearly not focused on serving their customers.

In the 1980s when I worked for the bank, customer service Quality Assurance was just coming into vogue, and management gave QA the required lip service. But lip service was all it was, because then as now, top corporate managers primary focus is serving themselves.

Since participating in the May 9 Make BofAPay protest in Charlotte, I receive emails from protest organizers. Today a group called Jobs With Justice sent me an email with this content:

A Powerful Spring for the 99% – What do you think?

Submitted by Jonathan Williams on June 7, 2012

This Spring has been unprecedented.    Occupy organizers                     

In April, we launched the 99% Spring, a nationwide effort to train 100,000 people in organizing and direct action. Hundreds of people were trained, and within weeks they were hosting their own trainings for thousands of others.

99% Power turned that training into action. In a wave of protests confronting the worst corporate abusers, we’ve faced off with Wellpoint, Walmart, Sallie Mae, Verizon, Bank of America, and more.

And we weren’t alone. This shareholder season saw a record number of resolutions introduced by the shareholders themselves to cut CEO pay and to disclose lobbying expenditures. Shareholders of Citigroup, one of the largest banks in the U.S., successfully voted to reject a fat CEO compensation package. Meanwhile, dozens of companies have dropped ALEC, the shady organization responsible for creating model legislation such as the Stand Your Ground law that has received national attention in the Trayvon Martin shooting.

More importantly, we’ve begun to name names. We have begun to name the individuals responsible for destroying our economy and widening the gap between the 1% and the rest of us. Many executives were shocked to find their names and faces on signs lining the streets outside of their shareholder meetings.

Workers at CJs Seafood, a Walmart supplier, shuck crawfish

Now, we’re continuing the fight from every angle.

This week, guest workers at CJ’s Seafood, a supplier to Walmart, went on strike. The workers, who were hired under the federal H-2B temporary worker program, even went to the police to complain of forced labor and being physically threatened for not working fast enough. When manager Michael Leblanc found out, he threatened violence against the workers and their families in Mexico. Terrified, the workers courageously went on strike and filed a U.S. Department of Labor complaint against the company. You can learn more about the CJ’s Seafood guest workers on our blog.

Yesterday, Walmart opened an investigation–acknowledging that something has gone very wrong in their supply chain. While the nature and timeline of the investigation are still unclear, their acknowledgement of potential wrongdoing is a significant step forward in our campaign to change Walmart.

Our online petition, shareholder actions, and direct worker organizing have forced Walmart to acknowledge abuses in their business practices. Now, we must take the struggle forward. It will take a massive movement along every point of the Walmart supply chain to change the largest retailer in the world, but winning will change more than just Walmart, it will transform our economy.

The Old Testament, written long ago, tells the archetypal story of David and Goliath, the little guy against the giant. Google it if you don’t know who won.

Wake up America!

May 24, 2012

Expect chaos when the political process breaks down

ku klux klan 2012

Today, Occupy organizers sent me a very disturbing link to information about an upcoming Ku Klux Klan rally in North Carolina, my home state. The group is planning a cross-burning on May 26 in Harmony, North Carolina. Can you believe the irony of such a hate-filled event in a place with a name like that?

Because my international readers may not be familiar with the Ku Klux Klan, here’s what Wikipedia has to say about this group and its history:

Ku Klux Klan, often abbreviated KKK and informally known as the Klan, is the name of three distinct past and present far-right organizations in the United States, which have advocated extremist reactionary currents such as white supremacywhite nationalism, and anti-immigration, historically expressed through terrorism. Since the mid-20th century, the KKK has also been anti-communist. … (I)t is classified as a hate group…estimated to have between 3,000 and 5,000 members as of 2012.

The first Klan flourished in Southern United States in the late 1860s, then died out by the early 1870s. Members adopted white costumes: robes, masks, and conical hats, designed to be outlandish and terrifying, and to hide their identities. The second KKK flourished nationwide in the early and mid 1920s, and adopted the same costumes and code words as the first Klan, while introducing cross burnings. The third KKK emerged after World War II and was associated with opposing the Civil Rights Movement and progress among minorities. The first and third incarnations of the Klan have well-established records of engaging in terrorism and political violence…

Here’s what the Occupy organizer’s email had to say about this event:

We need to take this very seriously especially in light of the international, unprecedented capitalist crisis that has caused mass unemployment. Fascism started to rear its head a few years ago with Tea Party, fortunately there was a Left response from the Occupy Wall Street movement that helped shut down most that energy, or atleast the mainstream media’s obsession with it. These fascists are very dangerous, so we should also keep this in mind we decide to mobilize to counter protest. Our best self-defense is with a mass crowd and counter-rally. Comrades in FIST are beginning to mobilize for this rally on Saturday, anyone else down?

Here’s what I have to say about it:

This is very, very scary. We are living in dangerous times, and people need to be aware of what is going on. Our country is upside down and people are becoming desperate. Now that I am out of the rich enclave where I lived for many years, I meet people literally every day who are in very dire straits. Wake up, America! There is trouble ahead. The way of life that has evolved since WWII is about to blow up.  In America, when the political process is in gridlock as it is now, direct political action by grass-roots organizations is inevitable. Turn to the pages of American history written by the the 1960s protest movements to learn about just one of many episodes of such grassroots action in our past.

I turned to those pages myself today, and I was surprised by what I learned. Both protestors and police in Charlotte viewed the May 9 protest as a practice round for the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte this September. When I learned this, I recalled  vivid images from the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago that I watched on black-and-white TV as a 14-year-old. I remember watching police clubbing protestors’ heads as clearly as I remember where I was when President Kennedy was shot. Both events were major shocks to the American political system.

In Charlotte I learned that protestors provoke police to get media attention. The 1968 police violence in Chicago demonstrates that this is a very dangerous game.

Occupy Bank of America Charlotte

Police arrest protestor at May 9, 2012 Occupy Bank of America Protestthat this is a very dangerous game.

But here’s what surprised me. I thought that the anti-war protestors were successful, and ultimately they were. But an outstanding, balanced 4-part You-Tube video about the ’68 Chicago convention reminded me that the violence the protestors evoked from the police backfired big-time. In the 1968 election, Republican Richard Nixon defeated the Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey, whose campaign was associated with the chaotic images televised the night he won his party’s nomination. The Vietnam War that activists were protesting went on for another 7 years.

The ’68 Democratic Convention now appears to me to be the event that pushed the political pendulum in the opposite direction, beginning the long swing toward ever more extreme conservatism that has brought us to where we are today.

I also made an interesting observation when I looked at a summary of political party control of the presidency and Congress since the early twentieth century. Prior to the financial system meltdowns of the Great Depression in the 1920s and the Great Recession starting in 2008, political control of both the presidency and Congress was held by the Republican party. This is fact, not opinion. It is my opinion that unchecked political power controlled by wealthy conservatives protecting their personal financial interests was a significant contributing factor to both financial meltdowns.

Yes, a Ku Klux Klan rally in a place called Harmony is ironic all right. But I learned long ago that God lives in irony and paradox, where opposites interact in attention-getting ways. God, the Spirit, Divinity by whatever name you want to call “It” is the Invisible Hand pushing the pendulum back and forth. At least, that’s what I think. And I do think. Not everybody does. Some people just act and react without thinking. That leads to trouble.

Protest Bank of AmericaReclaiming my idealism in the streets of Charlotte, NC

I’ve been getting a lot of criticism lately for being angry. I realize my anger makes other people uncomfortable. But anger is part of human nature for a reason. Anger is a motivator. When our souls are on fire, we are moved to take action. Anger gets us off our butts watching people on TV do things and causes us to take action ourselves.

Just in case you’ve been wondering, the Occupiers didn’t go away. Like sensible creatures, they holed up for the winter, planning their next move. Their planning has offered me a good outlet for some of my anger–Occupy Wall Street South, a march against Bank of America on Wednesday, May 8, in Charlotte, NC, where I lived for 30 years until July 2011.

I worked for nine years for NCNB, a Bank of America predecessor bank. I had been educated in business, a BA in economics from Duke and an MBA from UNC Chapel Hill. I call those nine years with NCNB “The Period of My Disillusionment.”

I still remember the day in 1981 when the bosses came around and “suggested” I contribute to the NCNB-PAC. I had just finished business school. There, students had presented papers in my “Business and Society” class, the class that was supposed to cover ethics. For some reason, many of these presentations had been about PACs (Political Action Committees). Student presentations are boring so I hadn’t paid any attention. But ever since the Enron scandal I have thought that we should have spent more time in that class talking about ethics. Filling class time with student presentations was a cop-out for that professor, a foreshadowing of the ethical cop-outs MBAs subsequently helped to unleash on a gullible world that had entrusted them with our collective assets.

I am proud to say I had the courage to decline the arm-twisting to contribute to the NCNB-PAC, a bold move for a new employee.  Later I did contribute, when I understood that inter-state banking legislation was needed so that U.S. banks could get large enough to compete in increasingly global markets. I contributed  because I understood the issue, not because of corporate pressure.

In my bank job I managed the budget process for the operations subsidiary, figuring out how to quantify and track cost savings from our mergers with out-of-state banks. This was important stuff, so I worked up close and personal with senior executives and got to see how these people think. Their behavior, what they thought and cared about, is what disillusioned me. These men–and they were all men at the time–cared far more about ego and self-promotion than they did about the business of banking.

People say women are emotional and catty. These men were consummate back-stabbers, slammed doors on the executive floor, pouted and sulked, and were never happier than when they got big fat raises to spend on luxury cars and extravagant houses. Some did their jobs well, some didn’t. If you were a corporate executive, it meant you had played the corporate game well and picked the right coattails to ride on.

My observations are not sour grapes. I didn’t get fired, I quit my bank job in 1990 to focus on raising my children.  So the behavior I witnessed was way back in the 80s, when Ronald Reagan had made greed and excess acceptable again after the idealism of the 60s and 70s. Greed and excess became increasingly out of control until the 2008 financial crisis, which wiped out the financial security of hard-working people all around the world.

I don’t think Americans really understand the pain that our culture of greed has exported to the rest of the world. The recession is deepening in the Eurozone, where unemployment has risen again to almost 10%. In France recently, I was surprised by candidate posters in a primary election railing against the havoc wreaked by Wall Street and demanding retribution. In hard-hit Spain, citizens try to cope with a drink called the Anti-Crisis sold at bars for an affordable single euro.

It makes me angry that the unethical, self-motivated executives and their political accomplices who got us into this mess continue to live lavishly, while ordinary people who trusted these leaders suffer.

I am grateful to the organizers who are giving me a chance to participate in this protest in Charlotte. I did not participate in the protests in the 70s because I knew I did not fully understand the issues. I have always tried to think for myself. Most people don’t. Most people look to others to lead, and they follow.

Our corporate and political leaders led the world into disaster and I am not ashamed to be angry about it. After living in Charlotte for 30 years, I know a lot of people there, and my actions will make a lot of them uncomfortable. But you know, a lot of people all over the world are damned uncomfortable right now.

I am glad to be taking my anger to the streets of the town that trashed my idealism. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

This blog post is excerpted from the column “Otherwise Occupied: What Price Revolution” by Hal Crowther in the November 30, 2011 issue of The Independent, a weekly newspaper in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Triangle area of North Carolina. Crowther is singing off my hymn sheet, so I happily hand him the microphone:

Every time a citizen with good intentions provokes a police-state reaction from the local authorities, the angels smile and society moves one millimeter closer to salvation… in liberal, affable Chapel Hill,, a reporter with a camera recorded steroidal officers in full SWAT-team battle gear, pistols and assault rifles at the ready, charging an unarmed encampment of self-described anarchists who had “liberated” a vacant building. A few seconds later the reporter was arrested, handcuffed and forced to lie facedown on the pavement with the unfortunate anarchists, who had neither resisted nor threatened any crime greater than trespassing. Amazed bystanders chanted “Shame! Shame!”

Shame, indeed. Attempts by the police chief and the mayor to defend this preposterous cinematic overkill only added to the embarrassment. They claim that the assault rifles were not aimed at the protesters, but the photograph is there for everyone to see that they’re lying.

…The liberators of the derelict auto dealership in Chapel Hill were acting independently of the local “Occupy” encampment… But the Occupiers, whose critique of America emphasizes its mindless materialism, are no doubt delighted to point out what a sleepy Southern town full of Ph.D.s will do to protect abandoned property. …

Idiot force has been deployed against Occupy at dozens of its tent cities, although assault rifles have yet to appear anywhere other than Chapel Hill. Every image of belligerent overreaction to a nonviolent protest—diligently videotaped, instantly online—is a victory for this promising experiment in civil disobedience, which in the digital age commands an audience inconceivable to Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr.

But those great martyrs of nonviolence, who succeeded in spite of the violence they failed to survive, laid down the rules of this game. It’s about self-control: You conquer by conquering yourself. Your enemy is exposed, isolated and in the end defeated by his brutality and lack of restraint.

… You make a stern, life-altering commitment when you take your grievances to the street…It’s cold, dangerous and not always rewarding…My generation, the one that marched against segregation and the war in Vietnam, can point to major achievements and major disappointments. On our worst days we feel that we, as a generation, are a major disappointment. …how did the egalitarian dreams of the ’60s decay into the grim corporate feudalism that Occupy Wall Street so quixotically confronts? At what point, exactly, was it clear that greed had trumped altruism and cash had devoured representative democracy?

If this is a revolution we’re watching, perhaps it’s not so much class warfare as generational warfare. The most deluded members of my generation join the mock-revolution they call the tea party, funded by fascist billionaires, scripted by the usual talk-radio gargoyles and apparently so stunted by the brain plaque of advancing age that it imagines the government is its archenemy, to the great amusement of the corporate leviathans who operate that government like a hand puppet.

This cruel farce draws most of its recruits from my own demographic group, and I’m ashamed. Who knows why expired testosterone leads to big guns, silly hats and prayer breakfasts? …The truth, in spite of all the graybeards who keep running for president, is that our time is over…

It’s up to them now, the green, clean, unexpected revolutionaries one Manhattan office worker called “those terrific kids in the park.” It’s up to you, whoever you are, and encouraging polls indicate that most Americans don’t buy the predictable smears from the right-wing coven, the ones that dismiss you as spoiled children of privilege who would rather demonstrate than work. …

My sympathies are obvious. What you in the tents can accomplish remains to be seen. But what I think I see, through the media fog of polarized America, is the return of the full-fledged idealists …who seemed to go underground around 1980, possibly because the mass media abandoned them during the mudslide of self-celebration that began with Reaganism and culminated in Facebook.

I say God bless them, and God will if he still has any investment in the United States of America. … The good news is that “the kids” are right on target. Their diagnosis is bull’s-eye correct, and the patient is critical. For this country to survive, it must find saner ways to pursue and multiply wealth, and find them quickly. The cannibal capitalism that produced a Goldman Sachs and a Bernie Madoff is subhuman and obscene. …

…. The Industrial Revolution fueled the metamorphosis of capitalism into a ravenous monster that devoured resources, landscapes and human beings on a scale no wars or natural disasters had ever approached. The wealth generated by this devastation created colossal corporations and financial operations far more powerful than elected governments; long ago the individuals who controlled these giants learned that it was cost-effective to buy up the politicians and turn governments into virtual subsidiaries. …

Investment banks and hedge funds were designed as perfect engines for multiplying the assets of the affluent. The Wall Street elite of the 20th century—Masters of the Universe, Tom Wolfe called them—flew so far above the laws of the land that they began to imagine themselves exempt from all laws, including economics, physics and averages. This magical thinking came to a head with a wave of death-defying speculation in mortgage-backed securities, and quite suddenly, in 2008, the walls came tumbling down, exposing a phantom economy based on nothing but arrogance and sleight of hand.

… Instead of a stable economy and an affluent society we confronted a hemorrhaging scandal, a crime accurately portrayed as the looting of America. We woke up from our consumer coma to discover that the bastards had stolen everything. You’ve seen the numbers: The wealthiest 1 percent of Americans, the super-rich targeted by OWS, emerged from this shattered, looted economy with a net worth greater than the “bottom” 90 percent.

In the past 30 years they’ve nearly tripled their after-tax income—275 percent—while the poorest fifth gained a virtually stagnant 18 percent. Economist Paul Krugman emphasizes that it’s the one-tenth of 1 percent, the fabulously rich one-thousandth, who account for a lion’s share of the 1 percent’s gains. These high lords of lucre have increased their income 400 percent since 1979.

Meanwhile,…a full one-third,100 million—live in poverty or what The New York Times calls “the fretful zone just above it.” One in 15, the largest percentage since the Great Depression, falls 50 percent below the poverty line, with an annual individual income of less than $6,000…Meanwhile, …Wall Street banks on taxpayer life support continued to pay out billions in bonuses, monstrously inflated CEO salaries showed no signs of shrinking and the Republican Party campaigned for more of the bloody same, and a stronger dose of it: no taxes, no regulations, no unions…

A slate of demands from Occupy Chicago struck me as savvy and dead-on: repeal tax cuts and close loopholes for the rich, prosecute the Wall Street felons of 2008, separate commercial lending from investment banking, rein in lobbyists, eliminate corporate personhood and overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision of 2010.

This last demand is perhaps the most critical. The decision that defined campaign contributions as free speech, delivered by the court’s 5-4 Republican majority, removed the last legal obstacles to a wallet-based political system that leaves the 1 percent, or one-hundredth of 1 percent, in unchallenged control of our fortunes and our public lives. It opened the floodgates for a multibillion-dollar campaign to defeat President Obama, and any candidates who might resist corporate feudalism, in 2012.

In the words of the late Molly Ivins, “We either get the money out of politics or we lose the democracy.”

There’s a grave possibility that it has already been lost. But those “terrific kids” in the tents… seem to be the only Americans who are dead sure what’s at stake. “I want us to be the country’s moral touchstone, its unofficial conscience…” said one rebel named Katie…

(Katie) and her friends may be the last, best hope, if hope there is. Join them if you’re young and tough enough, send them money if you can still afford it, but for God’s sake listen to them. Their voices represent either America waking up at last, or its final, futile protests about to be smothered by dumb money and dumb force. Will you sit on the sidelines and watch?

Finally. The people are speaking out about corruption and abuse of power.  The “Occupy” movement is here.

To learn more about Occupy and to see how technology is facilitating this movement, check out the Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Together web sites.

In my “Time for a paradigm shift” post, I commented that individuals “must find a way to act that will change the course of our nation.” I hope that the Occupy movement is the beginning of that change.

To people who remember the protest movements of the ’60s and ’70s, Occupy may look familiar. A columnist in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Daily Tar Heel believes that is a misperception:

These “occupiers” are making a fundamentally different and more profound statement than has popularly been reported.

It is direct democracy. It is a new vision of change. It is community values in action.

It is also no wonder the media has had a hard time making sense of it. The “occupation” isn’t what we’re used to seeing. It doesn’t lend itself to the familiar narrative arc of a protest: “You meet these demands, and then we’ll go home.” Instead the occupiers are protesting our economic system by offering a direct alternative, by actively living out values of trust and representation and interdependence — values that the surrounding financial institutions obscure and repress.

Tea Partiers should take heart and journalists who don’t get what is going on should take note. The movement is not necessarily asking government to step in to solve all our problems. The corruption of government by monied interest groups is well understood to be part of the problem.

Instead, the movement is about “actively living out” what young people see as “new” values, and what older people should recognize is a return to individual responsibility, compromise, and consensus-building. The movement is promoting cultural change by acting it out in their people’s assemblies. Younger activists may not realize that the culture of greed and self-indulgence that became acceptable in the ’80s is very different from American mores of the preceding five decades.

Rapid technological change, government corruption, and consumer economy ethics are world-wide phenomena that have led to the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a tiny elite. So the Occupy movement is part of a global movement that includes the Arab Spring and activism across Europe earlier this year.  American young people (are) collaborating with young people around the world to invent a future that embraces a common good.” 

Just when mainstream American politics seems to many to have reached new depths, the pendulum of history has begun its inevitable swing back from right-wing extremism. But the arc of history is more than the simple back-and-forth movement of a pendulum. The shape of history’s movement is a spiral, ever pushing its way upward toward a higher plane of consciousness.

The spiral is repeatedly expressed both in nature and in the religious symbolism of many cultures from ancient to present times. To understand history’s spiral-shaped trajectory is to glimpse the divine. To trust that the unseen future will be better than the past is to have faith.


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