22 March 2017

Wealth Gap Series

This series explores the widening Wealth Gap and its impact on class and race relations, excerpting heavily from Thomas Piketty, Professor at the Paris School of Economics, who has explored the structural cause of the wealth gap in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century published in 2014. He created quite a stir, getting both rave reviews and harsh critiques. He brought the issue of a widening wealth gap to the limelight and has shown how war mitigated extreme wealth gaps in the past. And without a discussion and resolution, war may again mitigate the current wealth gap extreme.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty, Professor Paris School of Economics, 2014, Excerpts
The central thesis of this book is that a small gap between the return on capital and the rate of income growth can in the long run have powerful and destabilizing effects on the structure and dynamics of social inequality.

The concentration of wealth and prospects for economic growth lie at the heart of political economy. The main driver of inequality – the tendency of returns on capital to exceed the rate of income growth – generates extreme inequalities that stir discontent and undermine democratic values.

There is no fundamental reason why we should believe that growth is automatically balanced. We should put the question of inequality back at the center of economic analysis and begin asking questions first raised in the nineteenth century. For far too long, economists have neglected the distribution of wealth.

Ultra-rich protect wealth with spread of 'family offices'
16 Mar 2017
The ultra-rich in London are increasingly protecting their wealth through the use of "family offices", says research from the London School of Economics. These are teams of professionals - such as lawyers, financiers and psychologists - employed to ensure the "dynastic wealth" of the super-rich, they support a "bunkered" and "fortified" way of life of the "global super-rich". The growth of extreme wealth, alongside poverty and low-income families, means that there needs to be more analysis of how such wealth is perpetuated, the study suggests.

Obama’s Farewell Address, Excerpts
10 Jan 2017
Our democracy won’t work without a sense that everyone has economic opportunity. Our economy doesn’t work as well or grow as fast when a few prosper at the expense of a growing middle class, and ladders for folks who want to get into the middle class.

Stark inequality is corrosive to our democratic idea. While the top 1 percent has amassed a bigger share of wealth and income, too many of our families in inner cities and in rural counties have been left behind. Convinced that the game is fixed against them. That their government only serves the interest of the powerful. That’s a recipe for more cynicism and polarization in our politics.

If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and an undeserving minority, then workers of all shades are going to be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves.

Britain's inequality map - stark and growing
02 Dec 2016
Andy Haldane, the Bank of England's chief economist is not only worried about the inequality of those on the lowest incomes versus the very rich, but also with those regions which have fallen behind in the race for economic growth since the financial crisis. Most concerning for a government which has pledged to make the economy work "for all" - which presumably means across geographies as well as income bands - is that the issue is becoming more acute.

UK one of the most unequal countries, says Oxfam
13 Sep 2016
The richest 1% of the UK population owns more than 20 times the wealth of the poorest fifth, according to Oxfam. That made Britain one of the most unequal countries in the developed world and contributed to the vote for Brexit, the charity said. The report said many people in the UK felt locked out of politics and economic opportunity. Rachael Orr, head of Oxfam's UK Program, said: "Inequality is a massive barrier to tackling poverty and has created an economy that clearly isn't working for everyone."

Wealth Over Work
23 Mar 2014
It seems safe to say that “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” the magnum opus of the French economist Thomas Piketty, will be the most important economics book of the year — and maybe of the decade. Mr. Piketty, arguably the world’s leading expert on income and wealth inequality, does more than document the growing concentration of income in the hands of a small economic elite. He also makes a powerful case that we’re on the way back to “patrimonial capitalism,” in which the commanding heights of the economy are dominated not just by wealth, but also by inherited wealth, in which birth matters more than effort and talent.

Wikipedia: Wealth inequality in the United States
The rich are accumulating more assets while the middle and working classes are just getting by. Currently, the richest 1% hold about 38% of all privately held wealth in the United States while the bottom 90% held 73% of all debt. According to the New York Times, the "richest 1 percent in the United States now own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent".

The distributive nature of tax policy has been suggested by some economists and politicians such as Emmanuel Saez, Thomas Piketty, and Barack Obama to perpetuate economic inequality in America by steering large sums of wealth into the hands of the wealthiest Americans. This claim has created much controversy and debate within the academic and political spheres.

Racial disparities: There are many causes, but inheritance might be the most important. Inheritance can directly link the disadvantaged economic position and prospects of today's blacks to the disadvantaged positions of their parents' and grandparents' generations.

In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, French economist Thomas Piketty argues that "extremely high levels" of wealth inequality are "incompatible with the meritocratic values and principles of social justice fundamental to modern democratic societies" and that "the risk of a drift towards oligarchy is real and gives little reason for optimism about where the United States is headed.

20 March 2017

Billboards in the News

Billboard Series

Anti-Trump billboard in Arizona prompts death threats against artist
20 Mar 2017
Karen Fiorito was commissioned by a company for the local arts in Phoenix to create the billboard. The Santa Monica-based artist earned a master’s degree in arts from Arizona State University. Since the Trump billboard went up Friday, the 25-year-old artist said she has received both positive and negative feedback, including a few death threats. The dollar swastikas, she said, represent “corporate power and greed and how our society has become all about money and corporatism.”

'Incredibly Creepy' Billboards to Track Behavior of Passers-By
29 Feb 2016
Billboards across the country will soon begin to spy on the behavior of passers-by and sell that data to advertisers. Clear Channel Outdoor Americas, which owns tens of thousands of billboards nationwide, is on Monday announcing plans to use people's cell phones to allow its billboards to track the behavior of everyone who walks or drives past the ads. The marketing behemoth is partnering with AT&T and other companies that track human behavior to collect data on viewers' activity, which advertisers could then use to create hyper-targeted ads—similar to how websites track visitors through their browsers and sell that data to online marketers. Facial-recognition technology is also increasingly used by advertisers to track behavior in public spaces. In Germany, the Astra beer brand recently created an automated billboard that noted when women walked past. The billboard approximated the women’s age, then played one of several prerecorded ads to match.

Giant ads for Verizon, Super Bowl are illegal, S.F. says
27 Jan 2016
Two large banners advertising Super Bowl 50 and Verizon Wireless recently installed on the Four Embarcadero building in San Francisco will shrink substantially following the threat of a lawsuit from the city attorney's office, officials said today. The banners, which cover most of the building on two sides, can be seen towering over the Super Bowl City fan village area now taking shape at Justin Herman Plaza. In a letter dated Jan. 25, City Attorney Dennis Herrera said his office has received complaints about the signs, which violate a city law passed by voters in 2002 that prohibits any new general advertising signs in San Francisco. The letter said the signs need to be removed by 5 p.m. on Thursday or the city would file a lawsuit and seek a temporary restraining order and fines.

Skyscraper Billboard SF

Targeting racist trolls by putting their comments on billboards
30 Nov 2015

Brazilians who post racist abuse online may see their words blown up and pasted onto billboards near their houses. The campaign is called "Virtual racism, real consequences" and it's backed by Criola, a civil rights organization run by Afro-Brazilian women. The group collects comments from Facebook or Twitter and uses geolocation tools to find out where the people who have posted them live. They then buy billboard space nearby and post the comments in huge letters, although names and photos are pixelated.

Billboard art show confronts Missouri drivers head-on
31 May 2015
SOMEWHERE ON INTERSTATE 70, Missouri — Those who spend a lot of time on I-70 can confirm that it’s easy to let your mind drift while driving this 250-mile stretch of Missouri. Missouri has five times the national average number of billboards: about 15,000 billboards. Cars, food, porn, Jesus — everything is advertised on the giant structures. Thus the “I-70 Sign Show” was born. Funded by the University of Missouri, the show displays critical art pieces on a billboards. The pieces are meant to challenge and critique the political, social and commercial noise that confronts drivers. The “I-70 Sign Show” piece that got the most feedback, New York artist Mel Bochner’s piece, simply reads, “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”

Obscene image shown on hacked US billboard
21 May 2015
Hackers have managed to make a huge video billboard in Atlanta display an obscene image favored by internet pranksters. It prompted calls to police, and soon after, the billboard's owner cut off its power supply. The hack came after a security researcher warned the company, which runs thousands of the video billboards, that they were vulnerable to attack. The FBI and Homeland Security are now investigating the hack. The billboard is owned by US electric-sign giant Yesco, which runs thousands of similar billboards across America. Other signs in other states are also believed to have had their images changed at the same time. A group calling itself the Assange Shuffle Collective claimed responsibility for the attack, in a discussion on social news site Reddit.

Google rents world's biggest digital billboard in Times Square
19 Nov 2014

Google has become the first company to rent to the world's largest and most expensive digital billboard in Times Square, New York. The billboard is eight stories high and is estimated to cost $2.5m (£1.6m) to hire for four weeks. The screen, which is the size of a football field, is mounted on the side of the Marriot Marquis hotel. Around 300,000 pedestrians are estimated to pass by the billboard every day.

Dangling dummies shock Las Vegas commuters
08 Mar 2012
Mannequins hanging from nooses on two Las Vegas billboards Wednesday were part of an apparent publicity stunt that led to dozens of calls from drivers on their morning commute, the Nevada Highway Patrol said. The dummies were dressed in business suits and hung from signs reading "Dying for work" and "Hope you're happy Wall St." It wasn't immediately clear who was behind the stunt. Both highways are some of the most highly traveled roadways during commuter hours.

17 Jul 2012
The Brandalism project saw 25 artists from 8 countries coming together for the biggest subvertising campaign in UK history.  Over five days a team of guerilla installers travelled to Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Bristol and London and put up artworks that seeks to confront the ad industry and take back our visual landscapes.

Gallery Page

2010 AZ Billboard
On the way to the Grand Canyon for a family vacation in summer of 2010, we passed through Kingman, Arizona on the old Route 66. Pictured is a billboard promoting the governor of Arizona, Jan Brewer, “doing the job the feds won’t do” with the ‘o’ in ‘won’t’ depicting the Obama symbol. Using a popular WWII poster, a much younger Jan Brewer is pictured as Rosie the Riveter. “Doing the job the feds won’t do” is in reference to Arizona’s controversial immigration policy regarding the protection of its borders. Whether one agrees with Arizona’s immigration policy or not, Governor Jan Brewer's billboard demonstrates that billboards still play a key role in the promotion of a public opinion.

14 March 2017

Civilizations and Usury

A History of Interest Rates by Sidney Homer, Rutgers University Press, 1963

Credit is sometimes considered a modern device or even a modern vice. It is true that a few new credit forms have been developed in our century and statistics reflecting the growth of the volume of credit during recent decades are impressive. But a glance through the pages of financial history will dispel the notion of novelty. Credit was in general use in ancient and medieval times. Credit long antedated industry, banking and even coinage; it probably antedated primitive forms of money.

For example, about 1800 B.C., Hammurabi, a king of the first dynasty of ancient Babylonia, gave his people their earliest formal code of laws. A number of chief provisions of this code regulated the relation of debtor to creditor. The maximum rate of interest was set at 33 1/3% per annum for loans of grain repayable in kind, and at 20% per annum for loans of silver by weight.

Twelve hundred years later, around 600 B.C., the legal history of classical Greece began with the laws of Solon. Drastic reforms were then called for by an economic crisis in Athens stemming in part from excessive debt and widespread personal slavery for debt.

The Romans also began their legal history with a body of laws regulating credit. This, too, was forced by a crisis characterized by excessive debt.

These three examples from the earliest days of historic Babylon, Greece and Rome are enough to support the conclusion that credit at interest was widespread enough to create major political problems before the emergence of written history.

Usury, or interest, was fundamental to the economics of these great civilizations, driving its unsustainable growth and eventual collapse. Modern civilization has the same trappings of past fates.

The Dance of Death by Chris Hedges
13 Mar 2017 
The graveyard of world empires—Sumerian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Mayan, Khmer, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian—followed the same trajectory of moral and physical collapse. Civilizations in decline, despite the palpable signs of decay around them, remain fixated on restoring their “greatness.” Their illusions condemn them. They cannot see that the forces that gave rise to civilization are the same forces that are extinguishing it. Their leaders are trained only to serve the system. And when the last moments of a civilization arrive, the degenerate edifices of power appear to crumble overnight.

Those who rule at the end of empire are psychopaths, imbeciles, narcissists and deviants, the equivalents of the depraved Roman emperors Caligula, Nero, Tiberius and Commodus. The ecosystem that sustains the empire is degraded and exhausted. Economic growth, concentrated in the hands of elites, is dependent on a crippling debt peonage imposed on the population. The bloated ruling class of oligarchs, priests, courtiers, mandarins, eunuchs, professional warriors, financial speculators and corporate managers sucks the marrow out of society. Capitalism ruthlessly commodifies human beings and the natural world to extract profit until exhaustion or collapse. Culture is degraded to patriotic kitsch. Education is designed only to instill technical proficiency to serve the engine of capitalism. Historical amnesia shuts us off from the past, the present and the future. Those branded as unproductive or redundant are discarded and left to struggle in poverty or locked away in cages. State repression is indiscriminant and brutal.

The elites’ myopic response to the looming collapse of the natural world and the civilization is to make subservient populations work harder for less, squander capital in grandiose projects such as pyramids, palaces, border walls and fracking, and wage war. Increasing military spending and taking the needed funds out of domestic programs typifies the behavior of terminally ill civilizations. When the Roman Empire fell, it was trying to sustain an army of half a million soldiers that had become a parasitic drain on state resources.

07 March 2017

In which countries is Coca-Cola not sold?

Tamil Nadu: Traders ban Pepsi, Coca-Cola to support local products
01 Mar 2017

Traders in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu have banned the sale of Coca-Cola and Pepsi in favor of local products. The associations say that soft drinks firms take too much water from rivers, leaving farmers struggling to irrigate their land at a time of severe drought. "Drinks like Pepsi and Coca-Cola are not good for your health because of their high sugar and chemical content. We are promoting Indian soft drinks, and will encourage better sales of fruit juices."  The Indian Beverage Association (IBA) said the ban "was against the proven fundamentals of robust economic growth.” More than a million shopkeepers are expected to comply with the ban. Pepsi and Coca-Cola have not commented on the ban.

Coca-Cola opens its first plant in Burma for 60 years
04 Jun 2013
Coca-Cola has opened a bottling plant in Burma - the first time it has had a production facility there for more than 60 years. The world's largest soft-drink maker is one of the first US firms to invest in Burma following Washington's decision to suspend sanctions against the country. Coca-Cola has pledged to invest $200 million, and create thousands of jobs. There are now only two countries where the company does not do business. It left Cuba after the revolution, when Fidel Castro's government began seizing private assets, and it has never operated in North Korea.

In which countries is Coca-Cola not sold?
11 Sep 2012
After almost 60 years, Coca-Cola is on sale again in Burma. It's one of the world's most recognized brands, so are there any countries where the drinks giant still remains unsold? There are now just two countries in the world where Coca-Cola cannot be bought or sold - at least, not officially. They are Cuba and North Korea, which are both under long-term US trade embargoes (Cuba since 1962 and North Korea since 1950).

Coca-Cola's entry into any country is a powerful symbol, says Tom Standage, author of A History of the World in Six Glasses. "Coca-Cola is the nearest thing to capitalism in a bottle.” Not all countries have embraced the American-ness that seems to be embodied by Coca-Cola. It was the French who first coined the pejorative term "coca-colonization" in the 1950s. Trucks were overturned and bottles smashed as protesters saw the drink as a threat to French society. During the Cold War, Coca-Cola became a symbol of capitalism and a fault-line between capitalism and communism.

In 2003, protesters in Thailand poured Coca-Cola onto the streets as a demonstration against the US-led invasion of Iraq, and sales were temporarily suspended. Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has threatened to ban Coca-Cola and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez recently urged people to drink locally-made fruit juice rather than drink Coca-Cola or Pepsi.

Coca Cola announced plans to invest a record $4 billion in China between 2012 and 2014. It is the company's biggest ever China investment following the $2 billion it invested in the country in 2009.