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Sep 21, 2008

Beyond The Bailout: Sidewalk To Nowhere

Wilson Merced

Wilson Merced 2

A one followed by thirteen zeros.

That's what we're talking about in this mostly taken-for-granted bailout plan.  The best analogy I've read this morning is how this mammoth financial gesture -- at least, on the part of the Congress -- mirrors the knee-jerk reaction and blank-check authority the Congress gave to the Administration immediately after 9/11 to suspend constitutional rights and, later, launch preemptive war on Saddam Hussein.

The pieces of writing I've been particularly drawn to in the last twelve hours include Paul Krugman's "No Deal" and Glenn Greenwald's bullshit-calling "The complete (though ever-changing) elite consensus over the financial collapse."  The piece that speaks most tellingly, however, to the inherently irrational (or, better, anti-rational) psychological darkness that has befallen America is the one written by Jonathan Lethem in this morning's NYT WIR titled "Art of Darkness."

Once you've breathed in Lethem's piece you can better understand why America's artists and photographers are best positioned to defy all the "ones and zeros" of Econ 101-sounding pure guesstimation, and the abuse of intellectual and governing authority through the miasma of fear and intellectualization to actually "look" and throw a little some bit of light on the face of "the man" and the human effects of his steamrolling machine.

Part of the agenda of "the man," I must point out, is to anesthetize us with photos we've seen a thousand times already, of one more generic-looking house with a for-sale or repo sign out front, or still another dumb gas pump. Over the coming days, weeks and, unfortunately but likely, years, I will strive to bring you otherwise isolated views through the bunker slits of what -- having ignited this week -- is a full-blown economic and propaganda war of attrition between America's haves and have-nots. 

The photos above are from a NYT slide show titled "Where Housing Crashed Hardest."  The images by photographer Jim Wilson and the accompany article detail the plight of Merced, California, an emerging "poster town" for the mortgage cataclysm.  (I should necessarily add, by the way, that "below-middle class" America -- a society largely without a media -- would find these scenes profoundly unremarkable.)

Welcome to the modern ruin, otherwise known as the deceased housing development.  The recent repetition of the phrase "bridge to nowhere" is echoed here in "the sidewalk to nowhere," the second shot offering evidence of the dead foundation (or "slab") with the dead patio juxtaposed with the dead cul-de-sac.  What makes the image that much more deadly, however, as well as universal to the moment, is the ambiguity over whether we are facing a dawn or a dusk.

Slide show: Where Housing Crashed Hardest (NYT)

(images: Jim Wilson/The New York Times)


A Society Without Media: As the gulf between rich and poor widens and deepens, those without a voice are left to pick up the pieces of the wreck the loudest have left behind. My friends used to laugh when I said the revolution was coming but they are not laughing so much after this week. Politicians pander to those who are losing their homes and to the Middle Class. But what about all of us who have never even owned a home and live paycheck to paycheck, without credit or savings enough to even dream of home-ownership? When we lose our jobs it means moving in with friends or homelessness and selling our belongings. I just read McCain has more than 10 cars. When we have children it means struggling to pay daycare and trying to find a housing in a neighborhood not overrun with crime. We don't watch CNN or MSNBC pundits because we don't have cable television. We don't rush out to buy Palin's glasses or designer baby strollers featured on the Today Show because diapers, milk and gas are all we can afford. McCain wants to get rid of unmployment compensation. Why doesn't that come up in any of the ads? Unemployment compensation is the only reason my family is not homeless roght now. I worked my way through college and earned a 4-year degree from a state university. I am not in debt. I just don't make enough to save money and I make double the minimum wage. What about those who earn less? What will become of them when the rich run our country into the ground and take their golden parachutes with them? What was that figure about how few corporations pay taxes? Without regulation, the rich and corrupt have ruined our country and it will be left to the rest of us to try to prop it back up and to survive. If we can.

In this context I can't recommend strongly enough Naomi Klein's Disaster Capitalism (just out in paperback). The thesis, briefly, is that any time a disaster strikes, you use the emergency to demand additional power and money to deal with it. If the disaster is natural, like Katrina? That's great. If you have to create your own disaster? No problem. Just neglect or mismanage something until it fails—sound familiar?–then demand the power and money.

Here's the link to her latest appearance on Bill Maher's show:

Note how the jerk Andrew Sullivan blames the victim. The fault of this disaster, he says, lies with irresponsible families that took out higher mortgages than they could afford! In other words, families that reached out for the American dream and were stupid enough to trust the financial experts with whom they were dealing.

13 zeroes? That depends on what quantity is being described. The bailout plan itself is 12 zeroes (1 trillion) - as of now. The new national debt limit is 13 zeroes. This has nothing to do with the images, of course.

Apologies, but a follow-up.

I grew up in Miami, Florida, during the '50s. The land a mile south of my home had been platted during the great land boom, celebrated in the Marx Brothers play and movie Coconuts. Block after block was squared off and surrounded by sidewalks. No houses. Just sidewalks.

imho, Senator Obama should call Mr. Paulson's bluff : frame this so-called "$700 billion dollar Wall Street bailout" for blunder as "a massive Republican tax increase plunder of the American people," and kill it. . .

. . .though i doubt that the candidate has the courage to do so. In the meantime, we should stop using their language ~ and instead of talking about "cost to the American taxpayer" (note the pretense of this passive tense) begin to use language that evokes the alternative narrative : Republican TAX INCREASE.

(they want Culture War, let's bring it on home to Main Street, folks :)

The last picture is especially haunting. For me it evokes jim kunstler's "Geography of Nowhere". The cul-de-sac really is a dead end, the symbol of the idyllic suburban lifestyle grown cancerous. Master-planned developments, designed by companies with transparently bogus names like "Toll Brothers", ensure through a fractal complexity that everyone can live on a cul-de-sac. But when the fuel runs out -- and these things run off a volatile, too-rich mixture of cheap oil, subprime lending and short-sighted greed -- this is what we're left with. Ugly, blighted, useless asphalt that goes noplace and does nothing: the true face of a new American landscape.

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