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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

In This Season Of Feasting, Let's Celebrate Agriculture, Not Agribusines

In December 1972, I was part of a nationwide campaign that came tantalizingly close to getting the U.S. Senate to reject Earl Butz, Richard Nixon's choice for secretary of agriculture.

A coalition of grassroots farmers, consumers, and scrappy public interest organizations (like the Agribusiness Accountability Project that Susan DeMarco and I then headed) teamed up with some gutsy, unabashedly progressive senators to undertake the almost impossible challenge of defeating the cabinet nominee of a president who'd just been re-elected in a landslide.

The 51 to 44 Senate vote was so close because we were able to expose Butz as ... well, as butt-ugly — a shameless flack for big food corporations that gouge farmers and consumers alike. We brought the abusive power of corporate agribusiness into the public consciousness for the first time, but we had won only a moral victory, since there he was, ensconced in the seat of power. It horrified us that Nixon had been able to squeeze Butz into that seat, yet it turned out to be a blessing.

An arrogant, brusque, narrow-minded and dogmatic ag economist, Butz had risen to prominence in the small (but politically powerful) world of agriculture by devoting himself to the corporate takeover of the global food economy. He was dean of agriculture at Purdue University, but also a paid board member of Ralston Purina and other agribusiness giants. In these roles, he openly promoted the preeminence of middleman food manufacturers over family farmers, whom he disdained.

"Agriculture is no longer a way of life," he infamously barked at them. "It's a business." He callously instructed farmers to "Get big or get out" — and he then proceeded to shove tens of thousands of them out by promoting an export-based, conglomeratized, industrialized, globalized and heavily subsidized corporate-run food economy. "Adapt," he warned farmers, "or die." The ruination of farms and rural communities, Butz added, "releases people to do something useful in our society."

The whirling horror of Butz, however, spun off a blessing, which is that innovative, free-thinking, populist-minded and rebellious small farmers and food artisans practically threw up at the resulting "Twinkieization" of America's food. They were sickened that nature's own rich contribution to human culture was being turned into just another plasticized product of corporate profiteers.

"The central problem with modern industrial agriculture... (is) not just that it produces unhealthy food, mishandles waste, and overuses antibiotics in ways that harm us all. More fundamentally, it has no soul," said Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times columnist and former farm boy from Yamhill, Oregon. Rather than accept that, they threw themselves into creating and sustaining a viable, democratic alternative. The Good Food rebellion has since sprouted, spread and blossomed from coast to coast.

This transformative grassroots movement rebuts old Earl's insistence that agriculture is nothing but a business. It most certainly is a business, but it's a good business — literally producing goodness — because it's "a way of life" for enterprising, very hardworking people who practice the art and science of cooperating with Mother Nature, rather than always trying to overwhelm her. These farmers don't want to be massive or make a killing; they want to farm and make delicious, healthy food products that help enrich the whole community.

This spirit was summed up in one simple word by a sustainable farmer in Ohio, who was asked what he'd be if he wasn't a farmer. He replied: "Disappointed." To farmers like these, food embodies our full "culture" — a word that is, after all, sculpted right into "agriculture" and is essential to its organic meaning.

Although agriculture has forestalled the total takeover of our food by crass agribusiness, the corporate powers and their political hirelings continue to press for the elimination of the food rebels and ultimately to impose the Butzian vision of complete corporatization. This is one of the most important populist struggles occurring in our society. It's literally a fight for control of our dinner, and it certainly deserves a major focus as you sit down to your holiday dinners this year.

To find small-scale farmers, artisans, farmers markets, and other resources in your area for everything from organic tomatoes to pastured turkey, visit www.LocalHarvest.org.

To find out more about Jim Hightower and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.

'Free Market' Is Now A Thin Disguise For Monopoly Power

From our school years forward, the Holy Keepers of the Corporate Order drum it into our little heads that — HALLELUJAH! — we Americans are blessed to live in a "free market" economy. Wow — let's all thank our lucky stars!

But what exactly is a free market?

Well, explain the mystics, it's an economy ruled by the invisible but immutable forces of supply and demand, thus allowing basics like prices and wages to be self-regulating in an open market of pure competition. Such an economy, we're informed, is free from distorting interventions by cartels, price fixers, supply manipulators, lawmakers and so forth. Uh-huh, and on what planet does this magic market actually exist? Not on Planet Earth, USA, where "free market" is just a rhetorical deceit that means corporate powers are free to lock down the market — which frees them to profit by stiffing consumers, workers, suppliers and others.

And they certainly have done all that. In the last 40 years or so, a handful of ever-bigger predators have squeezed out and bought out, merged and purged, conglomerated and integrated, undermined and overpowered so many economic interests that America the Free has devolved into a corporate confederacy of anti-competitive, profiteering combines. We consumers feel the slap in the face of this monopoly power when confronted with drug companies' price gouging, credit card giants' hidden fees and internet providers' rip-offs.

But it's not just a few errant industries. Whole segments of our economy and society have been plunged into the black hole of monopolization, affecting us from cradle to grave, literally: Three global conglomerates control 85 percent of U.S. baby formula; just two corporations make 82 percent of our coffins.

While the word "monopoly" technically means that a single person or corporation controls 100 percent of something, a broader concept of monopoly power is attained when a handful of players collectively control enough of a market to prevent real competition by setting prices and wages, manipulating supply, stifling innovations, etc. And that is what's squeezing our economy.

Essentially these are "shared monopolies" — generally defined as four or fewer entities controlling more than 40 percent of any given market. An astonishing level of this domineering force has already devoured our society's free-market pretensions, including many common products and industries presently locked down by four or fewer giants. For instance, 99 percent of drugstores are owned by Walgreens, Rite Aid, or CVS, and 42 percent of all U.S. beer sales are controlled by one entity: Anheuser-Busch InBev.

Corporatists and their apologists would have us believe that monopoly is the natural result of hearty competition, rewarding those firms that have superior economic ingenuity and efficiency. There is, of course, nothing natural about it. Monopolies don't happen, they're fabricated, and while the instigator is lust for profit, the methods for creating them are even more abject.

STEP 1: By hook or crook, amass enough power (financial, political, etc.) to gain market advantages over competitors.

STEP 2: Use those advantages to accrue "monopoly profits" to gain more financial and political power to squeeze out competitors.

STEP 3: Repeat.

The objective of monopoly, though, is not solely to eliminate market competition, but also to eradicate society's political power to restrain corporate greed. Rarely mentioned by media or political leaders, one major, insidious impact of monopoly is that it centralizes the geography of power: When monopolistic corporations take over a community's grocery store, a city's airport, a county's hospital, a rural area's farm machinery dealer, and so forth, decisions about everything from prices to business practices — and sometimes the businesses themselves — leave town.

Market concentration might seem an esoteric matter of concern only to academics and lawyers, until you realize that it relocates the center of decision-making away from a community's consumers, workers, environmentalists, officials, et al., to some faraway, profiteering CEO you've never heard of, who's never been to your town, and who (PR posturing aside) doesn't give a damn what local yokels think.

This intentional distancing of power beyond people's reach has now gone global, for more and more of the major corporations locking down U.S. markets are based abroad — in Brazil, Holland, South Korea, Taiwan, the U.K., Canada, France, etc. How are suppliers, customers and other hometown folks supposed to get the attention (much less influence the decisions) of such remote powers? Of course, that's the point: Whether they're ensconced in a corporate bastion in Delaware or Hong Kong ... you can't touch them.

However, as previous generations have done, we can organize and mobilize and rebel against this flagrantly anti-American, plutocratic concentration of power, and many good organizations are doing just that: fighting monopoly power at the local, state, national and global levels. One such group is the Institute for Local Self Reliance, which fights the fight at the local level. Learn more at: https://ilsr.org.

To find out more about Jim Hightower and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.

GOP Supreme Court Justices Defrock Themselves

Reprinted with permission from Creators

Ralph Waldo Emerson told about a dinner guest in his home who spent the entire evening prattling on about his belief in virtue, honesty and his own integrity: "The louder he talked of his honor," Emerson wrote, "the faster we counted our spoons."

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Striketober Is Just As American As The World Series

Reprinted with permission from Creators

The corporate hierarchy has long tried to diminish labor activism in the U.S. by insisting that strikes and other workplace agitations have never had broad support or impact because they are fundamentally un-American. The corporatists cluck that from the get-go America's cultural zeitgeist has been grounded in veneration of individualism, appreciation for the financial blessings of the corporate order and rejection of collectivism.

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Feeding Workers To Resist Greedy, Grifting ExxonMobil Boss

Reprinted with permission from Creators

In June, Beto O'Rourke and I had the pleasure of visiting with some 650 workers in Beaumont, Texas, who have been locked out of their refinery since May 1 by the oil giant ExxonMobil. Just walking into the United Steelworkers' hall gives a palpable sense of real "union spirit." It's not some "Solidarity Forever" singalong, but something genuinely uplifting.
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Yes, Childcare Qualifies As ‘Real Infrastructure’ — And Here’s Why

Reprinted with permission from Creators

Sometimes real life catches up with unreal politics, and the good news is that this is happening at last for universal child care. In many — if not most — families, mothers still have primary responsibility for the care of children, and yet, whether out of preference, economic necessity or both, 57 percent of women are now in the workforce, including 75 percent of America's 9 million single moms.

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Work, Sweat, Die: The Price Of The Hottest Jobs


It was a hell of a hot summer, exploding the tops off thermometers with deadly triple-digit readings across the country, including in far northern regions that've almost never seen such extremes. As we're learning, week after week of debilitating heat intensifies wildfires, causes electric grids to fail, kills millions of wild animals (including fish), burns up crops, and concentrates toxic air.

But there's another impact that draws little notice: Heat kills workers. Indeed, those searing days of 95, 100, 110 degrees kill and injure more U.S. workers each year than all the floods, hurricanes and tornadoes combined. Those toiling outdoors — including farmworkers, roofers and carpenters, airport ground crews, landscapers, road and street repairers, letter carriers and trash collectors — are in the direct line of fire for this invisible, insidious killer. But indoors is no better if there's no air conditioning, for sprawling warehouse and manufacturing plants made of metal and stone become ovens.

Then, welcome to climate change — 20 of the last 21 years gave us the hottest temperatures on record. Unsurprisingly, the yearly number of worker heat deaths doubled over that period. Also, researchers have determined that extreme workplace heat is causing about 170,000 people a year to suffer injuries on the job.

The impact of heat is poorly understood, even by workers. Sudden heatstroke is not the only worry, for rising body temperatures can quickly cloud the mind, weaken muscles and numb concentration. So, workers fall; their hands get caught in machinery; they touch the wrong wire; they get hit by a front-end loader.

Sitting in climate-controlled executive suites, distant legislative chambers and comfortable editorial offices, America's power elites literally don't feel the intensity of this heat, so the richest country in the history of the world continues to subject millions of its people to senseless suffering and death, not even talking about this embarrassment, much less stopping it.

America's corporate acolytes and right-wing moralists preach that an uncomplaining, nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic is what gives dignity to laboring stiffs.

Of course, that's "dignity" as defined and controlled by corporate elites, not by workers, and the reward for it frequently includes on-the-job injuries ... and death. Not that CEOs and well-heeled investors intentionally sicken, maim and kill thousands of laborers every year — but they certainly do put them in positions to experience such unhappy results. For example, they require that farmworkers spend hours picking crops on 105-degree California days, or that construction crews toil in the muggy dog days of Florida summers tarring the roofs of condos. Low-paid, powerless workers die, but no one in the corporate hierarchy did the deed — heat was the killer.

But wait, not only are aloof bosses back at air-cooled headquarters the ones who knowingly subject subordinates to that deadly heat, but they're also the ones who hire squads of lobbyists and lawyers to kill regulations that could prevent these deaths. Proposed solutions are not exactly high-tech or even expensive: Require ample water at work sites; ensure paid rest breaks in cool spaces; train on-site managers and employees to detect and react to signs of heat stress; require good ventilation and proper clothing; establish emergency response procedures; foster a safety-first environment; and impose serious punishments for violators.

Such sensible steps have repeatedly been proposed as official workplace policy for at least the last 50 years — but intense industry opposition has killed the adoption of any such standards of prevention. Instead, the U.S. "protects" workers with a voluntary awareness campaign that essentially consists of posters urging employees to beware of heat, saying to them, "goodbye and good luck."

But at last, a real proposal has been put on the table by more than 110 grassroots groups. See it — and join it — by contacting Public Citizen at Citizen.org.

To find out more about Jim Hightower and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com

Can America Follow Alabama’s Progressive Example?

Here are two terms that you don't expect to see together: "the state of Alabama" and "progressive leader." (OK, I'm a Texan and so have no standing to point at the rank regressiveness of any other state government ... but still, Alabama?) And yet — even with its well-earned reputation as a bastion of Jim Crow vote theft, plutocratic anti-worker policies and right-wing nutballism — the Camellia State has flowered as a model of strong progressive action in one area of critical public importance: quality child care.

It's a cliche to say, "our children are our future," but it's also true. Then why do we invest so little in our littlest ones, our future? Both in providing safe places for children of working parents and for boosting the education of pre-kindergarten tykes, America's child care system is a national disgrace. Moreover, the abject failure of state and national officials to meet this basic social need is spreading inequality, rolling back opportunities for women and severely restricting economic recovery.

How impressive is it, then, that Alabama officials (often vying to win that coveted 50th spot as America's worst state for meeting people's needs) have recently been setting the national standard for effective pre-K programs? Beginning 20 years ago with a small budget and eight classrooms, Alabama's investment in 4-year-olds now operates statewide in about 1,300 neighborhood and rural facilities. It prepares some 21,000 children each year to be "kindergarten-ready" — able to succeed from day one of entry into the K-12 educational years. A major factor in its success is a two-generation approach, not only educating the kiddos, but also providing support materials and coaching so that parents engage as their children's "first teachers."

Producing demonstrable results year after year, the state's public investment in children and families gets bipartisan support and funding from the Alabama Legislature. The program is voluntary, free and available to all, with special attention devoted to enlisting often-overlooked families in rural, poor and racial minority communities. "We evaluate everything through an equity lens," says Dr. Barbara Cooper, Alabama's secretary of early childhood education. "Everything" includes teachers. Rather than treating them as low-paid babysitters as so many programs do, Alabama is paying (and respecting) them as the professionals they are and investing substantial state money into their career development. "We are laser-focused on retaining the highest-quality educators and providers for our youngest learners," Cooper proudly says.

Alabama! If one of our poorest states can rise to meet this basic human need, what's wrong with the richest country in the history of the world? Nearly every other nation with an advanced economy (and some not-so-advanced) treats child care as a fundamental public good essential to nurturing children, families and the economy. But our US of A relegates millions of working parents and 21 million kids under 5 to the tender mercies of a for-profit market, with providers ranging from impossibly expensive to the helter-skelter messes of unlicensed Kiddie Korrals. The right-wing super-nationalists who mindlessly salute the U.S. as "exceptional" fail to note what is actually exceptional about our "child care system": It is such a shambles that it can't even be called a system, much less caring.

For the past decade, independent journalist and economic analyst Bryce Covert (brycecovert.com) has documented the worsening social crisis caused by this abject failure of leadership. Her recent report paints a dire picture of huge and obvious need:

— Two thirds of our pre-K kids have both parents in the workforce, meaning care outside the home is essential.

— 85 percent of the parents of these young ones say that finding quality, affordable child care in their area is a problem somewhere between serious and impossible.

— Nationwide, the annual cost for a four year-old's day care averages about $13,000. In 28 states and D.C., an infant's care center costs more than an 18-year old's public college tuition.

Despite millions of working families finding this essential service unaffordable or even unavailable, political leaders have ignored their plight. What meager federal spending there is hasn't even kept up with inflation. At its lowest level in a dozen years, child care aid now reaches only 15 percent of qualified kids. (Note that some callous governors, including ours in Texas, divert chunks of federal child care subsidies to their own political priorities, such as border walls and corporate welfare.)

In 2017, even before COVID-19 abruptly shut down thousands of care centers, 40% of America's children lived in "child care deserts" — zip codes with zero programs or so few that two-thirds or more of the area's children are unable to get in. We need to do better for our children; they are the future, after all.

To find out more about Jim Hightower and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com

Why Is The ‘Quits Rate’ Skyrocketing Now?

As a writer, I get stuck every so often straining for the right words to tell my story or otherwise make the kind of progress I want on the piece I'm writing. Over the years, though, I've learned when to quit tying myself into mental knots over sentence construction and instead step back and rethink where my story is going.

This process is essentially what millions of American working families are going through this year as record numbers of them are shocking bosses, politicians and economists by stepping back and declaring: "We quit!" Most of the quits are tied to very real abuses that have become ingrained in our workplaces over the past couple of decades — poverty paychecks, no health care, unpredictable schedules, no child care, understaffing, forced overtime, unsafe jobs, sexist and racist managers, tolerance of aggressively rude customers and so awful much more.

Meanwhile, corporate bosses across America have been sputtering in outrage at workers this summer, spewing expletives about the fact that while the U.S. economy has been coming back ... workers (i.e., you) haven't!

"Labor shortage," they squeal, lazily accusing the workforce of mass laziness. Apparently, they charge insultingly that millions of workers got used to laying around during the pandemic shutdown, for there is now an abundance of jobs open for everything from restaurant work to nursing to construction work. So, the bosses and their political dogs bark that you people need to get back in the old harness and start pulling again.

Adding a nasty bite to their bark, several GOP governors cut off unemployment benefits to people, hoping to force them to work. Other businesses have proffered signing bonuses, free dinner coupons and other lures, while such notoriously mingy outfits as McDonald's and Walmart have even upped their wage scales in an effort to draw workers.

Yet ... no go. In fact, to the astonishment of the economic elite, the employment flow this year is going the other way! Record numbers of current workers in all sorts of jobs in every section of the country are voluntarily walking away. There's even an official economic measurement of this phenomenon called the "quits rate," and it is surging beyond anything our economy has experienced in modern memory — in April, 4 million workers quit; in May, another 3.6 million left, in June, 3.9 million said "Adios!" At a time when conventional economic wisdom dictates that, after a devastating 18-month downturn, people would be clinging to any paycheck they can get! The "quits" are so unexpected and so widespread that pundits have started dubbing this year "The Great Resignation."

What's wrong with people, why are such staggering numbers of Americans failing to do their jobs? But wait — maybe that's the wrong question. Maybe the corporate system's "jobs" are failing the people. Consider this: The most common comment by those who're walking out is, "I hate my job."

Specific grievances abound, but at the core of each is a deep, inherently destructive executive-suite malignancy: disrespect. The corporate system has cheapened employees from valuable human assets worthy of being nurtured and advanced to a bookkeeping expense that must be steadily eliminated. It's not just about paychecks, it's about feeling valued, feeling that the hierarchy gives a damn about the people doing the work.

Yet, corporate America is going out of its way to show that it doesn't care — and, of course, workers notice. So, unionization is booming, millions who were laid off by the pandemic are refusing to rush back to the same old grind, and now millions who have jobs are quitting. This is much more than an unusual unemployment stat — it's a sea change in people's attitude about work itself ... and life.

People are rethinking where their story is going and how they can take it in a better direction. Yes, nearly everyone will eventually return to work, but workers themselves have begun redefining the job and rebalancing it with life.

To find out more about Jim Hightower and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com

Trust Us, We’re Only Spying On You

Tick-tick-tick ... Big Tech's clock continues to move around and around nonstop to enhance corporate power and profits, but each sweep of its hands also captures more of our own privacy, labor and other civil rights.

At first, each new surge of artificial intelligence and robotic technologies can seem perfectly benign, beneficial ... even playful. Take "Spot," the robotic, four-legged "doggy" that actually has no spots, no endearing puppy eyes, can't bark, has no tail to wag and is very un-doggy despite its classic doggy name. In fact, this electronic critter is rather creepily nightmarish, but it's marketed by cute videos, including one of Spot mixing margaritas (admit it, that beats training your real dog to bring your slippers to you).

But you can't just adopt a Spot at your local animal shelter. Each artificial canine — manufactured by Boston Dynamics, which is owned by Korean auto giant Hyundai Motor Company — sells for about $75,000. So, who's for these pricey technetronic hounds? Mainly such big corporate outfits as oil refineries, mining operations and electric utilities that want an unblinking eye to monitor and record workers, visitors, intruders, protesters and all others who approach their facilities. Just one more layer of our cycloptic surveillance society.

But the point at which Spot loses all cuteness and turns into a menacing beast of authoritarianism is when it's turned into a police dog. There's been quite a public backlash, for example, against the Honolulu police department for deploying one of the robotic canines in a tent city for homeless people. In addition to outrage at the obvious class bias in siccing Spot on the homeless, the public outcry grew hotter when it was revealed that the police had used federal pandemic relief funds to buy their Spot!

As usual, corporate and government officials assure us that this latest tech marvel will be a good dog — it won't be used to spy on innocent people, be weaponized or otherwise bite us on the butt. Trust us, they say.

If you're a corporate employee, you know that something unpleasant is afoot when top executives are suddenly issuing statements about how committed they are to the dignity and respect of their employees.

For example, the public relations chief of a global outfit named Teleperformance, one of the world's largest call centers, was recently going on and on about how they're "committed to fair practices, equity ... ethics, and transparency" in the workplace. He practically pleaded for the world to "trust us," exclaiming that, "We value our people and their well-being, safety and happiness." Why did the corporation feel such a desperate need to proclaim its virtue? Because it's been caught in a nasty scheme to spy on its own workers.

Teleperformance — a $6.7 billion global behemoth that handles customer service calls for Amazon, Apple, Uber, etc. — saves money on overhead by making most of its 380,000 employees around the world work from their own homes. That can be a convenience for many workers, but a new corporate policy first imposed in March on thousands of its workers in Colombia puts an intolerable, "1984"-ish price on that convenience.

Teleperformance is pressuring their workers to sign an eight-page addendum to their employee contracts, allowing corporate-controlled video cameras, electronic audio devices and data collection tools to be put in their homes to monitor their actions. "I work in my bedroom," one employee noted. "I don't want to have a camera in my bedroom."

Neither would I, and I doubt that Teleperformance's $20-million-a-year CEO would allow one in his mansion. Uglier yet, the privacy-obliterating contract mandates that even the children of employees can be spied on at home and any images or audio of children picked up by the surveillance devices can be kept by the corporation. Nonetheless, the Colombian worker signed, because her supervisor said she could lose her job if she refused.

Of course, Teleperformance assures us that the data it collects on children is not shared elsewhere, and Apple also rushed out to state that it treats all of its contract employees "with dignity and respect." But how do we know that? Trust us, they say. Do you?

To find out more about Jim Hightower and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com

Good News! Communities Rising Against Corporate Grip On Local Papers

I live in a city with a hedge-fund-driven, corporate-run daily newspaper (Gannett Co. owns the Austin American-Statesman), and in my travels I've read dozens of similar outlets and talked to their readers. It's always the same story: Money managers have reduced most local newspapers to mere remnants of real journalism. They have slashed reporting staff and outsourced even the editing, layout, printing and other basic production work to remote, centralized hubs. Thus, most of the flavor and timeliness of the "local" paper is lost, replaced by chopped-up national material, two-day-old sports stories, product promotions and other filler.

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There’s Rich, Ugly Rich, And Jeff Bezos

When I was just a tyke, cowboy television actors were marketed as role models and heroes for little backyard cowpokes like me, and we could send off a cereal box top to get a certificate making us "Pals of the Saddle" or some-such with Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy or other "heroes."

Cute for a four year-old. Less so for 57-year-old Jeff "Space Boy" Bezos.

Yet there he was in July — the gazillionaire profiteer, labor exploiter, and tax scofflaw who heads the Amazon online retail syndicate — all dressed up and playacting as a heroic conqueror of space. Marketed as some combination of the Wright brothers' innovation and the Apollo 11 moon landing, Little Jeff's trip on his private Blue Origin rocket ship was essentially a very expensive, high-tech carnival ride. The whole thing took only 11 minutes, barely got into suborbital space, achieved no scientific purpose, and did zero to enhance American prestige in the world.

As for personal genius or heroics, Bezos didn't invent or build the spacecraft, didn't have any role in flying it (the trip up and down was fully automated), and didn't face any cosmic unknowns (he didn't even have to wear a spacesuit). All he really did was buy the spacecraft — a cheap bauble for the world's richest man.

But he did get to dress up in a sort of space-style jogging outfit with his name and his Blue Origin corporate logo emblazoned on it. Then, like a little boy getting a cereal-box certificate proclaiming him a cowboy, when the diminutive mega-billionaire floated back to terra firma, he held a fake ceremony at which some former NASA official pinned a set of phony "astronaut wings" on him, custom designed by his own corporation. More pathetically, his corporate lobbyists are said to be appealing to Washington officials to award official astronaut wings to this uber-rich space tourist.

So, there you have the new pantheon of America's flight heroes: the Wright brothers, Amelia Earhart, John Glenn, Neil Armstrong ... and Jeff "Space Boy" Bezos. Did I mention "pathetic"?

I cheered when Bezos, the richest man on Earth, had himself rocketed into space. But then he came back down.

There's nothing irredeemably wrong about being rich — indeed, as Mark Twain put it, "I'm opposed to millionaires, but it would be dangerous to offer me the position." One good role model for handling wealth, rather than letting it handle you, is music superstar Dolly Parton. She donated a cool million bucks to the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in 2020 to help finance its development of the Moderna vaccine that's now preventing millions of people from dying with COVID-19.

Then there's ugly rich, like Amazon kingpin "Space Boy" Bezos, who keeps spending gobs of his unsurpassed net worth on vainglorious purchases that end up revealing his essential worthlessness. Last year, he paid half a billion dollars for a yacht that's three football fields long and still not big enough to float his ego. So, last month, combining cluelessness with callousness, he actually ran a global media campaign to glorify himself for spending untold billions on his ego trip up to the edge of space. Back on Earth, he publicly blurted out that Amazon's underpaid and abused workforce should be applauded, because "you guys paid for all this."

Meanwhile, Wall Street speculators keep bloating Space Boy's personal fortune. On just one day last year, his wealth was jacked up by $8 billion ! One day! For doing nothing — he didn't work longer, harder or smarter. Well, he has been diligent about one task: tax dodging. Even though his wealth now tops $162 billion, he's had years in which he's paid zero income tax for the support of our nation.

But this year, Jeff suddenly became a philanthropist! Increasingly ridiculed as a self-indulgent rich jerk, he loudly announced he was giving $200 million to charitable causes. Wow — how generous. Except ... that's no sacrifice for Jeff, it's pocket change — doling out two big bills means he still has $161.8 billion in his vault.

We don't need his self-serving "charity"; we need a wealth tax to restore a bit of fairness and to support America's common good.

To find out more about Jim Hightower and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.

Alden Global Capital Is Killing The Local Newsroom

If Hollywood wanted to make a gritty movie about the work of dig-it-out newspaper reporters who uncover big local stories of government doings and corporate misdeeds, it couldn't have chosen a more picture-perfect location than the boisterous newsroom of New York's Daily News. Once the largest-circulation paper in America, the Daily News embodied the rich history of brawny tabloid journalism, even serving as the model for DC Comics' Daily Planet, workplace of Clark Kent and Lois Lane in Superman.

But there'd be a problem with filming at the Daily News now: Its owners have eliminated the newsroom, leaving reporters, editors, photographers, et al. with no shared workplace. Yes, today, it's a newspaper without a newsroom.

This once-proud publication is now owned and run by Alden Global Capital, a multibillion-dollar hedge fund with a long record of buying papers on the cheap, selling off their assets and slashing pay and jobs. Media watchers have labeled these vulture capitalists the "ruthless corporate strip-miners" of local journalism. And sure enough, in the past couple of years Alden's profiteers have steadily plundered the paper, eliminating half of its newsroom staff. Then, last August, they told the remaining journalists they would no longer have a physical place to work.

To be clear, this closure was not a temporary measure to protect staff from COVID-19. Nor was the newsroom abandoned in favor of relocation to a less expensive office (an increasingly common cost-saving decision). Indeed, real newspaper publishers realize that the collective hive vitality of a newsroom, with its camaraderie and reportorial cross-fertilization, enriches the journalism.

But Alden is in the business of making money, not journalism. The Wall Street bosses emailed staff that they weren't selling the offices — just leasing them to other businesses, creating a new revenue stream to fatten the profits of the fund's investors.

Unfortunately, such crass corporate calculations are typical of the new model of a nationalized, "conglomeratized," and financialized "local" journalism that has already taken over thousands of papers in big cities, suburbs, and rural areas across America.

The scale and speed of that transformation have been breathtaking.

Alden's high-flying hedge funders have amalgamated the second biggest newspaper conglomerate in the country, having swallowed up more than 200 papers, including metro dailies in Baltimore; Boston; Boulder, Colorado; Chicago; Denver; Hartford, Connecticut; Norfolk, Virginia; Orange County, California; Orlando, Florida; San Jose, California, and St. Paul, Minnesota.

Last August, in one blow, the 30 papers owned by the venerable McClatchy family fell to yet another multibillion-dollar hedge fund, Chatham Asset Management (led by a former Wall Street junk-bond dealer). With this buyout, Chatham's clique of global speculators grabbed the major dailies in Charlotte, North Carolina; Fort Worth, Texas; Kansas City, Missouri; Lexington, Kentucky; Miami; Sacramento, California, and Seattle.

Then there's the colossal Gannett conglomerate, now owned by Japan's SoftBank Group. It runs USA Today, as well as more than 1,000 local papers across the U.S., including the main dailies in Austin, Texas; Burlington, Vermont; Cincinnati; Detroit; Des Moines, Iowa; Indianapolis; Louisville, Kentucky; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Nashville, Tennessee; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Phoenix; Providence, Rhode Island; Reno, Nevada; and Springfield, Missouri.

The operational mandate of newspaper hedge funds is absolute: Sacrifice local newsgathering and community interest to squeeze out every bit of profit and siphon it off to unknown investors in WhoKnowsWhereLand. The papers Alden acquired were reportedly profitable, with annual margins of around ten percent. But the hedge fund sharpies demanded that all their papers deliver 20 percent or more — a level at which the squeeze becomes deadly to quality journalism.

Community life cannot thrive without community news, which in turn depends on reporters and editors who are of the community and have the know-how, time, and resources to investigate, educate, expose, inform, entertain, and generally enlighten the citizenry. But what does some obscure, aloof money manipulator know or care about your community or its democratic vitality? Zilch, that's what.

To find out more about Jim Hightower and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.

Banker Robbery And Corporate Mediocrity Add Up To Grand Larceny

Exciting news from Wall Street: Our wealth markets are booming!

For the 15th month in a row, everything from the Dow Jones Average to gold prices to bank stocks are rocketing to new records, showering us with wealth from above. Oh ... wait. Maybe you're one of the majority of workaday Americans who don't own stocks or gold, so maybe you're not celebrating Wall Street's big boom. But just chill, because conventional corporate wisdom assures us that the wealthy will invest their good fortunes in enterprises that someday, somewhere will create jobs and eventually will produce trickle-down gains for everyone.

Excuse me for rudeness, but let's take a peek at how those who're reaping today's big-buck bonanza are actually investing that wealth. Surprise — they're largely putting the increase into schemes that further benefit them ... not you!

Consider Wall Streeters themselves. While workers, Main Street businesses, poverty groups, et al. have been knocked down during the past several months, the big banks have been making money like ... well, like bankers. Just since this January, their stock prices have zoomed up by 28 percent. So, how are these moneyed elites spending this windfall? Not by making job-creating investments, but by simply giving the money to their own shareholders, including their own top executives — nearly all of whom are already among the richest people on Earth.

The main way they do this is through a sleight of hand called a "stock buyback." The honchos simply cash out the bulk of that 28 percent increase in the value of the banks' stock price, using that money to repurchase their banks' own stock from lesser shareholders. Hocus-pocus, this manipulation artificially pumps up the value of the stock these insider shareholders already own — making each of them even richer than rich, although they've done absolutely nothing to earn this increased wealth.

It's not a small scam. JPMorgan Chase is now sinking $30 billion into buying its own stock. Wells Fargo is shifting $18 billion into the scheme, and Bank of America is throwing $25 billion into its buyback. Hello — Wall Street bankers are the biggest robbers in America.

Most people believe the American economy is being rigged by and for big bankers, CEOs, and other superrich elites, because ... well, because it is!

With their hired armies of lawmakers, lobbyists, lawyers and the like, they fix the economic rules so ever more of society's money and power flow uphill, from us to them. Take corporate CEOs. While 2020 was somewhere between a downer and devastating for most people, the CEO class made out like bandits. Indeed, last year, the three top paid corporate honchos in America pocketed personal paychecks of $211 million, $414 million, and $1.1 billion.

Are they geniuses, superproducers or what? What. All three of their corporations ended 2020 with big financial losses and declining value, so how can such mediocrity produce such lavish rewards? Simple — rig the pay machine.

Today's corporate system of setting compensation for top executives is a flimflam disguised as a model of management rectitude. On its face, the system ties the chief's pay to the success of the business. "Pay for performance," it's called — the CEO does well if the company does well. Good theory!

But their trick is in narrowly defining "doing well" to exclude doing good — i.e., treating workers, consumers, the environment, et al. fairly. Thus, rewarding the Big Boss is rooted in nothing more substantial or productive than the sterile ethics of monetary selfishness.

Even implementing that shriveled ethical standard is a scam at most major corporations, because the standard of financial performance that the chief must meet to quality for a huge payday is set by each corporation's board of directors. Guess who they are? Commonly, board members are the CEO's hand-picked brothers-in-law, golfing buddies, and corporate cronies. So, they set the bar for winning multimillion-dollar executive paychecks so low that a sack of concrete could jump over it.

Well, insist these flimflammers, it's the corporate shareholders who are the ultimate stopgap against CEO greed. These "owners" can just vote "no" on any executive pay they consider excessive. Nice try, but even "shareholder democracy" is rigged — corporate rules decree that votes by shareholders are merely "advisory," meaning top executives can simply ignore them, grab the money and run. The system is fixed ... and we need to break it!

To find out more about Jim Hightower and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com

The Odd Virus Attacking Republican Governors

WARNING: A mutant coronavirus named Gubernatorious Imbecilious is spreading across the country, threatening to become pandemic.

Originating earlier this year in the Texas governor's office — infamously known as the "Laboratory of Bad Government" — the brain-eating virus escaped, is now drifting unchecked on the political winds and has already infected governors in Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota.

An early indicator that your governor, too, might be coming down with Gubernatorious Imbecilious is if he or she begins ranting paranoiacally that the mighty U.S. of A is being "invaded." Yes, invaded by masses of migrants from Mexico, Central America, and hell itself — all intent on rape, murder, drug peddling, mayhem, and ultimately the usurpation of our nation.

Having such a delusional governor is embarrassing, but the disease turns downright scary when infected governors try acting on their paranoia. Gov. Greg Abbott, for example, the GOP governor of Texas, is the one who conjured up this current invasion fantasy and is causing it to go viral in Republican statehouses. Abbott is a frantic Chicken Little, squawking that "a tidal wave" of amnesty seekers crossing our southern border are "causing farmers to lose their crops ... homes are being invaded ... neighborhoods are dangerous ... people are being threatened."

So, by gollies, Greg is taking action! On our dime, of course. His big plan? Build a wall! Yes, obviously demented by an advanced case of Gubernatorious Imbecilious , the extent of Abbott's creativity is an insane repeat of Donnie Trump's failed boondoggle of a border wall. To fund his goofy political gambit, the governor has expropriated $250 million from the state's meager budget to "secure our border." Apparently, no one has told the governor that $250 million would build less than 10 miles of wall on our 1,200-mile border with Mexico ... and won't keep anyone from crossing.

But failure seems to be built into Abbott's DNA. He oversees a state power grid so feeble that it failed in February, killing more than 150 Texans; he has left five million of our people without health coverage, more than any other state; and he presides over a crumbling state infrastructure network that can't score better than a D grade.

Did I mention that Abbott wants to run for president? Not of the Insane Governors Club, but of America! Seriously.

It's one thing to strive for herd immunity to defeat a coronavirus, but in politics, the herd instinct can send a whole species over a cliff.

That seems to be happening among the frenzied herd of Republican governors now stampeding behind the scaremongering scheme of Abbott to use the personal suffering of Latin American migrants and asylum seekers as a political pawn. Rather than helping find a humane solution, the GOP hierarchy is exploiting the very real plight of desperate Latin American people to pose as strong defenders of U.S. communities that are in absolutely no danger from the migration.

Yes, various governors are following Abbott's knee-jerk vindictiveness, confronting the migrating families with "Keep Out" military-style force. First came Florida's ruthlessly ambitious governor, Ron DeSantis, strutting around in a mucho macho photo-op, pledging to send a small hodgepodge of deputies, highway patrol, and even wildlife officials (!) to Texas for a few days to help Abbott keep out immigrants. What will these armed officials do? Who will direct them? Who would pay? Uh ... DeSantis didn't know.

Then came Cornhusker State Gov. Pete Ricketts, proclaiming that "Nebraska is stepping up to help Texas respond to the ongoing crisis on their border." But local public officials who are actually on the Texas border say there is a problem, not a crisis — and helter-skelter squads of clueless gendarmes from afar won't help. Still, the hyper-partisan governor of Iowa, Kim Reynolds, said she was sending a few state troopers to the distant border to defend "the health and safety of Iowans." Interestingly, she had refused a request this spring by the Biden administration to help house migrant children crossing our border to seek asylum, coldly declaring, "This is not our problem."

South Dakota's Kristi Noem also piled on, dispatching some of her state's National Guard troops to Texas. Oddly, though, Noem's troops were not sent as true agents of the state, but as 25 political mercenaries, paid an undisclosed amount by an out-of-state right-wing billionaire to join in the GOP governors' border stunt.

Note that (1) all of these political posers committed so few border defenders for such a short time that their presence would have zero impact on our border crossings; and (2) none of the governors offered any insight, solution, or concern about the root causes of the migration.

To monitor the posturing of these shameful frauds, go to NoBorderWallCoalition.com.

To find out more about Jim Hightower and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.

Now We Must Protect Our Water From Wall Street

"The pump don't work 'cause the vandals took the handles." Thus sang Bob Dylan in 1965, and we can now clearly see those vandals: In addition to polluting corporations, they're the national, state, and local officials who have routinely failed over the years to prevent the waste and defilement of our water supply while also failing to budget for even minimal upkeep and modernization of water delivery. As a result, the system is badly broken.

Federal funding for our water systems has plummeted 77 percent since its peak under former President Jimmy Carter. At the same time, the need for more national investment has dramatically increased: The U.S. population has surged by 110 million; aging water infrastructure is outdated and breaking down; state and local politicians have ignored problems (replacing an old pipe is not a prized photo-op); and necessary upgrades to cope with new contaminants and extreme weather events have gone unfunded by politicians catering to pro-corporate financial interests and anti-government ideologues.

So, here we sit, a nation of unsurpassed prosperity using duct tape and political hype to cover up the fact that our drinking water system is so dilapidated that it received a sorry C-minus grade from the quadrennial evaluation by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Worse, the wastewater component of the system (mile after mile of underground sewage pipes and nearly 16,000 treatment plants) scores a D-plus, with a majority of the waste plants nearing the end of their 45- to 50-year life spans. The overall system is so fragile that a water main breaks somewhere in America every two minutes, and it's so permeated with leaks that utilities lose 6 billion gallons of drinking water every day.

And then there's the rising crisis of affordability. With federal funding cut to a dribble, utilities have tried to fill in with constant hikes in water bills. Our average monthly rate has jumped more than a third since 2012, and analysts estimate that within three years, up to 36% of households won't be able to afford drinking water. Even with rising fees, utilities themselves are struggling. The American Water Works Association reports that income fully covers costs in only one in five systems, and four out of five large utilities expect they will not be able to provide full service five years from now.

Billions of years ago, when some squirmy form of early "us" crawled out of the sea, they brought along the need for that basic ingredient. Human bodies are 60 percent water, and most of earth's surface is not earth at all — 71 percent is covered in seas, rivers, lakes, bayous, etc. There is no "us" unless each of us gets a constant intake of reasonably clean water. If you don't ... you die, usually within three days.

Thus, managing this precious natural resource is a deeply moral responsibility. While our globe has an abundance of the wet stuff, 96.5 percent is undrinkable salt water. Of the potable 3.5 percent more than half is locked in ice at the polar caps or so deep underground it's unavailable. Still, we do have enough water to meet the needs of all — if it is conserved and fairly distributed.

Sadly, most countries do a piss-poor job of fulfilling their moral responsibility — especially the U.S., given our resources, abilities, and egalitarian pretensions. The good news is that the U.S. public is not only increasingly aware of the inexcusable inadequacies and inequalities in our water system but also increasingly outraged . As Sen. Bernie Sanders put it in February when introducing a major water justice bill: "It is beyond belief that in 2021, American kids are being poisoned by tap water."

Wall Street's sharks smell money in the water. In fact, they are out to privatize, commodify and "profitize" (own) our water. Of course, with ownership comes control, both of water's use and price. Unsurprisingly, the two core precepts of these Wall Street profiteers are: Water is greatly underpriced, so let's make it more expensive for all users, including us common drinkers; and water must flow to its "highest use" (i.e., highest bidders), so its allocation should not prioritize nonindustrial farms, lower-income communities or even general public use — but rather advantage high-tech facilities, upscale suburban developments and high-dollar businesses willing to pay the most.

More alarming, Wall Street is busy creating complex new financial gimmicks to allow speculators to dominate global water markets. Meanwhile, they're recycling the same gobbledygook about risk management that Enron deployed in the 1990s, even though that scandalous power play for energy markets led to massive corruption, job losses, waves of bankruptcies, and rip-offs of customers and shareholders.

For a splash course on water issues, look up "H2Equity: Rebuilding a Fair System of Water Services for America" from the Environmental Policy Innovation Center (http://www.policyinnovation.org).

To find out more about Jim Hightower and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.