Origins: The Journey of Humankind (Season 1, Episode 3: The Power of Money) – a shallow and confusing enquiry into the historical importance of money

Celso R Garcia, “Origins: The Journey of Humankind (Season 1, Episode 3: The Power of Money)” (2017)

One viewing of this episode of the National Geographic series was enough to put me off watching the rest of the series. Host Jason Silva is an earnest and enthusiastic commentator but his vocal delivery seems to have a hard grinding quality and his voice sounds as if he is being strangled by too many rocks far down his throat. His movements are often jerky and for some odd reason the camera crew insists on holding the camera at angles so that at times Silva appears to be looking and talking away from the camera, and this approach tends to emphasise his stiff body movements even more. With his voice and his body language, Silva comes across as a sales representative trying (and not too successfully at that) to pressure his customer into buying something – an approach that might be apt for this particular episode in the “Origins …” series which is about the hold that money has over humans.

For a series intended for family viewing, if this episode is typical, then the whole project should be re-thought. The structure of the episode is hard to understand and follow: we jump backwards and forwards in time as the narrative pursues detours into the history of the Atlantic slave trade that robbed the African continent of human talent and energy and put millions (plus their children born into slavery in the Americas) into bondage to European political, social and economic elites, then into the Opium Wars between the British and Chinese empires in the 1840s which delivered Hong Kong to the British, and the use of paper money in China during the reign of Mongol emperor Kublai Khan in the 1200s. Very little is said about why money is such an important invention that it spread all over the ancient civilised world like wildfire (as a means of exchange and as a measure and store of value) and how it is superior to bartering and other non-money forms of exchange. Practically no attention is given to other inventions and technologies that were spawned by the widespread acceptance and use of money: the rise of banks for example and the concepts of debt, loans and interest, that would in their turn enable and encourage the rise of social and political hierarchies based on material wealth as measured by money as well as accidents of birth; the invention of the stock market and the concepts of investment, risk and hedging against uncertainty; various other institutions and concepts such as insurance or the idea of a central bank to approve issues of money and to develop and conduct monetary policy; and the birth of book-keeping and accountancy. Not to mention of course digital technologies and the phenomenon that is the global financial economy.

Historical re-enactments are downright cheesy and take liberty with historical accuracy. They run for far too long and upset the documentary’s momentum. Some re-enactments, such as one early scene in which two desert African tribes exchange food and weapons, or a later scene set in Mesopotamia in which a sinister-looking Middle Eastern man wearing a turban encourages a youth to gamble away money needed to buy medicine for a sick woman strike this viewer as racially prejudiced. I cannot believe that such racial stereotypes can still be considered acceptable for a documentary TV series aimed at the general public.

Significant events covered by the documentary are attributed in their causes to the hold that money has over the participants. The problem with this simplistic idea is to deliver more power over human decision-making to money – it’s one way of holding people down, by denying them free will and responsibility for their actions as masters and slaves in a social system where hierarchy reigns and inequality is rife. The differing attitudes of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism towards work and the acquisition of material wealth count for little in the European drive to collect colonies from the 1500s on, as do the desire for territory and natural resources, and souls to forcibly convert to Christianity. The Opium Wars in China may very well have had their cause in the British use of opium as a means of exchange to acquire tea and other desired Chinese goods – but the opium was also handy as a weapon to weaken China by creating widespread drug addiction on a massive scale that was bound to affect the Middle Kingdom economically and for which the Chinese had no remedy.

Viewers may pick up some interesting facts and pieces of knowledge but the episode lacks a clear narrative structure that would encompass those facts and demonstrate how they are all related. At its worst, the episode appears to cherry-pick facts and ignore other related and significant facts. In particular, there is little said about who is ultimately responsible for creating money and regulating its creation and supply at any one time. Dare I say that the episode takes for granted that money should be allowed to flow freely through society without regulation that would distribute it more evenly so that everyone has a share in the society’s wealth and none has far too much or far too little?

Servant or Slave: how Aboriginal people were exploited for their labour in conditions of virtual slavery

Steven McGregor, “Servant or Slave” (2017)

Few Australians have very little appreciation of the apartheid-style society that exploited Aboriginal people, Torres Strait Islanders and even Melanesians imported from abroad for their labour to clear land for pasture and plantation crops like sugar cane, establishing in the process the foundation for Australia’s agricultural wealth. But to understand how generations of Aboriginal children were taken away from their families for most of the 20th century, put into institutions that trained them to perform menial work or heavy labouring jobs for very little money (or even none), and how not just their employers but also Australian federal and state governments and their agencies benefited from such an institutional phenomenon, we need to know the social, political and economic context, and the ideology underpinning this context. The fact is that the Australian nation was founded on the exploitation of its resources – land, water, plants and animals, and ultimately even its native peoples – along with the exploitation of the convicts, migrants and others who came to the country after European settlement began in 1788, for geopolitical reasons that favoured a small English (and later British) elite. This exploitation was part of a vast imperial structure that encompassed lands in several continents (notably in Africa and southern Asia) and impoverished millions, destroyed their cultures and traditions, forced them to work and even to fight for their colonial masters in wars in distant countries, and allowed them to starve during periods of famine.

The value of “Servant or Slave” is not just to document how thousands of Aboriginal girls and young women were kidnapped or taken from their families and forced into institutions by the Australian government that trained them for domestic service, but to show how this arrangement was deeply embedded in Australian society and how the exploitation of Aboriginal people’s labour, through domestic service and other forms of employment, benefited the government and the people and companies who employed Aboriginal people in menial jobs or heavy physical work. The five indigenous women sharing their stories of how they were kidnapped by government agents from their families, put into institutions where they were beaten, sexually abused, brainwashed into believing they were inferior and taught not to trust their own people, and then later employed as full-time housekeepers, maids and unpaid baby-sitters, are very brave in reliving their experiences and traumas in interviews. They speak of the long-term psychological traumas and other harms they and their families (both their birth families and the families they later had themselves) suffered. These women’s experiences were typical of the experiences other Aboriginal girls (and even boys) had to undergo. Through interviews with historians and academics, we learn that Aboriginal people were never adequately paid for the work they did as domestic servants or rural agricultural workers and that as a result they could not amass and pass on any material wealth to their children and grandchildren, which helps to explain why so many Aboriginal families in many parts of Australia still live in poverty. Even more horrifying is news that the money that should have been paid to Aboriginal workers was instead used to fund even more predation of Aboriginal children and to support the institutions that trained them for lives of servitude.

The documentary uses re-enactments of the interviewees’ experiences to emphasise the fear they felt, their desperation and their isolation from help. While the re-enactments are tastefully done and are even poetic in style, they do tend to distance the audience from what is being shown on screen and don’t fully convey the horror of the abuse being portrayed or the victims’ immense suffering.

While the women interviewed reveal strength, determination and even pride that they endured such dreadful lives, and managed to find love through their children and grandchildren, the documentary ends on a fairly pessimistic note in observing that the monies owed to generations of Aboriginal people for their labour have either not been paid at all or are being dished out to them in ways and under conditions that are highly insulting and patronising towards them. It seems that the exploitative mind-set and ideology that dominated whitefella thinking and behaviour towards Aboriginal people from the mid-nineteenth century on still infects Australian politicians and bureaucrats, and still influences federal and state government policies that affect indigenous people’s lives. As Australia continues to follow the United States, Britain and other Western capitalist nations on a downward trajectory into more economic austerity, greater social inequality, lower standards of living and more financial and economic instability, the situation for Aboriginal people as a highly vulnerable group is likely to get worse.

Additional material that was not included in the original documentary focuses on the colonial exploitation of Melanesian people from the Solomon Islands and other Pacific island nations from the late nineteenth century as indentured labourers in sugar cane plantations in Queensland and other rural work that required much physical exertion in hot tropical or semi-tropical conditions.

Why is China Investing in the Balkans? – VisualPolitik’s guess is no better than yours or mine

“Why is China Investing in the Balkans?” (VisualPolitik EN, 26 March 2018)

VisualPolitik EN is a Youtube channel that posts short video clips on geopolitical and economic topics with a narrow and particular focus. These topics are delivered in a slickly knowing and smug manner by presenter Simon Whistler who at least presents well visually. The topic under his gimlet eye (made even more so by his glasses and his closeness to the camera) is exploring why China is investing in the Balkans region.

The narration starts off on the wrong foot by observing that the various small Balkan countries have one thing in common: they apparently all hate one another. Some also have other things in common: political corruption, large public debt, high levels of unemployment and growing poverty. From this starting point, and with a supercilious air, Whistler plunges into this particular deep end of Europe. Enter China whose politicians and business community seemingly believe they can solve the problems of this southeastern European region by buying ports in a bankrupt, debt-ridden Greece and upgrading their infrastructure, and in the long term incorporate these ports and Greece into China’s grand Silk Road Economic Belt which will encompass central and eastern Europe, central Asia, China itself and littoral areas around the Indian Ocean. Serbia is also keen on Chinese investment and Chinese companies (both private and state) have been busy inking contracts with the Serbians, acquiring industrial assets and opening branches and factories.

While the presentation is smooth and features clippings of videos and newspaper articles splashed across the screen, it doesn’t answer the question it asks. Sure there is reference to China’s Silk Road Economic Belt and the potential benefits economic integration into the Chinese trading sphere could deliver to Greece and Serbia – but why do Greece and Serbia get preferential treatment from the Chinese, why aren’t other countries in the Balkans also clambering aboard the Beijing-led express? Why indeed have Greece and Serbia turned to Beijing and away from Brussels in the hope of saving their economies? What is the EU doing wrong in those two countries that the Greeks and Serbians hope China can correct? The  video fails to give adequate answers to these questions that viewers might be asking from watching and listening.

Venezuela, the Hidden Agenda: the history and nature of a long-running hybrid war for a nation’s oil resources

Hernando Calvo Ospina, “Venezuela, the Hidden Agenda / Venezuela, la Oscura Causa” (2017)

A very informative documentary, “Venezuela …” reveals the true nature of the war being waged against the South American country, currently one of the richest in accessible oil reserves in the world, by the United States and its allies: this war is a brutal one with roots going as far back as the early 20th century, when the then First Lord of the Admiralty in the British Empire, Winston Churchill (yes, that Winston Churchill), made the decision to convert all British warships from running on coal to oil – enabling the ships to accelerate more rapidly and run faster on fewer boilers – and thus made oil the most valuable, most desired commodity on Earth. The US-led war on Venezuela has been constant: it has not always been a hot war in the form of coups against legitimately elected governments leading to repressive dictatorships but it has been a war waged on several fronts – politically, economically and psychologically.

Wisely Calvo and his film crew allow his interviewees, several of them experts in domestic and international politics, the economy and Venezuelan history, to present the way in which this war has proceeded and continues to proceed on these fronts. Journalist Patricia Villega in particular describes how the political opposition, aided and abetted by the US, not only refuses to accept the results of presidential and parliamentary elections when these do not go in its favour but also stages protests and demonstrations in which they denounce and demand the resignation or overthrow of the legitimate government and resort to violence and arson at the first resort. Parallels between these actions and those of “demonstrators” in countries such as Ukraine (in Kiev in early 2014), in Syria (in Dar’aa in 2011) and Iran (in Mashhad and some other provincial cities in January 2018) are so close as to be eerie and to suggest that such actions emanate from a playbook or set of guidelines the “opposition” is urged or told to follow by unseen instigators. The economic war not only includes US trade sanctions against Venezuela – meaning that no country can trade with Venezuela for fear of US retaliation against it – but also the hoarding of staple foods and medicines by food importers and pharmaceutical companies which drive up the prices of these items out of reach of ordinary citizens, the aim of which is to foment unrest and dissatisfaction with government policies leading to protests which the political opposition can hijack (as was done in Syria in 2011) for its own purposes.

The film begins with a quick survey of Venezuelan-US relations from the early 20th century on, making very clear that US interest in meddling in Venezuela’s politics centres around the country’s oil and other energy resources. This survey segues into Hugo Chavez’s early attempt to enter politics (in a rather abrupt and dramatic manner in the form of a failed coup against President Carlos Andrés Pérez in 1992) and his later presidency which then led (with his untimely death from cancer) to the current government of Nicolas Maduro. From there the film explores various aspects of the hybrid war the US wages on Venezuela: there is the economic war, expressed in trade sanctions and the hoarding actions of firms opposed to the governments of Presidents Chavez and Maduro, aimed at destabilising the economy and discrediting government policies; and there is also the propaganda war being carried out by local media companies, owned by private interests (some of which are allied to the political opposition), through TV, radio and print broadcasting. Foreign mainstream news media have also reported negatively on Chavez and Maduro’s styles of leadership, portraying them as authoritarian and repressive demagogues and damning their socialist policies and programs. From there, the role of Colombia as an ally of the US in destabilising Venezuela is briefly mentioned.

The film ends on a defiant note while treading a delicate line between trying to be optimistic and facing up to the likelihood that Venezuela will once again be steamrolled into submission by its more powerful and vicious neighbour to its north. That’s perhaps the most appropriate way to end its presentation, to rouse viewers to support Venezuela or at least believe that whatever happens to the country, its people will not give up hope of finally becoming free of all foreign interference.

Viewers who do not know much about Venezuela and who want to find more about why Chavez and Maduro have been demonised so much by the Western mainstream news media, and what they have been able to achieve in following a socialist path, need to do their own research as the film says very little about the Bolivarian revolutionary agenda and programs.

A message of determination, renewal and searching for justice for Grenfell Tower fire victims in “Failed By The State: The Struggle in the Shadow of Grenfell”

Ish and Daniel Renwick, “Failed By The State: The Struggle in the Shadow of Grenfell” (2017)

How could it be that one of the wealthiest parts of London – the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea – could also allow a public-housing residential apartment block to be refurbished with shoddy substandard materials, such materials enabling that block to go up in flames in mid-2017 with the resultant loss of over 70 lives plus one stillborn baby, over 70 injuries and over 220 people needing to be rehoused (and many of them still awaiting rehousing as of this time of writing) after a fire broke out in one of its units? In this brief documentary, co-writer and narrator Ish – a former resident of Grenfell Tower – sets out with co-director Daniel Renwick to investigate the social, cultural and economic background to the Grenfell Tower fire through interviews with people of the local community, activists, Labour MP Emma Dent Coad and a member of the council governing the royal borough. The documentary is divided into three parts: the first investigating the fire in its wider context; the second part focusing on Grenfell Tower residents who lived through the fire and the council’s response; and the final part following the residents’ determination to learn lessons from the tragedy and to form a unified community to fight corporate and government power and reclaim their neighbourhood and rights to live in the area.

What Ish discovers in his investigation of the underlying context of the fire is a history of systematic discrimination by the council, whose members are either property developers or linked to property developers, against the Grenfell Tower residents and other poor communities in the borough in various forms such as deliberately denying these communities what they need in the way of proper housing, education and social services, and driving them out through various schemes including gentrification programs that destroy people’s homes and force them to move. Through such programs, property prices rise which help turn a tidy profit for developers and prevent poor people from returning.  This part (Part 1) of the documentary does not provide the historical context in which extremes of social inequality came to prevail in Kensington and Chelsea, and the extent to which its council – or even the British government – encouraged or countenanced such inequalities. Still, this section of the documentary reveals much about how remote the council and Westminster are from the needs of the poor people living in the borough.

The most impressive aspect of the documentary is the desire of residents in these poor communities to improve their lives and neighbourhoods by claiming political power back for themselves, and that any regeneration of poor areas like North Kensington (where Grenfell Tower was located) must serve the needs of working-class communities. This comes out especially clearly in Part 3 of the documentary but the whole film brims with passion and appetite for change. The challenge is to maintain the spirit of mutual help and cooperation that emerged immediately after the fire broke out, and use that to rebuild North Kensington.

For a short film made on a tiny budget, “Failed by the State …” is well structured and made, with articulate points of view made by residents and Ish a passionate and well-spoken narrator. The music soundtrack is minimal yet helps to emphasise the film’s message and particular moods suggested by some scenes. The documentary is well worth seeing for its message of hope and a community’s determination to honour victims of the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy by defying corporate rapacity and government indifference and collusion.

The Queen of Versailles: portrait of a billionaire family living the American Dream and exploiting it to excess

Lauren Greenfield, “The Queen of Versailles” (2012)

Originally intended as a documentary on the construction of one of the largest single-family detached houses in the United States, this film ended up being a character study investigation of the house’s owners, David and Jackie Siegel, after David Siegel’s timeshare resort company Westgate Resorts crashed in a mountain of debt during the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and the Great Recession that came soon after. Following the Siegels as they try to cope with the fall in their fortunes to the extent of having to fire thousands of employees and most of their domestic servants, and putting their unfinished home up for sale at a time when others are dumping their houses on the market as well, the film becomes a fly-on-the-wall observer of this particular American Dream gone badly sour and the effect it has on one family’s relationships and the family members’ characters. Not commenting on the Siegels’ behaviour and excesses, and the sometimes abominable ways in which they treat their employees and household staff, the film forces viewers to make up their own minds about the character and morality of David and Jackie.

The astonishing aspect of the film is not the way in which the various characters, in particular David and Jackie Siegel, react and behave in the wake of their misfortune, nor the devastation they leave behind, nor even their children’s maturity in coping with their straitened circumstances compared to the parents’ own immaturity, but in how completely open the Siegels are in allowing the film-makers to track them and the ways in which they deal with the changes in their circumstances. Jackie copes by going on compulsive shopping splurges which result in a lot of waste and a considerable number of pet animals (bought for her children, who number eight in total plus a niece) dying unnecessarily because no-one knows how to look after them – the hired staff did all that but they’ve been let go – but she is clearly devoted to her husband and children, and is prepared to downsize her lifestyle. Her obsession with plastic surgery stems from a background of having been abused by her first husband and her desire to please her second husband David who – perhaps unsurprisingly – turns out to be the more contemptible figure. A Scrooge-like figure, David Siegel is uninterested in his younger children’s welfare – he has not even set aside money for their future education – and regards Jackie as a tiresome trophy wife cum compulsive shopper. Siegel’s idea of fun is to surround himself with 50 Miss America contestants in his home during a reception to promote the pageant: is this creepy or not for a man in his 70s?

One important part of the documentary is its description of the parasitic business model Westgate Resorts used that was the foundation of the Siegels’ excessive wealth: the company sold timeshare mortgages to people who dreamed of owning vacation homes for two weeks each year: homes that they would have to share with 26 other starry-eyed owners who were also sold timeshare mortgages, regardless of their ability to pay. Siegel then bundled these mortgages together in packages and used them as collateral to borrow even more money from banks to build more resorts which were then sold to more ordinary working folks who had to buy timeshare mortgages … and so the cycle continued. This particular house of cards was bound to collapse along with the banks that pursued similar lending policies once their respective vacation home and property bubbles burst. Once the money dries up and Westgate Resorts’ business model falls apart, Siegel becomes obsessed with holding onto a lavish hotel in Las Vegas. This means 7,000 Westgate Resorts employees are suddenly thrown into unemployment queues (presumably with no advice as to how to find work and no employment references) and the household staff are cut down with no thought as to how the Siegel children will be affected. Two nannies from the Philippines speak of how working for the Siegels has impacted on their families back home: one woman has not seen her children, siblings and parents for years on end.

As the weeks, months and eventually years drag on, the family’s financial situation becomes even more dire and relationships among the Siegels become very estranged. David Siegel retreats into his office amid a tower of papers and bills he refuses to pay, and doomsday in the form of a letter from the ban informing the couple of impending foreclosure encroaches upon them. While initially Jackie Siegel continues to stack up mounds of shopping, few of which she or her children need, the blonde bombshell turns out to be more realistic than her husband: she begins donating unwanted toys, clothes and other items to charity, she teaches her daughters how to prepare family meals and she anticipates having to move into a four-bedroom home that will be physically squeezy for a family of ten but plenty of room for steadfast and unconditional love (mostly coming from her).

At the end of the film, the family’s manifold problems remain unresolved but Jackie holds her head high as she surveys the crumbling ruins of her Versailles home and gardens. Whatever her faults and weaknesses, one has to admire Jackie for her lack of guile, her pluck and her loyalty to her family and friends. She tries to help an old school-friend keep her home by giving her $5,000 but unfortunately once the friend’s bank starts foreclosure proceedings, it insists on going through to the bitter end and the friend loses her home. On the other hand, David Siegel elicits little sympathy from viewers for his greed, his lack of reflection and his pathological need to hang onto that hotel in Las Vegas against all advice. Incredibly he boasts about having put George W Bush in power as US President before having second thoughts about admitting to doing something illegal and undemocratic to strangers who might report him.

Most viewers outside the US will wonder at the kind of psychopathic society that enables people like David Siegel and his company, and financial institutions to prey on and exploit the dreams and hopes of ordinary Americans for a better life, if not a luxurious one given to excess, and through their own short-sighted stupidity, avarice and incompetence bring a whole society crashing down in a succession of debt bubbles, in the process wiping out the middle class and sending huge numbers into poverty and destitution. While the film does not say anything about the context in which Westgate Resorts thrived by exploiting people’s dreams and desires, let alone pass judgement on it, nevertheless overseas audiences are likely to notice the apparent lack of proper government or other institutional oversight of an industry that allowed such corporate parasites to prey on the vulnerable and the unsuspecting.

Since the documentary was made, David Siegel attempted to sue the film-makers but failed. Jackie Siegel appeared on Celebrity Wife Swap. In mid-2015, the couple’s 18-year-old daughter Victoria died from an accidental overdose of methadone. Westgate Resorts has recovered to become a lucrative timeshare business once again, employing some 4,700 people and earning billions in sales revenues. The Siegels may one day be able to complete the construction of their Versailles mansion and move in. One wonders though what sort of “Happily Ever After” world will greet them if and when they do.

A riveting morality tale of corporate greed, sociopathy and Social Darwinism in “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”

Alex Gibney, “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” (2005)

A bit gimmicky in parts, especially in its transitions, but overall this documentary on the biggest corporate bankruptcy in pre-2008 US financial history is a riveting morality tale on the astonishing rise of energy corporation Enron and its equally astounding fall. Even with its chronological structure, the film exudes drama and an unreal and rather inhuman energy behind the company’s rollercoaster rise to fame and infamy. I can’t help but think that the company’s founders, executives and traders not only couldn’t believe their luck but also kept on pushing it to see how far they could go without being caught, knowing all the while that the more they pushed, the more likely they would be arrested, the more likely the company would fall – and fall hard. I also wonder if, had I been in their situation, whether I also would have pushed my luck and gambled hard, just as they did, if the money was continually flooding in my direction as a result of my misdeeds.

Enron begins drily enough with its founder Kenneth Lay, the Missouri-bred son of a Baptist preacher man, imbibing the ideology of free markets and deregulation, establishing Enron as an energy company in the early heady days of US President Ronald Reagan’s first term during which he set the ball rolling by sacking striking air traffic controllers campaigning for better wages and working conditions. Lay soon finds willing people to work for him and with him – firstly, two crooked traders engaged in risky trading and profit skimming who brought millions to the company, then later Jeff Skilling, Andy Fastow, Lou Pai among others – and with insider trading, the creation of dummy companies to hide debts, the declaration of profits that haven’t yet been earned and various creative accounting schemes, Enron grows very quickly indeed. Such quick growth though comes with expectations both within and without to do better and bigger, and the corruption begins to infiltrate right through the company culture. Skilling himself institutes a cut-throat culture in which employees are forced to compete among themselves in ever more predatory and pitiless behaviours if only to save their own hides from the sack.

Narrator Peter Coyote provides enough background and framework for the interviewees to tell their sides of the tale. Included among the interviewees is Fortune reporter Bethany McLean, co-author of the book “The Smartest Guys in the Room” on which the film is partly based; she and Enron whistle-blower Sherron Watkins emerge as the heroes of the film. A trader appears repentant as he recounts his involvement in the energy market manipulations that took advantage of California’s deregulation of its electricity and led to the rolling electricity blackouts that resulted in billions of dollars’ worth of real damage to that state’s economy and in various wildfires in parts.

One would think that the rollercoaster ride that was Enron’s history would be enough for this documentary but Gibney resorts to some cheap tricks to pad it out – fortunately the tale itself is compulsive enough that such glitches can be forgiven. The main deficiency of the film is to concentrate mostly on the central figures of Lay, Skilling, Fastow and their fellow rogues; while there is mention of other firms that helped Enron in its criminality (auditor Arthur Andersen being one guilty party that ended up being destroyed by Enron’s downfall), the film fails to address the central problem behind all the corporate shenanigans, this being the corporate capitalist system, the assumptions and values it relies on, the thinking, the behaviours and the particular cultures it generates as a result, and – most of all – the overall political culture, represented by the Bush family (members of which were close buddies of Kenneth lay) and itself shot through with layers of corporate corruption, that encouraged it. Instead there is a bizarre detour into a shallow investigation of Stanley Milgram’s famous Yale University experiments on authority and compliance, with the insinuation that ordinary people – the traders, the middle-level management – in the company are as much to blame as the Enron executives. There is nothing about how the Social Darwinist culture deliberately imported into Enron by Skilling might have created fear among most employees and stoked psychopathic behaviour in others.

What’s even more breath-taking than the corporate crimes is the actions of Lay, Skilling and some other senior Enron executives as they see their version of the Titanic sailing into the iceberg of ruin: they quickly decamp as fast as they can, taking millions in profits and golden handshakes, while investors and employees alike see their money disappear faster than you can say abracadabra.

Before the tying of loose ends and the rolling end credits, the film concludes with a warning from Watkins that what happened at Enron will happen again. It is a timely warning but unfortunately a warning that those who most need to hear it have ignored (as the Bernie Madoff pyramid scheme debacle and the 2008 collapse of Lehmann Brothers demonstrated) and will ignore again.

Getting a handle on Modern Monetary Theory (or trying to) on “Warren Mosler: What Modern Monetary Theory tells Us about Economic Policy”

“Warren Mosler: What Modern Monetary Theory tells Us about Economic Policy” (Institute for New Economic Thinking, July 2013)

This interview focussing on Warren Mosler’s explanation of Modern Monetary Theory was the first in a series of video interviews made by the Institute for New Economic Thinking in 2013. Mosler is the president of a financial services firm, Valance Company, and is one of the founders of Modern Monetary Theory which challenges conventional beliefs about how money operates in modern economies and offers explanations and solutions to addressing and solving current problems and crises in Western economies. The theory has attracted quite a bit of attention in recent years to the extent that it and Mosler were the subject of a New York Times article in 2013 which portrayed him as an enthusiast for government deficit spending.

Anyone wanting to know what Modern Monetary Theory is all about and whether it is a credible alternative to neoliberal economics or just a rehashed version of Keynesian economics or social credit theory won’t find very much in this video that explains what it is in a nutshell. The interview takes the form of a conversation that ranges over a number of topics such as the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and how various countries were affected and their response to it. Particular financial and accounting issues are discussed but the basic thrust of MMT – what it believes a healthy functioning economy should look like, what philosophical assumptions underpin its ideas, and what the roles of governments, corporations, individuals, households and other stake-holders are or should be in an economy governed by MMT – is not explained. People outside the US not familiar with the particular problems of the US economy will be confused. Mosler speaks quite softly and quickly so much of what he says can go over listeners’ heads.

Mosler notes that most current crises in modern economies have arisen due to mistaken ideas about how money circulates and economies operate, and to existing economic paradigms that circumscribe economic thinking and shut off options and solutions to those making economic policy. (Of course there is also the fact that governments are beholden to those who fund their election campaigns and who demand that governments follow particular economic belief systems and ideologies that benefit them, and not the Great Unwashed who participate as voters.) Mosler states that governments that issue currency are actually always financially solvent: a revelation that will surprise most people. Government spending stimulates money creation and circulation, leading to job creation; the goal being to generate full employment. The function of taxation – incidentally Mosler advocates abolishing income tax and replacing it with a real estate tax (a land tax maybe?) – is to ensure people use the currency, to regulate demand and control inflation, and to help stimulate even more government spending if needed, rather than to force ordinary working people to forgo spending so that they can have the public services they need. According to Mosler, governments should spend as much as they want and budgetary controls are not needed. (The fact that in the US, the Department of Defense’s spending runs into the billions and billions with no apparent controls and very few knowing where much of that money goes suggests that budgeting and controlling expenditure are very abstract notions indeed.)

I’m sure if the interview had been a bit more structured and less conversational, it would flow more awkwardly and unnaturally but at least most viewers would get a handle on the basic ideas of MMT and how it is similar to Keynesian economics and other alternative theories on the function of money in societies and how to run economies. Those interested in how MMT works are directed to the Wikipedia article on the subject.

There have been criticisms hurled at the theory from economists but these criticisms seem to stem mostly from the critics’ own biases against MMT and concentrate on details of MMT rather than on its fundamental beliefs and ideas.

5 Biggest No Campaign Economics Scare Stories Debunked: cherry-picking easy targets to attack so as to look good

Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp / Business For Scotland, “5 Biggest No Campaign Economics Scare Stories Debunked” (September 2014)

At this time of writing, there remain just a few days to go until Scotland has its independence referendum and already the pro-independence and the anti-independence camps have escalated their war of words across the UK media to a shrill intensity. To counter some of the fear tactics and scare stories concerning how an independent Scotland will cope and thrive economically, Business For Scotland’s Chief Executive Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp has come out with guns blazing in a series of short videos, all of which can be viewed on Youtube, to explain how Scotland can pay its own way and fulfill its independence dreams. He concentrates on five scare stories that the No Campaign has been drumming up and which various Business For Scotland speakers and campaigners have had to confront the most in meetings and interviews, and demolishes the objections the No Campaign has raised. All the videos in which MacIntyre-Kemp takes apart the scare stories are very brief, running for less than three minutes each. They can be viewed at this Business For Scotland link.

In Video 1, MacIntyre-Kemp addresses the issue of bank bail-outs and points out that the two major banks in Scotland, the Royal Bank of Scotland and HBOS, were bailed out in the cities where they are headquartered or registered; that is, in the City of London and New York City. He ends his talk by suggesting that banks headquartered in Scotland should be nationalised and regulated so that they are not allowed to rack up huge debts and require massive multi-billion pound bail-outs.

Video 2 deals with the issue of who subsidises Scotland: MacIntyre-Kemp turns that assumption on its head by pointing out that Scotland contributes more in tax revenues to Westminister than it receives back. In Video 3, he tackles the issue of how Scotland will be able to prop up public services like pensions and asserts that Scotland will lock in increases  to pensions which will be based on increases in average weekly earnings. He argues that a revitalised economy will be able to arrest a brain drain of young qualified professionals away from Scotland and at the same time attract skilled immigrants and together these groups will provide a substantial tax base that will support pension payments to the elderly and the needy.

Currency is the focus of Video 4 as for the time being Scotland expects to continue using pound sterling after independence. MacIntyre-Kemp suggests the confusion over the issue of currency has been stirred up deliberately by Westminster to persuade people to vote No. Should Scotland opt for independence, the most likely scenario will be that the Bank of England will support currency union between Scotland and the rest of the UK to help stabilise the economies of the two states. In the final video, MacIntyre-Kemp explains how Scotland will be able to pay its way as an independent country, pointing out that among other things it will not need a large defence force and will commit itself to creating a society with sustainability as a core value. He rounds off his series of videos by declaring that the issue of Scottish independence isn’t about the economics but about seizing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to strike out and create a fairer and more just society that could serve as an example for others including the rest of Britain to follow.

The videos are easy on the eye – they just feature MacIntyre-Kemp against a white background over which figures and facts float temporarily to illustrate what he says.

I admit to surprise that in all of these videos MacIntyre-Kemp doesn’t mention the issue of North Sea oil and how much oil really is within Scotland’s maritime territories to its north. This is significant if Scotland plans not only to adopt Scandinavian-influenced social welfare policies which in themselves would cost a fair few cool hundred billion pounds a year but also to invest in renewable energies and eventually wean itself off fossil fuels. Even if there were enough oil to last Scotland several decades (let alone some of the more optimistic claims that the oil could last a century!), there is the problem of how Scotland will finance exploration and drilling for the oil and how it will be able to control revenues and direct the bulk of them into a sovereign wealth fund and away from unproductive financial transactions such as property speculation (which drives up real estate prices in cities and towns), various debt bubbles and ingenious but ultimately harmful financial engineering schemes that make money disappear into tax haven black holes or unscrupulous scamsters’ bank accounts. Even before all this, there’s the problem as to whether Scotland will be able to claim the oil resources in its waters on behalf of its people before the US or UK pressures the country’s government through under-handed tactics: in this context, for Scotland to assume that currency union will ensure stable economies on both sides of Hadrian’s Wall might be naive in the least.

Another big problem is that an independent Scotland cannot rely completely on oil resources whose market prices can vary from one year to the next depending on what other oil exporters are able to sell and the levels of global demand for oil. The country could rely on providing financial services and inviting foreign companies to establish factories (Scottish manufacturing having declined over the last half-century or so under Westminister rule) but at a cost of offering subsidies, tax relief and other incentives (like low wages, importing Third World labour and waiving or ignoring OHS regulations) to compete against the rest of Britain and Ireland. This could well pull funding away from building up a social welfare net for citizens, a sovereign wealth fund and renewable energy projects and into the coffers of foreign firms.

There is a very real possibility also that the EU will not accept Scotland as a member unless and until its government imposes an austerity package on its citizens and conforms to other EU, World Bank and IMF requirements. Even if Scotland were to agree to undergo austerity, forgo developing a social welfare net and to restructure its institutions according to EU, World Bank and IMF guidelines, full EU membership cannot be guaranteed.

The assumption that small European countries are wealthier than larger European countries is lazy: Greece, Ireland and Portugal are being squeezed by their crippling debt and austerity programs, and several EU member states in eastern Europe (Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia) are not exactly thriving either. About 1 in 5 people in Lithuania are living at near-poverty levels or below and similar proportions of the populations in Estonia and Latvia are also living close to near-poverty levels. Latvia is said to be losing 30,000 people a year as young adults are voting with their feet in search of employment. As for the wealthy small European countries, Luxembourg derives a considerable part of its wealth from being a tax haven as does Switzerland: hardly worthy examples for Scotland to follow.

Even so, in spite of what I have just said, I do realise the September 2014 referendum is a unique opportunity for Scotland’s citizens to decide on the future direction of their country. It will be a momentous event, one that may have flow-on consequences for what remains of the United Kingdom: it may well start conversations within England, Wales and Northern Ireland themselves as to their futures and devolving more power to the public away from their elites. As Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp says at the end of Video 5, independence isn’t just about economics, it’s about starting anew with a new set of values that stress fairness, justice, equality and sustainability.

Detroit Water Crisis – A Prelude to the Privatization of Water: activism with passion, creativity and a positive attitude

Dutch Merrick, “Detroit Water Crisis: A Prelude to the Privatization of Water” (Acronym TV, 21 August 2014)

For a major part of the 20th century, the city of Detroit was one of the richest if not the richest city in the United States thanks to its being the epicentre of US automobile manufacturing . The city was a major focus for labour union activity as a result of the dominance of car manufacturing; the famous labour union leader Jimmy Hoffa was a native of Detroit. The city was a magnet for immigrants attracted by the work in car-making factories which paid well and offered great working conditions, and in time a distinctive culture of art and music arose: Motown Records was based in Detroit, the city produced many famous musicians, singers and song-writers, and techno, originally a fusion of electronic-based music, disco and African-American forms of pop music, originated in Detroit.

Since 1970, and maybe even well before then, Detroit has seen a long decline in its fortunes as the US auto industry has had to yield to competing manufacturers in Europe and Asia, and the economy of the US and in particular of the US Midwest has declined. At the same time, successive US governments have succumbed to the lure of monetarist / neoliberal economic policies which over time have gutted social and economic infrastructures across America and driven the slow death of the US middle class. As a primarily car-making town, Detroit has borne the brunt of deindustrialisation and the result is that in recent years the city has shrunk alarmingly with the consequence that its taxpayer base has also dwindled, families have been forced out of their homes by bank foreclosures in the wake of the subprime mortgage bubble bust, and neighbourhoods have become ghost towns. The city government has now commenced cutting off necessary utilities in many suburbs and one of these is water.

The Acronym TV program focuses in the main on Dennis Trainor Jr’s interview with Atpeace Makita, an activist volunteer working with the Detroit Water Brigade alerting people to the city’s decision to cut off water supplies to areas where poor people live. Makita herself has had her water supply stopped as a result of being unable to pay her water bills (she is a single parent of five children) and faces a very real possibility of losing her children to foster care.

In the interview, after a brief video by Detroit Water Brigade is shown, Makita details what can happen to families whose water is cut off as a result of falling delinquent on their water bills. Articulate and passionate about the cause she is fighting for, Makita talks about the problems households face when they have no water and the mental stress that lack of access brings. Families also suffer discrimination and censure from other people for apparently bringing water shut-offs on themselves because they could not pay the water bills. She goes on to emphasise how access to water is a basic human right due to the nature of our biology (our bodies are 70% water) and how she counters opinions that if people don’t pay their water bills, they deserve to have their water cut off.

Makita talks about her work as a volunteer Creative Director with Detroit Water Brigade and what the organisation is doing to create public awareness of water access issues. The culture of the organisation is important in generating and maintaining a positive, vibrant attitude in a struggle that faces enormous obstacles and opposition from government and corporations. To that end, Makita discusses the way in which DWB encourages an inclusive, warm approach in recruiting activists and conducting its activities which include arts campaigns and other creative events. The message within DWB’s drive is to change people’s attitudes about how their society currently functions and how it could function, and to instill a positive, energetic outlook that inspires people to respect one another, look out and care for one another, and to create a new society based on compassion and an awareness that everyone and everything is connected.

The interview is very wide-ranging and Makita comes across as a very dynamic and fast-talking (maybe a little too fast-talking!) advocate for social justice. Interviewer Trainor is sympathetic towards Makita which in a way isn’t good in that he does not ask her very challenging questions about how DWB confronts the powers that took away people’s access to water in the first place. How does DWB deal with government and corporations, how does it help people who stand to lose their homes or even be charged with and convicted of child neglect because they have had their water cut off, what would happen if DWB activists were persecuted or jailed for their campaigning: these are some issues that Trainor might have raised. Educating people to see that access to water and other basics of life should not be dependent on their ability to pay (and attacking the neoliberal ideology that underpins such an attitude) but instead should be free or provided by communities or collective institutions is another hurdle.

After the interview ends, I come away with the belief that if Makita is representative of mainstream America, Detroit may again lead the rest of the country in a very different direction, one not based on particular technology and the culture that grew up around it but a direction based on authentic human values of care for one’s fellow humans and other creatures, and a new culture resulting from that.

The interview can be viewed at this Youtube link.