Posts Tagged ‘corporations’

Mean Spirits

Thursday, May 30th, 2013


(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2013)

“Unless you become more watchful in your states and check the spirit of monopoly and thirst for exclusive privileges you will in the end find that the control over your dearest interests has passed into the hands of these corporations.” Andrew Jackson

Yes, I read the unattractive little slips of paper that come with our monthly PG&E bill, and I have no doubt PG&E hopes most customers will toss these little slips without reading their tiny print. Why? Because most of the little slips announce rate increases for things customers should not have to pay for. There is a government entity called the CPUC, which stands for the California Public Utilities Commission, that is supposed to protect the consumer from unnecessary and unjust rate increases, but the CPUC does not protect us because they are in bed with PG&E, literally, and approve anything and everything that PG&E wants to do.

Last month’s bill contained notices of public hearings at which PG&E customers can express their thoughts and feelings about PG&E’s latest proposed rate increases that will garner the private utility company 1.2 billion dollars by raising our electric bills 5.2 percent and our gas bills 15.3 percent. But wait. Because of the nationwide fracking insanity, America is now exporting vast quantities of natural gas to Japan and elsewhere, so PG&E should be lowering gas bills, not raising them, and that same cheap gas is making the generation of electricity cheaper, too, so our electricity rates should be going down, not up. But that won’t stop the CPUC from approving PG&E’s request for rate increases. And what are we going to do about this crime?

Well, I wrote a letter to the CPUC reminding them that they are supposed to be serving the public, not facilitating PG&E’s thievery, and that the rate increases are outrageous and uncalled for. I also sent a copy of my letter to our governor Jerry Brown and asked him to make a fuss about PG&E’s latest proposed theft. No responses so far, and I won’t hold my breath waiting for any. You can write letters, too, or attend public hearings, but that won’t do any good.

Then with this month’s bill came a notice of Phase Two of PG&E’s proposed rate increases, which seems to say they will raise our electric rates even more than the previously noted 5.2 percent—something more like 8 percent. Why? Because they are greedy and amoral and want more and more money all the time and there is nothing we can do to stop them. In many California communities PG&E has a suffocating monopoly on the delivery of electricity, and in the absence of any sort of help from our government, the public is helpless to resist.

“Well, if I called the wrong number, why did you answer the phone?” James Thurber

In related news, my phone line went dead on Friday evening, while Marcia’s phone line remained vibrantly alive. Why me, Lord? In any case, since the blessed line ceased to work on the weekend I had to wait until Monday to report the outage to our friendly local MCN (Mendocino Community Network) through which Marcia and I get our phone and internet service. Within a few hours after my call to MCN, a cordial fellow arrived to check our lines and determine that the problem was not my fault. He said that AT&T, the owner of the telephone lines, would have to fix the problem since it was AT&T’s line that was not hooked up properly.

So a few hours later, a taciturn AT&T guy arrived and I told him which number was dead and which was alive, and he nodded and checked the connections in the box on the side of our house and went away and came back and climbed a pole and went away and came back and spent about two hours doing whatever he was doing. Then he announced there was nothing wrong with Marcia’s line, which we already knew, and that it was my line that was dead.

“Yes,” I said, trying to remain calm. “That is what I told the fellow from MCN, and he confirmed that. And that is what I told you when you arrived.”

“Well,” he said, shrugging, “MCN put in an order for me to check the number I checked, and since you’re not an AT&T client we can’t fix the other line until MCN puts in an order for that other number.”

“But I told you which number was dead and which was live,” I said, doing a little jig of annoyance. “And you acknowledged that information and then spent two hours looking into the situation, so I don’t see why you can’t…”

“Somebody, probably me, will come back tomorrow or the next day,” he said, shrugging. “But since you’re not an AT&T customer, I can’t fix the line until MCN puts in an order for the other number.”

And I thought to myself Herein lies the problem with monopolies and the privatization of essential services, which was followed by the thought I wonder if this some sort of punishment for changing our local service to MCN and not continuing to pay the usurious rates charged by AT&T for that same local service?

The sad truth is that PG&E can triple or quadruple our rates any time they want to, and we would have no choice but to pay them unless we want to live without electricity. Indeed, we recently paid a large initial ransom and continue to pay a monthly penalty for not having a Smart Meter radiating us twenty-four hours a day, and our rates were increased to pay for the Smart Meter program (and our rates did not go down after all the radiation devices were installed.) Remember: PG&E is a private company, not a public utility, and therefore we should not have to finance their infrastructure costs on top of paying our monthly energy bills; but we do.

In the case of telephone service, I doubt that AT&T likes sharing their lines with little locally owned companies that provide excellent service for much less money than AT&T charges for similar service. Sadly, when we dared switch to MCN for our local phone service, AT&T punished us with huge fees for stopping service at our previous residence, transferring service to our new residence, and hooking up with MCN. We had no choice but to pay those entirely arbitrary and exorbitant fees if we wanted to avail ourselves of the much more affordable local and long distance phone service, as well as groovy fast internet, all from MCN.

Alas, we do not have an MCN equivalent to provide us with greener and less expensive electricity than PG&E provides, and that is because PG&E and Southern California Edison spend many millions of our dollars every year influencing legislators and running entirely false ad campaigns to make sure alternatives to their monopolies have little chance of succeeding, and they do so with the collusion of the CPUC and the legislature and our governor. Can you say corporate oligarchy? Or if that is too abstract, how about a king and his vassals plundering the peasants whenever they feel like plundering?

“The use of solar energy has not been opened up because the oil industry does not own the sun.” Ralph Nader

In my most recent yet-to-be-published novel, one of the main characters is the co-founder of a worker-owned cooperative that installs solar panels on the rooftops of a very sunny California town at no cost to the rooftop owners. When we meet our hero, he and his cohorts at Sky Blue Solar Farms have installed state-of-the-art solar panels on nearly all the rooftops of the medium-sized town. The profit split for the sale of the surplus solar electricity back to the grid is 50% for the homeowner, 30% for the township, and 20% for Sky Blue Solar Farms; and the township has grown so rich from the sale of surplus electricity that they now provide the citizenry with fabulous free public transportation, a superb and absolutely free community college, a vast community farm growing superb organic fruits and vegetables and grains, excellent free health clinics, and, of course, a booming economy—all of this made possible by simply changing the laws governing the production and sale of electricity that currently hold sway in California and do not allow such wonderful fictional things to come true.

But such fiction would swiftly become reality if we could change the current laws that serve the greedy few and penalize the rest of us. That, I think, is the most frustrating thing about so many of the obstacles to a transformative technological and societal and ecological revolution: the solutions are readily available but the kings and their vassals are loathe to relinquish their mean-spirited monopolies.

The Death of Literature

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

It has come to my attention on several occasions of late that the history of the decline and fall of American literature to its current moribund state is as little known as Mendelssohn’s revised version of his Italian Symphony. Thus I feel it incumbent upon me to explain why the once great literary tradition of our collapsing democracy done collapsed.

In the beginning, circa 1800-1950, American publishing was a largely unprofitable endeavor and therefore the purview of wealthy men who made their profits elsewhere and plowed some of those profits into the cultural life of the country. Most of these fellows—Knopf, Doubleday, Scribner, etc.—held court in New York City, with Little and Brown making their stand in Boston. The literary arms of their publishing houses were staffed with bright, well-educated men and women intent on finding and supporting promising writers who might one day fulfill their promise on the larger literary stage. The unspoken rule that stood in every great publishing house until the 1960’s was that an author’s first two novels might not show a profit, but her third should pay for itself, and her fourth would begin to pay back the investment of the publisher. Books were kept in print for years in those days, which allowed time for new authors to gain an audience.

Thus the development of literary talent was a primary mission of these great publishers, and that mission inspired some of the most eccentric and original thinking people to give their lives in service to the art of editing, a highly advance skill requiring years of practice to attain. The greatness of American literature was inseparable from the greatness of her editors, which point cannot be overstated.

Because publishing did not show much if any profit, the publishing houses were of no interest to larger corporations looking for profitable entities to consume. This is another essential point, for it was only when publishing became profitable that the terrible decline in our literary culture began.

So how did publishing, so long a break-even endeavor at best, suddenly begin to turn a profit? The surprising answer is one of the most fascinating parts of the decline and fall, for it illustrates both the fabulous potential of socialism and the terrible shortcomings of capitalism.

The fighting of World War II required the government of the United States to draft millions and millions of men into military service, and when these men came home from the war, the nation felt a great obligation to them. Because the socialist ethos of the Roosevelt era was still largely in play, the GI Bill was passed, and this bill made it possible for millions of men and women to go to college absolutely free. These millions were people who, without this socialist program, would never have been able to attend college.

It is crucial to note that the private universities could only accommodate a small fraction of the former soldiers who wanted to take advantage of the government’s educational largesse, and a good argument can be made that our state and community college systems came into full being as a direct result of the GI Bill, which systems educated not only the former warriors but millions of other people who had previously been precluded from higher education for lack of sufficient money.

Thus tens of millions of people became educated, literate, and hungry for good books. The response of publishers, both established houses and a host of new houses, was to reprint thousands of classic novels and short stories and poems and plays and histories and other non-fiction works, but not as hardbacks, which would have been prohibitively expensive to produce and transport. Instead, the publishers gifted the world with a vast treasure trove of paperbacks that were cheap to print, easy to ship, took up much less space in bookstores, were wonderfully affordable, and…drum roll, please, were profitable for the publishers.

And because the paperback revolution made publishers profitable, this amazing literary renaissance (which more than a few historians credit with igniting the cultural revolution known as “the Sixties”) would be tragically short-lived. For once the publishers became profitable, they first became the prey of each other, then the prey of large American corporations, and finally the prey of enormous multinational corporations.

Now if there is one rule that supersedes all others in the corporate manifesto, it is that any item manufactured by the corporation must be immediately profitable or quickly discontinued. By the mid-1970’s, this rule was the supreme law in every American publishing house, and nevermore would a publisher support a promising writer for two or three books without showing a profit. When I published my first novel with Doubleday in 1978, every poetry department in every major publishing house in America had been closed. And had my first novel not (miraculously) shown a profit, I might never have published another novel.

By the early 1980’s the last of the “old school” of creative and dedicated editors, many of them middle-aged and older, had been replaced by legions of young women (21-27) who, to this day, are the “acquisition editors” for all the major houses, and who themselves last only a few years in their drudge jobs of buying books that fit the extremely limited parameters of acceptable corporate media. Books that are not essentially supportive of the status quo and instantly successful are promptly taken out of print, i.e. remaindered.

What’s more, the many literary agents who acted as field scouts for those bygone literature-loving editors were swiftly eclipsed by the variety of agent prevalent today, marketeers who know nothing of and care nothing for literature.

There are, of course, several parallel plots to this tragedy, among them the advent of chain bookstores, the demise of independent bookstores, the conquest of the population by television, the collapse of our educational system, and the advent of the personal computer and the Internet, all of which contributed mightily to the demise of literature.

Today, two inconceivably huge multinational corporations control all mainstream publishing in America. Don’t be fooled by the names Knopf, Doubleday, Little Brown, Random House, etc. on the books you see in the bookstore, if you still have a bookstore to go to. These in-name-only entities reside in the same propaganda arms of two massive and politically conservative corporations, which should clarify why you can’t find much good to read these days.

In the absence of the cultivation of writing talent, the books published by these monsters are, with only the rare accidental exception, uniformly awful. As a consequence, the once large audience for literary fiction is gone. The bestseller lists—which, by the way, no longer reflect sales but are merely marketing devices used to hoodwink consumers—are filled with pulp murder mysteries, food-based pseudo-novels, junky espionage thrillers, and the occasional offering from one of the few surviving authors developed by an interesting editor way back when.

Ironically, were these publishing entities with the names of former actual publishers set free to stand on their own, not one would be profitable because so few people today read new books. And who can blame them given what there is to choose from?

Sadly, two new generations have grown up since the onset of literary rigor mortis, and the vast majority of these younger people wouldn’t know a proper sentence or paragraph or a decent turn of phrase if it hit them between the eyes. They have been programmed since birth to be visualists, addicted to a constant flow of rapidly shifting imagery. They skim rather than read, if they look at words at all.

But what about Harry Potter, you say? About that franchise I will reserve my deeper sentiment for close friends and say only that children who read/watch Harry Potter do not, in general, become readers of other books unless the books are Harry Potter-like and marketed as such, with requisite marketing and media hype to support the Potterness of the latest fantasy word widget.

Lastly, I must comment on the bizarre phenomenon, born with the personal computer, of millions of people attempting to write novels and their memoirs without first learning to write a coherent story. If someone told you they were writing a symphony, though they had only just learned a few things about notes, and had yet to write a song, you would think them mad. Yet the comparison is approximate to writing a novel without first developing at least a crude mastery of the component parts.

But perhaps the abominable quality of the corporate guck masquerading as books today makes everyone think, “Hey, I can totally do that. Who couldn’t?”

(This article originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser in September 2009)