Truthdig Radio: Meltdown in Our Casino Economy
Truthdig Radio airs every Wednesday at 2 p.m. in Los Angeles on 90.7 KPFK. If you can’t listen live, starting on Wednesday nights look for the podcast and transcript of each week’s show right here on Truthdig.
In this week’s episode, Marcia Dawkins talks multiracial politics; Avi Chomsky covers the immigration debate; Timothy Canova discusses the economic meltdown in our casino economy; Howie Stier investigates the Green Jello House in Hollywood; and Matthew Specktor introduces the newly launched Los Angeles Review of Books.
Click to listen to the show, or continue reading the full transcript below.
[On Truthdig Radio this week: Avi Chomsky on the immigration debate;] Chapman University law professor Timothy Canova on the economic meltdown in our casino economy; Howie Stier on a holdout of bohemian life in Hollywood; and author and senior editor of the newly launched L.A. Review of Books, Matthew Specktor, discussing book reviews in the 21st century. But first, let’s cut to Dr. Marcia Dawkins on a particular article she found online this week that she wanted to discuss with us.
Kasia Anderson: Good afternoon. Dr. Dawkins, I presume?
Marcia Dawkins: Hi, Kasia.
Kasia Anderson: So, I have, I’ve taken a close look at this article, and, you know, I know you’re a fairly practical person, and you don’t react to just everything that crosses your path in the way of racial politics. So what was it about this particular piece that got you going?
Marcia Dawkins: Well, this particular piece—I should say, we’re talking about an article I found on CNN.com yesterday that was talking about a multiracial family and how they came together and found their way apart, in some instances, over time. I mean, I saw it … in one way, on first reading it, it was … it was a great article. But then when I sat back and thought about it, I realized what was being said might not be so great at all, and so I thought it might be worth talking about.
Kasia Anderson: So they’re talking about a couple different generations of a multiracial family. Where did you start seeing the problem in the way that this was being covered and reported about?
Marcia Dawkins: Well, I started—well, I should say, the first thing that did stand out to me was a very good thing, in terms of saying that multiracial identities have been here for a long time. And that’s one of the things that I talk about in my book “Things Said in Passing.” But I think one of the things that the article doesn’t do well, and where it started going wrong, was when it got to today’s generation, because it showed a couple of things: one, that today’s generation, while it may be calling itself multiracial, which is different than what the older generations have done, isn’t necessarily thinking about race and racism any differently than older generations have done. And so what the article, I think, is trying to show us is that a shift is happening that really isn’t quite accurate yet.
Kasia AndersonAnd, so, is this something that might be considered like a myth of the post-racial America?
Marcia Dawkins: Absolutely. And this you can see across a range of media outlets. So you’ve got Allure magazine talking about how multiracials are, you know, the sign of the … the post-racial future is here, and it’s beautiful, too; you’ve got Time magazine telling us that multiracial people are more psychologically well-adjusted than monoracials; you’ve got The New York Times and L.A. Times filled with Op-Eds telling us how, naturally, multiracial people are the end of racism. I call it, they have the “biological booster shot,” I guess, as a result of being parts of these families. And this discourse is sounding wonderful, but not really helpful in terms of everyday structural inequalities and problems that people are facing in their lives.
Kasia Anderson: And the article mentions the family in question as a “rainbow family.” Can you talk a little bit about the types of language that’s used to describe multiracial families, and how some of that might suggest what you’re getting at here in terms of a post-racial fallacy?
Marcia Dawkins: Absolutely. I mean, so we have these words like beauty, happiness, well-adjustment, rainbow to give us this feeling that, you know, we’ve just kind of entered the Wizard of Oz and that everything is wonderful. But unfortunately when we pull back that curtain, what we find are really a host of conflicts that I think are, some of them are hinted at in that article. For instance, how multiracial marriages have a higher divorce rate than marriages that are not among interracial partners, and how particular interracial pairings get together more or less than others. So the census reveals that Asian-American women and white men get together the most in terms of marriage and sustainable families, but African-Americans and white Americans get together and stay together the least. So there really is not as much racial healing and “rainbow” sentiment as we might like to think.
Kasia Anderson: Well, just to push you a little bit on that, what’s really at stake here? I mean, why does it matter for you when you read an article like this and you think, OK, great, this is not really getting at a reality and it’s glossing over certain things. I mean, what … why does that matter to someone in the real world, off, you know, offline from looking on the Internet?
Marcia Dawkins: Absolutely, thank you for asking that question. I think this matters because I think we have the right feeling, this desire to want to have racial progress and to overcome what has been a painful history in many respects. But what this desire masks are continuing structural inequalities. And I think, again, it overstates the acceptance of mixed-race unions. So what we see is that less than 3 percent of our society is being used to tell us that we’ve achieved something that the numbers really don’t support. And as long as we think that things are better, we won’t take time to dig deeper beneath appearances, these rainbows, and look at things like unemployment, crime, health, welfare, education, that all lend to racial progress.
Kasia Anderson: And, yeah, I’m looking at the name of the article on CNN, and it’s “Neither Black nor White.” So that kind of suggests an in-between space. Ah, does that suggest to you that it’s sort of, it’s OK to be kind of dropped in between these categories, and they’re making it work somehow, or how does that come across to you?
Marcia Dawkins: Well, it comes across to me as beige. I like to call it beige [Laughter], neither black nor white but beige, first of all. And I think the great thing about being beige is that, yes, it is calling for a differentiation. But I think the bad thing about falling for beige is that it’s taking us from a way of thinking about race that is certainly limiting, in terms of black and white, but not really changing it, right? It’s just adding a third category that increases the distance, then, between black and white. So we’re not really making any change; we’re just further stratifying things, and I think that should be important to everybody today.
Kasia Anderson: Well, as someone who’s got an eye on culture and also on the media, and as a rhetoric specialist, what would you say would be a more accurate or maybe responsible way to characterize these families and the sort of racial reality that’s going on right now, in terms of how it’s portrayed in the media?
Marcia Dawkins: Well, I think that one of the things we need to do is just report things accurately. So while we can say that certainly there are success stories, and there might be plenty of them, that that’s only part of the story. And so I think telling the whole story, talking about multiracial identities that aren’t quite as rainbow and delicious—like the case of Leo Felton, who I talk about in my book, who is a multiracial person who became a white supremacist and domestic terrorist. And he was very angry about, and confused about, being multiracial. And he’s not the only one. This goes back to World War II, at least in our country, when you think about this. So as long as we can tell the whole story—as long as the rainbow was one part of the story that got equal play to the Leo Feltons of the world—then I think we would be just more truthful and accurate about where we are today.
Kasia Anderson: And do you think—this might be speculative, of course—but do you think some of this, maybe, oversights about certain aspects of multiracial identity on the media’s part might have to do with kind of the New York/L.A. phenomenon, not really—media types not necessarily always having a real read on what’s going on in other pats of the country, and [the] reality of life on the ground there?
Marcia Dawkins: Absolutely. And I think a lack of real reality, being a New Yorker and an L.A. person myself, I think we like to think of those places as less segregated than they really are. But as a result of the census, we see that New York is the No. 2 most segregated city, and L.A. is No. 10. So it’s not even existing happily even in those places. And then we’re reporting about the South—for instance, Mississippi, which had a reputation for being one of our most racist and difficult states, as having this humongous 32 percent surge in multiracial identities—excuse me, it was actually a 62 percent surge—which really brings that population up to 1 percent of Mississippi’s overall population. So it’s about, again, telling the whole story, and not just telling a part of it because we have this understandable desire to have racial progress without really doing the work of racial reconciliation.
Kasia Anderson: And—this is kind of a huge question to try to end with, but considering your book is about passing—it’s called “Things Said in Passing”—“passing” is something that we usually, or at least I usually think of in terms of, like, an antiquated term in a way. I know that it still goes on, of course, and it still is a day-to-day reality for a lot of people, but the term itself—you think of, you know, narratives from the ’50s, and biracial movie stars, or something. What do you think of the term passing in a 21st century context?
Marcia Dawkins: I think of a lot of things. One of the main things I talk about in my book is to think about it in terms of, for instance, identity theft. So we could have mobile technologies, for instance—The Wall Street Journal just covered this at the end of 2010; mobile technologies, like Angry Birds and certain applications for Facebook and MySpace—passing as entertainment in order to gather information about our identities. We could have this conversation in terms of immigration and policies that are going on in that respect. We could talk about WikiLeaks. So, you know, it’s gone from just this individual phenomenon of keeping a secret—whether it’s about race, gender, nationality, sexuality, religion—to becoming this real societal phenomenon that’s happening on a host of levels, that I think is being less talked about. So for the 21st century, passing is in many respects more sophisticated and more technological.
Kasia Anderson: Well, I’ll look forward to reading more about it. When is the book coming out?
Marcia Dawkins: Thanks. It will be out by the end of this year.
Kasia Anderson: OK. Well, thank you so much. This is Dr. Marcia Dawkins, author of “Things Said in Passing,” talking with me, Kasia Anderson, the associate editor at Truthdig. Thanks for your time, Dr. Dawkins.
Marcia Dawkins: Thanks so much for having me. It’s a pleasure, as always.
Kasia Anderson: And Truthdig Radio will be right back.
* * *Peter Scheer:
Welcome back to Truthdig Radio. I’m Peter Scheer with Josh Scheer. We’re speaking with Avi Chomsky, a professor and the coordinator of Latin American studies at Salem State College in Massachusetts, and the author of “They Take Our Jobs,” amongst other books. Thanks for joining us.
Avi Chomsky: It’s great to be here. Thanks for inviting me.
Peter Scheer: So, we’ve kind of been on a roller coaster with the immigration debate. It swells, it wanes—if I can mix clichés there. [Laughter] But, you know, we have a lot of heat around the issue. But for the people that it affects most directly, this is a constant issue, and they’re sort of the victims of the political calendar, aren’t they?
Avi Chomsky: Mm-hmm.
Peter Scheer: Where do we stand now? Avi Chomsky: I mean, I think the debate is going on at the national level and it’s also going on at the state level. At the state level, we’re seeing a number of initiatives around the country that are really, really noxious for immigrants. In Massachusetts, where I live, the governor just announced that he’s—well, he announced in December that he was planning to sign the state on to the Secure Communities Law, which is a program started by the federal government that requires local police to share information on everyone who is arrested with ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement], and to hold people until ICE can determine whether that person is legally in the country and whether they want to deport them. The program, in the places where it has been used—including the state of Boston, where it has been in effect secretly for a number of years—has been shown to overwhelmingly be deporting people who are arrested on minor violations like traffic violations. So the main purpose of it is so that the federal government can show better figures, that they’re deporting a lot of people. The very existence of the program, I think, plays into anti-immigrant sentiment, fans anti-immigrant flames, and does a lot of harm to a lot of people who have either committed extremely minor or no violations. Other states are taking even more Draconian anti-immigrant measures. So I feel like a lot of sort of populist politicians are playing on right-wing anti-immigrant sentiment and using it to put anti-immigrant legislation into place.
Josh Scheer: The most important question is, what happened to America? Because this was, this is the land of the immigrant, right? I mean, my grandmother—Peter’s grandmother, we’re the same blood—was never a citizen. …
Peter Scheer: All of our grandparents …
Josh Scheer: Except one. Well, one was a citizen, I think the rest were not. I mean, and they were treated badly, but then they got their chance, right? I mean, why aren’t we allowing that for some immigrants? And why do we have softer policies, it seems, on immigrants from other countries, but not so on, say, Latin America, especially with Mexico?
Avi Chomsky: I’m always really interested in the phrase that we’re a country of immigrants, because I think when most people say that, they’re thinking about European immigrants. Because, of course, African-Americans are also the descendants of people who at some point were not born here, but in Africa, but the slave trade is not usually what people have in mind when they say “immigration.” Many people in the United States came to be in the United States not through immigration, but through U.S. expansion and conquest—Native Americans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans; they were incorporated involuntarily into the United States, rather than being immigrants, per se. So in some ways, I feel like when we say we’re a country of immigrants, people have a certain kind of image of what they think immigration was in the past, that excludes parts of the population of the United States, and I think it’s really important for us to rethink that history a little bit. Another important point about this … you know, my grandparents were immigrants too. At the time that my grandparents came, and I’m guessing at the time that your grandparents came, they came from Europe and there were no restrictions on European immigration. That is, all immigrants were legal immigrants because immigration was legal for Europeans. That is, our immigration law has always favored white people. So we’re a country of immigrants, but we’re also a nation by design; that is, a country that has explicitly included and excluded primarily based on race.
Peter Scheer: Let me just ask you, because we’re in tax season now, and your book is called “ ‘They Take Our Jobs!’: and 20 Other Myths About Immigration,” and one of those is that immigrants don’t pay taxes. This is one that drives me nuts all the time. Can you please just dispel us of that myth?
Avi Chomsky: Yeah, I can say a few things about that “immigrants don’t pay taxes” myth. I hate to even say those words, because it seems like reinforcing it. So, some immigrants have legal permission to work in the country; some immigrants don’t have legal permission to work in the country. Some immigrants work in what we call the formal economy, and some immigrants work in the informal economy, just as some citizens work in the formal and some in the informal economy. By “the formal economy,” we mean jobs where, essentially jobs where you receive a paycheck. And when you receive a paycheck, taxes are deducted from that paycheck. State and federal income taxes are deducted from your paycheck, unemployment insurance, Social Security, workers’ compensation, all these taxes are deducted from your paycheck. Anybody who works in the formal economy is going to have those taxes deducted from their paychecks—whether they are immigrants or citizens, whether they have legal permission to work in the U.S., or whether they don’t have legal permission to work in the U.S.
Many people who don’t have legal permission to work in the U.S. do work in the formal economy. And they do so by providing a false Social Security number. When they provide a false Social Security number, they get their paycheck—all the taxes are deducted from their paycheck. But when the money gets turned over to the federal government, the discrepancy is noted between their name and their Social Security number. So that the Social Security tax they pay, for example, instead of being credited to their name, is separated and given over to what’s called the General Fund. The New York Times estimated last year that undocumented immigrants working in the formal economy, having Social Security deducted from their taxes, paid $7 billion a year into Social Security. That is that basically, immigrants are not only paying taxes, they’re subsidizing things like Social Security because they’re paying in and not able to take out.
People who work in the informal economy often don’t pay taxes. These are people who work under the table, who get paid in cash rather than in paychecks, who work in things like—nannies, maids, snow shovelers, people who work on a contingent basis. Some of those people do pay taxes; not all of them pay taxes. The employers often don’t pay taxes either; that is, when there’s no taxes being paid, it’s both the employer and the employee who are not paying taxes. Sometimes—this is very small scale—you know, you pay someone to baby-sit for a couple of hours; neither of you declares, you don’t declare that you’re an employer, they don’t declare that they’re an employee; you know, $20 changes hands and it’s not taxed. Sometimes it’s larger scale.
The people who work in the informal economy may not pay taxes—and their employers also don’t pay taxes—but they also don’t have the guarantees and benefits that people who work in the formal economy have. That is, if you work in the informal economy, there’s no minimum wage laws applied to you; there’s no maximum hours; there’s no overtime; there’s no workers compensation if you’re injured on the job; there’s no unemployment insurance if you lose the job. That is, people who work in the informal economy are working generally in very marginal sorts of positions. They work in the informal economy because they can’t work in the formal economy, and although they don’t have their payroll taxes deducted, they also don’t receive the benefits that those of us who work in the formal economy get.
In addition to payroll taxes, immigrants—documented, undocumented—just like citizens, pay taxes every single day. That is, every single economic transaction that we engage in is taxed. If you rent an apartment, you’re paying property taxes through your rent; if you own a vehicle, you’re paying taxes; if you ever purchase anything, you’re paying taxes. That is, people are paying taxes. There’s no person in the United States who is not paying some kind of taxes. The people who work in the informal economy, whether a citizen or immigrant, are not paying payroll taxes.
Josh Scheer: I want to jump in here, because I would be remiss if we didn’t discuss this, because Arizona’s anti-immigrant law—we just had the news about the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals kind of rejected it—but now Georgia seems to be set to enact their copycat anti-immigrant bill. And I was wondering if you could talk about that for a second.
Avi Chomsky: Yeah. This is what I was mentioning earlier in terms of states taking it upon themselves, or right-wing politicians taking it upon themselves, to try to pass legislation at the state level. Most of the support for this kind of legislation is based on a real lack of knowledge about the situation. I think it’s a case of scapegoating. I think they’re really noxious and punitive laws that are going to create a lot of human suffering—even if they’re not enforced and enacted, they create a lot of human suffering for people who are only guilty of the crime of being born in the wrong country.
Josh Scheer: And wanting … to have, maybe, a better, life, too. I mean, it’s a crime … yeah. And also, yeah, you’re right, because we see issues from Detroit—John Conyers is trying to fight ICE in Detroit. In Oregon there’s a licensing bill, there’s …
Peter Scheer: The licensing—can I just, before we—the licensing one … I just say, on my way to KPFK today I was behind a long line of slow-moving trucks, and I just think—the licensing thing makes me crazy. How bigoted does someone have to be that they don’t want other people they’re on the road with to have the same kind of regulations on driving that they have to have, some safety tests from the rules … what is the logical—is there any argument for denying anybody a driving license? Except for, you know, the extremely elderly, who—you know, like our father—who’s perhaps lost their ability to steer? [Laughs]
Avi Chomsky: Ah … and yeah, there’s some young teenagers who probably shouldn’t either …
Peter Scheer: Yeah, exactly.
Avi Chomsky: [Laughs] Well, you’re asking the wrong person, obviously, because I don’t think there’s any logic or rationale to denying driver’s licenses. And again, I think it’s part of this really sort of populist appeal to people who are suffering economically, white people who are suffering economically, and there’s real reasons that they’re suffering economically, but the reasons are not immigration. And trying to sort of play on people’s worst fears.
Peter Scheer: Divide and conquer?
Avi Chomsky: Mm-hmm.
Josh Scheer: Well, it’s not … the right wing, though … if you believe in globalization and you believe in free markets and everything else, you should have open borders, because then you want cheap labor here, too. I mean, you want …
Peter Scheer: We have plenty of cheap …
Josh Scheer: No, but … if you’re anti-union, and you’re anti-this and you’re anti-that, then you should have the ability to hire cheap labor, right? I mean, these companies shouldn’t be taxed, they should be … they shouldn’t be sending their workforce home—that’s what they want, right? That’s what right-wingers want.
Avi Chomsky: Well, I mean, in fact, the business community is absolutely reliant on a continuing inflow of what we could call cheap workers. But one of the things that makes cheap workers cheap is prejudice and discrimination. That is, as long as our laws find some people as second-class—and I won’t call them citizens, ’cause they’re not citizens—but second-class people, that makes them more exploitable. So the business community is in a very odd position here, because they basically want people to be here illegally. They want them to be here and they want the law to prohibit them from being here, because that makes them, quote, “illegal,” undocumented, and makes them easier to exploit.
Josh Scheer: You know, and also we talked about the informal jobs and everything else, but those are people that … they’re going to look for cheap labor. And you’re talking about taxes, and a lot of those people pay taxes, just maybe they become citizens. But if you work in an informal job for $200 a week, those people are so cheap they wouldn’t pay you … you know, they wouldn’t pay anybody else, they would try to find it in another way cheaply, right? I mean … we can’t even blame the … an informal employee who makes $250 a week or less—those are jobs that you’re not going to get. So even if you think they’re going to … and we can get into that another time, but about the …
Peter Scheer: Professor Scheer, you’re going to have to wrap it up.
Josh Scheer: No, no, myth No. 1, because myth No. 1 in your book is “they take our jobs,” right?
Avi Chomsky: Mm-hmm.
Josh Scheer: And, you know, I think that’s the big one too. It’s like, they’re taking my job, and it’s like no, they’re not …
Peter Scheer: Here’s the big one, it’s the last one, and why don’t we end on this. “Myth 21: The problems this book raises are so huge that there’s nothing we can do about them.” What can we do about them?
Avi Chomsky: Well, I’d like to answer that question on two levels. One, sort of the ultimate goal, utopian level of what I really think a just immigration policy would look like; and two, some immediate steps that can be taken that will move us in that direction and start to make things a little bit better on our way to what we really want. And I think, truly, if you look at the history of U.S. immigration policy, you see that when we started making immigration policies—which was not until the end of the 19th century—they’ve all been based on racial discrimination and other forms of discrimination. Before the end of the 19th century, there were no immigration restrictions. The whole world does not want to come to the United States. The human race has survived without borders for tens of thousands of years, and I mean, I really think our ultimate goal is getting beyond borders. Clearly, that’s not going to happen in my lifetime, but I do think there are steps we can look for in terms of trying to put a halt to some of the anti-immigrant legislation that’s being put through right now, and trying to roll back some of the anti-immigrant legislation that’s been put through in recent years. The militarization of the border, for example. The probation of driver’s licenses. The Dream Act is an important piece of legislation that takes a very tiny step towards recognizing the human rights of immigrants. So I think those are some of the changes that we can look for.
Josh Scheer: I want to say something quickly about the Dream Act, though. What do you think the likelihood of that passing is? Because there’s a lot of high school people that graduate high school and they should be rewarded that they’ve gone to school and they’re going to college and they’re doing good things, and they should be rewarded with citizenship, but that’s just my opinion. I don’t know.
Avi Chomsky: Right now, Congress doesn’t seem very likely to pass the Dream Act. There’s also been some state-level initiatives; they can’t do everything the Dream Act does; that is, at the state level the path to citizenship can’t be opened. What can be done at the state level is in-state tuition, and there’s currently 11 states that do offer the option of in-state tuition for students who are undocumented; the other states do not. So the possibility of pushing for in-state tuition at the state level is one. The Dream Act did not pass on its most recent attempt. I don’t think there’s a good chance of the Dream Act passing right now, but I do think it’s within the realm of the possible. That is, the legislation is still there; it’s something we can fight for, even if it’s not going to pass in this session. It’s not—talking about passing the Dream Act isn’t like talking about open borders. That’s clearly a utopian dream, is opening borders. The Dream Act is within the realm of the possible in the next few years, if not this year.
Peter Scheer: Thank you so much for joining us, Avi Chomsky.
Avi Chomsky: You’re so welcome.
Peter Scheer: She is a professor and the coordinator of Latin American studies at Salem State College in Massachusetts, and the author of “ ‘They Take Our Jobs!’: and 20 Other Myths About Immigration.” Go get a copy.
* * *Peter Scheer:
This is Truthdig Radio. I’m Peter Scheer with Bob Scheer, and we’re speaking with Tim Canova, professor of international economic law at Chapman University School of Law, and an early critic of financial deregulation. Welcome.
Tim Canova: Thank you.
Robert Scheer: I wanted to start off with something I heard you say recently … this casino capitalism that we’re talking about. And you were talking about the inflationary pressures, energy prices and the like. Can you comment on that?
Tim Canova: Yes. This is getting more attention overseas than it is in the United States, unfortunately. There’s a critique that a lot of the reason that oil prices and food prices have been going up is a result of commodity futures speculation. Michael Greenberger—who is now a law professor at the University of Maryland, and he had been a deputy director at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission when the CFTC was run by Brooksley Born during the 1990s, and so they were early critics of the deregulation of derivative instruments—Michael Greenberger has now been writing about this in particular. Under the Dodd-Frank Act, Congress has asked the CFTC to impose position limits to prevent any speculators from pushing up the price too much on futures contracts, on the price of futures in any kind of commodities, but that would include oil and food prices. And what we’ve seen—and there are many empirical studies now that are confirming this, including studies done by the Senate investigating committees—that the volume of futures contracts have just been increasing dramatically, and that the futures prices are way above what normal studies in supply and demand would suggest that the stock price, the daily price of these goods, should be. And yet the futures prices keep pushing up the stock prices.
Robert Scheer: And so how do you explain this? What’s going on? Are they just scamming the system, or … ?
Tim Canova: Well … I had mentioned it as an example of the casino economy, and it really is like a casino; it’s speculation, it’s betting on the future prices commodities. And they have an interest, if they’re betting that prices are going to rise, to keep betting in that direction. I think that there’s a bit of a herd mentality that’s involved, as well, where you see prices of oil going up and more and more market participants jump in to keep betting that the price will keep going up. So it becomes self-fulfilling. And of course that’s destabilizing; that could create a bubble.
Peter Scheer: What percentage of our economy is this kind of speculation casino capitalism?
Tim Canova: Well, when you look at the derivatives market, it’s just enormous. And I know, Bob, you’ve written about this as well. Derivatives are now measured in the trillions of dollars; I think the credit default swap market alone is estimated at between 50 and 80 trillion dollars, which is much larger than the entire annual global output. And it’s not just commodities that speculators are betting on; there’s now a very vibrant derivatives market in sovereign debt. And just a few weeks ago the Financial Times of London had a front-page story, how hedge funds were looking to increase their activity in credit default swap markets for domestic sovereign debt—the muni market, the market in municipal bonds.
Robert Scheer: So, what’s basically happening is we’re in the hands of gamblers. And we no longer have these captains of industry that make money by producing better cars, or figuring out better products, or so forth; they’re people who can push pieces of paper, you know, people like Robert Rubin, who specialized in sort of fraudulent risk assessment and, you know, on the margins. And these seem to be the people we’re training in our business schools and our law schools. Now, you’re a distinguished law professor. What’s going on with the academic world? What are we turning out?
Tim Canova: I think there’s probably no better demonstration of what’s going wrong in the economy as in the Academy Award-winning documentary film, “Inside Job,” which shows the pervasive conflicts of interest that occur at the business schools and economics departments at the most elite universities in the country. So it explains some of what’s going wrong in the economy. But I think beyond the conflicts of interest, you have a real orthodoxy in the establishment, in the economy. And that orthodoxy really is that Washington consensus. It’s a bias towards market solutions; it’s an inability to see where markets are manipulated. So there’s a lot of self-interest among academics to stay in that mind-set.
Peter Scheer: As we record this on Monday, Standard & Poor’s has just lowered the credit outlook for the United States of America from stable to negative. Can you explain what that means and what the implications are?
Tim Canova: Well, Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s and Fitch are the three big credit rating agencies. And they really have cartel-like powers, you could say. They were heavily implicated, they were a big part of the problem in giving investment-grade triple A ratings to mortgage-backed securities that ended up turning toxic; they became the toxic mortgage-backed securities. And Dodd-Frank, the financial reform act that was passed last year, really didn’t do much to change how the credit rating agencies operate. When you look at just the boards of directors of each of these credit rating agencies, it looks like a who’s who of international bankers. So on the one hand, before the financial collapse, you could look at their behavior and see that they were rubber-stamping toxic mortgages, because that was in their own interest and the interests of the investment banks that were paying them. If nothing’s really changed, it is suspect why we would consider their ratings of sovereign debt to be sacrosanct at this point. What they’ve done by downgrading or, you know, threatening the triple-A grading of U.S. treasury debt is to basically be intervening themselves in some of the most important policy questions that we’re facing today. And there’s no reason to really conclude that their assessment of the situation is accurate. The response of the markets, of course, when news came of the—Standard & Poor’s decision, was that the stock markets started dipping. But the bond markets and the dollar have not gone down; quite the opposite. So you can make an argument that investors understand that the U.S. can always print more dollars; there’s not really any credit risk; people know they’re going to get paid back their dollars. It’s just whether the dollars they get paid back will have fallen in value. And that’s really not the business of rating agencies, to be involved in that. If the U.S. was ever stripped of its triple-A rating, it’s really questionable whether there would be a flight from the dollar anyway. Probably most investors and funding managers would, I would think they might abandon the credit-rating agencies themselves, rather than dollar investments. At the end of the day, the treasury market is still the largest, most liquid bond market in the world.
Peter Scheer: And we should say, just to be clear, that S&P did not downgrade the U.S. credit triple-A rating, but they did revise the outlook.
Robert Scheer: Yeah, let me ask you. You mentioned the movie “Inside Job,” and you’re—you know, again, I get back—you’re a professor at a law school, a distinguished law school. And when people study long and hard to become economics professors and top lawyers, and then they go work for—you know, just to think about it in layman terms, for these swindlers. They help them evade the law, they help laws be written that are awful; they give economic advice that turns out to be disastrous for most people. So what has happened to the whole notion of objectivity and fairness and responsibility in this academic world? Do we teach ethics at all?
Tim Canova: Well, I think it’s not just the academic world, it’s the markets as well. I don’t think there’s been much real accountability since the financial collapse. In the markets, you can look at the biggest market players, the biggest investment banks and hedge funds that helped bring on the collapse, and they’re the ones who are doing better than ever. They’ve been propped up by the taxpayer and by the Federal Reserve. But that bailout has also propped up vested interests within the economy. When you look at, really, the elite institutions, you’re looking at people who’ve made their careers by cheering on this free market ideology. And they haven’t recanted, and they’re tenured at the end of the day. And they have a vested interest in things continuing the way they are. So there’s been very little accountability since the collapse. I do think within the economy, you do have voices—but I’m sorry to say, like mine, they’re mostly in the wilderness—that have been warning about the impending collapse and critiquing what has happened since the collapse. But I’m afraid they’re rather few and far between. Robert Scheer: Is there an aspect of corruption? I mean, take Lawrence Summers. He was the president of Harvard after having screwed up the economy by pushing through the Commodity Futures Modernization Act and the Financial Services Modernization Act when he was in the Treasury Department, and became head of the Treasury Department under Clinton. And then he goes off, he’s rewarded by being given this distinguished position of being head of Harvard. And then when he runs into some trouble there, he nonetheless lands on his feet, he gets $8 million from hedge funds and speaking fees while he’s advising Obama in the election, in the ’08 election. And then of course he’s given a key position in the government when Obama comes in. I noticed in the figures that he was getting $600,000 at Harvard, and then he gets another $8 million in speaking fees, and consulting and so forth. Is there kind of a rot that runs through our academic world, our expertise?
Tim Canova: I think so. I do. And, you know, ever since “Inside Job” came out there’s now been a push for an actual code of ethics among economists to have to disclose the conflicts of interests. It’s bad enough that somebody like Summers has gamed the system to be involved in these revolving doors, to be taking lots of money from Wall Street interests, either through speaking fees or as a principal in a big, big hedge fund, and then revolves back into a high administrative post. That’s bad enough, and I’m not sure really what can be done to control or contain that, other than, you know, as much transparency as possible and sort of an informed and enraged citizenry. But among academic, academic economists, for instance, they should at least be required to disclose when they’re writing their expert reports and journal peer-reviewed articles and books; they should be required to at least disclose their own conflicts of interests.
Robert Scheer: Yeah, and just so I’m not picking on academics—I mean the corruption in journalism is rampant. People get, you know, enormous speaking fees while they’re pundits; they can get a hundred, hundred and fifty thousand dollars for a lecture. Thomas Reidman, who … can make a million bucks off what, five or six lectures. And there is no full disclosure. People who are very famous commentators, even for NPR, let alone commercial television, get this kind of money. And, but let me go a little further here. It seems to me the main thing that’s dividing us on this whole debt and what to do about it is the Republican philosophy that says, you know, if you give tax cuts for the rich and you coddle the corporations, they’ll create jobs and this will be great for everyone else. And at least the Democrats and Obama are trying to hold that line a bit. And it was interesting to my mind that just in the last quarter we had a 29 percent increase in corporate profits, the last quarter of ’10. And yet we didn’t get the jobs. And just as we are … this week, Alan Greenspan came out with a statement when he was asked on ABC News, do you think that the tax cuts for the rich and so forth will create jobs and pay for themselves in terms of the debt. And he said no, it won’t. And he actually called for reversing the Bush tax cuts for the rich that he had favored back then. Did that surprise you, and do you think the debate is getting better?
Tim Canova: Well, Greenspan seems to go back and forth. I remember in March of 2009—Obama had not been in office for long—Alan Greenspan had actually come out in favor of nationalizing the big banks, putting them into receivership. And Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican, had as well. I thought that was a moment when the Democrats and the new administration could have tried to seize the opportunity to move in that direction, but instead you got Timothy Geithner, who—again, that’s another Wall Street water boy who basically said it was contrary to America’s cultural heritage to be taking over banks but, apparently, not contrary to our history to be propping them up with trillions of dollars. You know, Greenspan making the statement that you just mentioned—I had not heard that; I think it’s great that he did—but I’m afraid Greenspan’s influence on the debate is somewhat limited at this point. The tea party seems to have really galvanized the Republicans, to the point where here in California Jerry Brown can’t even find one Republican with the polls to vote for an extension of taxes and, you know, might have to go to the all-cuts option, which is quite draconian. Just to complete my thought, what I fear is that this is now a Republican strategy by the Republicans who know better. They know that this tax-cutting and budget-cutting is not going to help the economy, but it’s part of a calculated effort just to undermine the economy and therefore to increase their chances at the polls next go-around.
Peter Scheer: Tim Canova is a professor of international economic law at Chapman University School of Law and an early critic of financial deregulation. Thank you so much for joining us.
Robert Scheer: Thank you.
Tim Canova: Well, thank you. It’s a pleasure, always.
* * *Kasia Anderson:
And now, Howie Stier takes a look at an unusual and musical enclave in Hollywood known as the Green Jello House.
Howie Stier: On a residential Los Angeles side street where iconic Southern California Craftsman-style homes sit beneath towering palms and majestic comfort trees, one stands out—not because the quaint architectural detailing of a century past has been lovingly restored, but because it is, by anyone’s standards, a chaotic eyesore. This is the Green Jello House, home to a band that regularly pops up on lists of worst rock acts ever.
They were gonged within seconds on “The Gong Show”; they haven’t had a hit since 1992’s “Three Little Pigs”; and while old concert posters of theirs still decorate dive bars on Hollywood Boulevard, the band hasn’t performed publicly around their home base of Los Angeles in years. But it is their Pee-wee Herman-meets-the-Addams-Family home that connotes a notable cultural contribution to the world. The one-time party house of horror-film star Peter Lorre, until recently a halfway house for released convicts, is now a unique bastion of bohemian living for the creative types that Hollywood continues to draw. The broken pavement of this run-down corner of L.A. never caught the eyes of developers, and with the city’s economic fortunes continuing in a death spiral, rents remain depressed, allowing a communal living arrangement last seen on the Lower East Side in pre-Giuliani New York City and long gone from the streets of San Francisco.
Technically proficient musicians who choose to play badly, they pair nursery rhymes and commercial jingles with the molar-grinding chords of thrash metal, performed in crude puppet costumes, which all bears elements of Dada, the art movement that sprung up during the First World War in Europe. If not critically successful, Green Jello sold a lot of records. Their song, “The Bear Went Over the Mountain,” is featured in the film “Dumb and Dumber.”
They tour annually and produce music for mainstream media, like Disney. They are not a political counterculture, like the music movement documented in the book “American Hardcore: A Tribal [History].” Image aside, they maintain conventional suburban tastes, like cooking meat-o-mat burgers and watching sports. And in a town that fosters immaturity in adults, their penchant for toys and costumes is not subversive. And so here they dwell, alongside costume genre bands Gwar and Radioactive Chickenheads, who all practice and perform in this space and at any given time shoot videos involving bloody props and giant lizard costumes in their front yard, which evokes nothing but the tribal compound out of postapocalyptic film “The Road Warrior.”
A white 1974 Cadillac Hearse is parked out front, beside a cherry muscle car. A black pit bull looks around, and a snaggle-toothed bulldog that answers to the name Monster charges into a fence at passers-by. A scarecrow fashioned of discarded toys is impaled on a lamppost; filthy, weathered Sesame Street dolls adorn the porch; and, incongruously, a Jacuzzi and TV and a castaway couch complete a design scheme that would strike Martha Stewart blind.
Green Jello’s living room is outfitted with an array of 1980s video game consoles like Centipede and Operation Wolf in various states of broken. They’re kept turned on for their chirpy, 16-bit ambient sound. Paul Zero is 28 years old and the drummer of Green Jello’s most recent lineup. Deathly pale and rail thin, his head is shaved except for two patches spiked into devil horns. He wears an ankle-length black caftan over a bare chest and, indeed, creeps at a Nosferatu-like pace around the house, of which he is the majordomo. But he is not really a vampire. Among the mélange of tattoos he sports are pentagrams, as well as comic book lettered interjections like “Ha-ha!” They clue you in that he isn’t too serious about the Satan stuff.
Howie Stier: So altogether, you have over a dozen people living in a house, who are all musicians, artists or filmmakers.
Paul Zero: At any given time, yeah.
Howie Stier: Anybody here have a job?
Paul Zero: Nobody really works here, so instead we throw parties.
Howie Stier: What’s the benefit of musicians living together?
Paul Zero: You know, when the original idea of the house, you know, came to life, I imagined that everyone would be writing with each other, and collaborating on things. And it’s kind of happened a couple times, but for the most part, everyone has their projects and we don’t really intertwine. But having like, say, Angelo from Fishbone—he freakin’ works all the time; he’s in his room writing songs, recording songs, practicing, just doing so much—by living with him and seeing him working so much, it helps me work more, because I feel lazy compared to him.
Howie Stier: Is there an economic incentive for musicians to live together in one house?
Paul Zero: Oh, yeah, huge. I mean, you know, by us all living in a commune, so to speak, you know, it brings all of our expenses drastically low. I mean, it’s far cheaper to live here than any other [place] in Hollywood.
Howie Stier: In the movie documentary “Everyday Sunshine,” which profiles the influential cult ska-punk bank Fishbone, it’s mentioned that Fishbone’s middle-aged front man, Doctor Mad Vibes, lives with his mother. Recently, the lead singer, also known as Angelo Moore, took up residence here. Moore is fond of purple suits and stingy brimmed hats, usually parked on his shaved scalp at a crazy angle. Today he is wearing skinny braces unslung, white bondage pants, and has no shirt on as his band warms up for rehearsal.
Howie Stier: You’re living in a house with other musicians. What’s that like?
Angelo Moore: Ahm…[Laughs] Well, I guess it’s community livin’, is what it is. I call it the Green Jello Art Complex. Before I got here, before I moved in here, I met Manspeaker, Bill Manspeaker from Green Jello on the road on Warped Tour, when I was on tour at the Warped Tour. And so I sat in with them a couple of times, and so at the end of it all, on their last show, I was telling Bill that I needed, I was looking for a place to stay in Hollywood. And they said, man, you can stay at the Green Jello place. So I came here and I saw it, and all the toys and everything, and all of the different artistic pieces. Very elaborate, bizarre artistic museum; got a lot of eccentric spirits in the place too. And so it’s good for music and art and creativity.
Howie Stier: You’ve been around a long time playing music. You’ve lived in other places. Have you ever lived with a bunch of musicians like this before?
Angelo Moore: No. First time.
Howie Stier: Fishbone never lived together?
Angelo Moore: No. Howie Stier: Is it a good idea for musicians to live together? Is it conducive to creativity?
Angelo Moore: Sometimes it is. It all depends on, it all depends on where you are in life. If you’re ready to accept living in a place with other people, coexisting with other people. If you’re not ready for that, and you’re ready to be a recluse, you can do that too. This is the kind of place, man, where you can pretty much make any noise any time you want to make it.
Howie Stier: You performed here the other night, though. How’s that? Playing in your house?
Angelo Moore: It’s definitely surrealistic, man. Playing in a place where, you know, you walk out of your bedroom—I call it my laboratory; it’s not just a place to live, it’s a laboratory for me—so when I step into the living room, you see a whole part out there going on. So it’s definitely a different trip, man. Because ordinarily you wouldn’t have a party like that going on in your living room.
Howie Stier: Is this fueling some new material? You played a lot of your old tunes the other night.
Angelo Moore: Well, living here, I’m doing a lot of my solo stuff here.
Howie Stier: Meaning you’re recording it here, or you’re…
Angelo Moore: I’m recording it, yeah…recording a lot of it here. And writing songs.
Howie Stier: Communal living is not just for college-age kids, it’s for later on in your career.
Angelo Moore: Yeah, this is later on, man. You know, this is like a part of my, this is like a crossroads in my life where I get to put up all my art and I get to experience all the other artistic influences that are here in the complex, too. The guy that lives above me, his name is Hunter, he invented Gwar; he makes all the big puppets, and all the figures that are in Gwar.
Howie Stier: Does that mean Fishbone, some—next time I see you, you’re wearing a big puppet head?
Angelo Moore: Nah. No, but what you might see in the future is, I have a comic book with an audio epic that goes with it, like a nine-minute audio ska, psychedelic and blues audio that goes with the comic book, you know, and all the singing that goes along. So I want to be able to re-create my comic book, and I want to have the guy upstairs, Hunter, have him collaborate with me and make—show the kids and students how to make puppets to go along with the whole production. [Music plays]
* * *Peter Scheer:
This is Truthdig Radio. I’m sitting here with Josh Scheer, this is Peter Scheer. And we’re talking to Matthew Specktor, who is the senior editor of the newly launched Los Angeles Review of Books and author of two books himself, including the novel “That Summertime Sound.” Thank you for joining us.
Matthew Specktor: Yeah, thank you for having me.
Josh Scheer: So Matthew, I just want to jump on. This is the first, you know, Web … 21st century book review to be launched, right?
Matthew Specktor: Well, it’s the first to be launched specifically as a Web-based publication. That’s right, yeah.
Josh Scheer: And you want to use the Web because you want to use, I mean—can you go into that more?
Matthew Specktor: Well, certainly … we want to use the Web for, you know, obviously for its reach; that’s where readership lies these days. And it’s also, I think, where the conversation about books tends to unfold. I mean, you know, with … obviously it does continue to unfold in traditional media, but the traditional newspaper supplement is…the Sunday book supplement appears to be shrinking or disappearing, and and at the same time I think there are a lot of writers who … and readers who embrace the Web as a place to find content. You know, I was having a conversation with a novelist friend of mine, the novelist David Shields, the other day, and we were talking about Web publication and how much that’s changed—how maybe five years ago or 10 years ago, people would say, oh, so is this going to be Internet-only? And these days, it’s like if it isn’t going to be on the Web, sometimes a writer might wonder how people are going to, how people are going to find…[Laughs] you know, who’s going to read the piece if it’s not on the Web. So it’s really interesting to feel that…
Peter Scheer: What is the—if you don’t mind my asking, as the editor of another online publication, which would be Truthdig—what is the business approach here? Are you a nonprofit, are you looking…
Matthew Specktor: We are a nonprofit, we are a nonprofit.
Peter Scheer: OK.
Josh Scheer: I was going to say … you got to learn how to get the plug in, like Peter just did, you know, wherever you’re talking…[Laughter] Keep on saying Truthdig, Truthdig, Truthdig…
Matthew Specktor: [Laughs] Yeah. I mean, that’s certainly a part of it. We’ve … advertising is also, obviously, going to be a part of our model, too. I mean, you know, we feel like for publishers and university presses … and even for some extraliterary industries, they’ll be—they’ll certainly be advertising, lots, on the site for them. But we are first and foremost a traditional nonprofit, and surviving very much on the basis of philanthropy and grants.
Peter Scheer: So, you know, there seems to be this idea that you alluded to earlier that, you know, book reviews are on the decline, it seems; or there’s—you know, books in general are an endangered species, but that’s certainly not true. We’ve got Amazon Kindle books outselling their hard covers; clearly there’s a great market and thirst for good books for new long-form writing.
Matthew Specktor: Yeah. I mean … I think that’s a tremendous fallacy, when people say oh, the book review is dying, or the book is in trouble. I just don’t think that’s true. I mean, there were 20 times as many titles published last year, in 2010, than were published in 1980. And at the same time, we have one-twentieth of the serious book reviews. I mean, there’s a distinct disproportion that’s been created, but as far as readership is concerned, and as far as people writing not just books but really strong and interesting books, I think there are more, certainly more of those than there have ever been.
Josh Scheer: The question I have for you also—I mean, it’s very important, is—you know, the very impressive list of senior editors; you can mention them—Jonathan Gold, among others; Marty Kaplan. And what kind of books are you going to do—all books? Is this going to be pop books only? Is this going to be university presses, or is this going to be like a full-frontal everything book?
Matthew Specktor: It’s absolutely going to be a full-service, full—you know, we on the one hand are aiming to cover a lot of things that we feel don’t necessarily get adequate coverage in the serious book reviews that exist…Which is to say we intend to cover children’s lit; YA; genre fiction like noir or SF, speculative fiction; all of those things, as well as commercial fiction, which we certainly intend to direct plenty of attention there. But at the same time, I think all of us who are starting have a somewhat literary bent, and we feel it’s part of our mission to drive traffic towards books that might otherwise—you know, towards good books, serious books, university press or small press books—that might otherwise slip between the cracks. We’re very interested in making sure that we attend to the many, many, many worthy books that aren’t getting enough media attention elsewhere.
Josh Scheer: You are the Los Angeles Review of Books, so I’d be remiss not talking about this. You talk about, in your press material and everything else, about New York’s seemingly monopoly on the book world. So do you want to get into that? We’re about to have the Festival of Books in Los Angeles, I think, next week, so…
Matthew Specktor: Yeah, well, I guess that’s obviously a gigantic topic, you know. And on the one hand, I don’t think we feel that it’s our bailiwick or our interest; you know, it’s not an us versus them situation. It’s sort of—to say New York is the hub of publishing is a little bit like saying Hollywood is the hub of filmmaking; it’s historically true. And, having said that, clearly there are a lot of other places, not just Los Angeles, that have incredibly vibrant literary and intellectual scenes. And…I think New York, for all of its fine virtues, can sink into the same kind of parochialism that any other city can, where you start thinking that only things that happen in New York matter…
Peter Scheer: Yeah, the idea that we should have to get our book reviews exclusively from people who haven’t figured out how to put their garbage anywhere but on the street is absurd to me.
Matthew Specktor: [Laughs] We feel strongly that on the one hand, you can look at our contributing editors—whether it’s Chris Abani or Jonathan Gold or Amy Bender or Jonathan Lethem or, you know, I could sit here and I could read the list for quite a while, because we have, our contributors are…
Josh Scheer: I printed it out today, maybe 12 pages long. [Laughter]
Peter Scheer: That’s very—how did you get all these people to sign on?
Matthew Specktor: Well, I think because they felt, as we feel, that there’s a need for this.
Peter Scheer: Are these L.A. residents, or…?
Matthew Specktor: Many of them are; not all of them. I mean, it’s very important that—you know, our contributors really are based everywhere. We have people writing for us from New York or London or Cairo, or … really … we have a very global contributorship. But at the same time … as do the New York Review of Books or the London Review of Books. But we do feel a responsibility to represent the West Coast as such, yeah.
Josh Scheer: And now—I just want to get into this real quickly, before we wrap up—you’re in a two-phase process right now; you’ve got—Phase One is already up; you’ve got reviews, you’ve got this list, your people can go to—then you’re launching the website, late 2011, you can give people the date. And you promise that you’re going to be updating essays, interviews and reviews on a daily basis, right?
Matthew Specktor: That is correct.
Josh Scheer: OK, then, look forward to it.
Peter Scheer: We’re very excited about this. Let’s just give the address so people know. It’s LAReviewOfBooks.org. And we are speaking with Matthew Specktor, the senior editor of the newly launched Los Angeles Review of Books, and author of two books himself, including the novel “That Summertime Sound.” Thank you so much for being with us.
Matthew Specktor: Thank you very much, I really appreciate it.
Josh Scheer: Have a great day.
Peter Scheer: And good luck!
Matthew Specktor: Thanks.
Kasia Anderson: That’s all we have time for today. From us at Truthdig, which is Bob, Peter and Josh Scheer, along with myself, Kasia Anderson, and Howie Stier, we’d like to thank Jeff… and Stan here at KPFK. We’ll be on this same time next week. Thanks a lot.WAIT, BEFORE YOU GO…
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