His Fight, Our Fight

According to the brief description that accompanied this photo that crossed my Facebook timeline the other day, the funeral of Pretty Boy Floyd drew the largest attendance of any such event in Oklahoma history. The image gives me goosebumps, almost puts a lump in my throat. It’s not the coffin—I can’t even discern where it is. It’s the people, backs straight, their attention focused entirely on the dead man.

On what he represented.

My dad sometimes talked about Pretty Boy Floyd although at the time of Floyd’s death, my dad was only seventeen. For him, like so many, Floyd stood as a heroic symbol to survival in their times. Dust bowl, economic depression, most of all the shift of worlds. From the independent farmer working alongside his wife and children to wrest of living from the land to the new reality of the need for money and consequently, jobs in town.

Giving up the farm and its creeks and horses and the smell of fresh cut hay. Learning to work for someone else. Breathing exhaust. Street lights burning the dark. Rigid hours to serve someone else’s profit. Dependent on the dollar instead of the land.

There were men who couldn’t make the change. Men who rebelled, who clung to the old ways. Men who’d rather die than portion out his life in the 9 to 5. They didn’t willingly give up the tradition of their fathers, but rather borrowed money on the hope of better times, more rain, abundant crops. The loans came due before better times arrived.

According to his biography in Wikipedia, “[Charles Arthur] Floyd was viewed positively by the general public. When he robbed banks he allegedly destroyed mortgage documents, but this has never been confirmed and may be myth. He was often protected by locals of Oklahoma, who referred to him as ‘Robin Hood of the Cookson Hills.’” He was thirty when he died.

Floyd’s robberies of banks made him a target for the fledgling FBI and the true manner of his death became one of the agency’s earliest cover-ups. After he was downed by rifle shot, another agent shot him with an automatic weapon at point blank range. Not widely known at the time, the unfairness of his killing nevertheless was understood at a visceral level by the common man.

Woody Guthrie, a native of Oklahoma, penned a song about it in 1939, five years after Floyd’s death. Called “The Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd,” the song has the form of a  Broadside “come-all-ye” ballad opening with the lines:

If you’ll gather ’round me, children, a story I will tell ‘Bout Pretty Boy Floyd, an Outlaw, Oklahoma knew him well.

The lyrics recount Floyd’s supposed generosity to the poor and contain the famous lines comparing foreclosing bankers to outlaws:

As through this world you travel, you’ll meet some funny men; Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen. And as through your life you travel, yes, as through your life you roam, You won’t never see an outlaw drive a family from their home.

Many other artists have recorded this song, among them Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and James Taylor as another generation’s anthem to the tragedy of corporate takeover.

It’s easy to see Floyd as a martyr. In his short life, he did what so many others wanted to do. Like the young Chinese man who dared to stand in the path of an oncoming tank, Floyd like similar ‘criminals’ of the early 20th century defied the banks and credit systems that threatened everything that mattered in rural American lives. They instinctively understood they were being swept into a capitalist system that had no sense of morality, no obligation to human circumstance. They fought back the only way they knew how.

The battle that cost Charles Floyd his life has not ended.



Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pretty_Boy_Floyd

A Comfortable Shirt


Are so many Americans furious just because the rich keep getting richer and the rest of us are getting poorer?  That seems an amorphous target for such visceral rage. I think the anger roiling the masses also stems from a hundred small deceptions inflicted upon the public on a daily basis.

Take, for example, the shrinking product. Manufacturers, faced with rising costs of raw materials, labor, and transportation, have quietly reduced the content of your bag of chips. The subterfuge becomes apparent once you open the package. There, nestled in the bottom of the once-puffed up bag, is a notably smaller quantity of chips. Still sold for the same price, the lesser content sends a subtle message: You are being cheated.

Crackers come in geometrically reduced proportions. Toilet paper is narrower, less tightly rolled. There are only four gel pens in the package instead of five. All for the same price as before.

The true cost of food is most clearly displayed in the produce department where two pears will cost you a dollar-fifty. Or in the meat department where a pound of ground chuck has somehow crept up to the unbelievable price of $5.99. Yes, you can buy ground beef at a lower cost—but it’s suspiciously slick and off-scent and each mouthful yields little granules of gristle and other mysterious and disgusting bits.

Manufactured goods suffer a similar problem. While potato chips must still—for now at least—be made from potatoes, wooden picture frames can be made of plastic that won’t hold a screw. Wooden cabinets and furniture can be made of plastic or pressboard which, once broken, cannot be repaired. Toys and shoes fall apart.

world_fiber_production_polyester_cotton_wool_chartbuilderClothing once warmed us, comforted us, an ancient human invention to ameliorate the savages of raw nature. But what comfort comes in wearing synthetics manufactured from crude oil? Synthetics sit on the skin like plastic sheeting. Even the latest efforts to make this material more user friendly can never take away its basic petroleum nature.

Want cotton? Prepare to spend a lot more money than you ever imagined. A simple work shirt can run upwards of sixty dollars. If you can find one. Can’t afford it? Walk around all day in clothing that irritates your skin and contributes to the random outbreak of eczema. The aggravation becomes subliminal but ever present. Check your anger level as you rip off your clothing at the end of the day.

Recently my hard drive crashed and I was forced to upgrade my version of Windows. In the process, I lost the ability to interface with my laser printer—a new driver wasn’t available. I also lost my favorite word processing software, Word Perfect, since I could not afford to buy it new as well as Microsoft Word. For a writer, Microsoft Word is required so I had no choice about how to spend that money.

The financial hit started piling up. My version of Photoshop no longer worked. I lost use of clipart software that included over 10,000 images and there is nothing comparable available. I lost font software that included 1000 fonts. The fonts that came with the new system are essentially all the same—nothing fancy, scrolling, or ornate. New fonts are sold by the each. (Recently I’ve learned of a font source that sells fonts in bundles, but they’re still costly.)

The new email software (Windows Live Mail) that came with the new Windows—because of course my old Outlook Express no longer works—is full of fancy bells and whistles I don’t need but is haunted by a glitch that has cost me more than one friend. At random times, if I add an attachment to the email, the email will send and send but never show up in the sent folder. I discover the error if I happen to check the outbox and see it still sitting there happily sending the ten thousandth copy. One time I merely replied to a message with imbedded images and because of those images, the glitch sprang into action. That recipient got several hundred copies of my reply.

(Yes, I also use Gmail but my vast reserve of old info from Outlook was imported into Live Mail.)

Things get worse instead of better and it’s the certain knowledge of this, the personal daily acid drip of unexpected expenses and losses that eat away at your nerves. Admittedly, if we earned more, we might not stand in shock at the price tag on a cotton shirt or a bundle of fonts. However, until the day that we can drop sixty bucks on a comfortable shirt, we’re forced to shop at big box stores such as Walmart. And therein lies another wrathful screed.

(Yes, one can shop at second hand stores. Good luck finding what you want in your size. For me, shopping is akin to sitting in a red ant hill. Do it and get out.)

It’s not just the computer world that disregards and/or manipulates its buyers. In big box stores, nothing is where it was the last time you shopped. (Okay, slight exaggeration, but I’m ranting, so bear with me.) Driven by some junior executive concept of aggressive marketing, store managers are instructed to move key items from one place to another in order to encourage shoppers to explore new aisles. In theory, when we have to search for Band-Aids in a new location, we’ll find a new product to buy.

A similar strategy drives these bargain stores to make strategic shifts of entire departments. Too easy to place the paper, pens, and other office supplies in a convenient aisle near the grocery section. That made sense until the latest theory came into play. Now one must trudge a half mile to the farthest corner in order to purchase a note pad. This might not infuriate shoppers so much if there was an alternative retailer where a note pad might be found. But alas, along with the big box came the demise of the local stationary store, five and dime, and other potential competitor.

Let’s not forget the bait and switch method where a useful product appears on the shelf only to be replaced six months or a year later with an inferior clone.

Or how about the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t ploy? Or the clerks (assuming you can find one) who have no idea what you’re talking about because they didn’t work there when that product was stocked. Or they did but they have no idea why there aren’t any now. Or a tired acknowledgement that no, trays that catch overflow under flower pots aren’t stocked in the fall or winter because that’s not the garden season. NEVERMIND that pots don’t need trays when they’re outside for the summer, they’re needed in the fall and winter.

For me, it’s this sense of being played in service to greed and ignorance that underlies my fury. It’s the paper checking account register that’s half the size it was in the days before online bill payments. They can’t sell enough checks now so you have to buy registers. It’s the Facebook newsfeed default setting that sends you back to their idea of your ‘top stories’ instead of allowing you to receive your friends’ posts permanently in chronological order.

Progress should means keeping what’s good and adding new good stuff. Instead, our progress seems to mean replacing the good stuff with cheaper shittier stuff while paying the same price. It’s not difficult to understand consumer outrage over corporate executives who rake in millions. The race to the bottom in quantity, quality or durability comes not because they can’t afford to offer more chips in the bag or software that works with my laser printer, but because the profit formula means that people at the top and their stockholders must make more money.

The profit formula dictates not only that the cost of production must be suppressed but that the consumer must be beguiled into the belief he is paying less. The details of this formula are all too familiar—jobs exported to Third World nations, lousy workmanship, poor quality contents. Rape and plunder of the earth’s remaining resources. Consumers confront the guilt of adding to the trade deficit by buying a shirt made in Bangladesh, of knowing they’re contributing to an industry that may employ child labor or which ignores workplace safety.

What lies within memory for perhaps the angriest Americans are times when most clothing was made from natural fibers, when a pound of ground chuck could be had for a buck ninety-nine, and the meat tasted good. We remember furniture that could be repaired with a larger screw and a bit of yellow glue. We remember stores that remembered us, familiar aisles where we could find another one of those things we bought last year.

Rationally, we know the government is not to blame. We know that the fundamental corporate mandate dictates the endless machinations by which its executives gain ever greater salaries and its consumers function as pawns in their capitalist game. We buy in because we’re not ready to stop using computers or stop buying chips. They’ve got us by the short and curlies.

The reason we’re angry with the government is that the government alone has the power to regulate the corporations. Only government can mitigate the capitalist prime directive and look out for the common man’s interests. When evidence supports the suspicion that corporations have infiltrated the government’s function, then it’s time to vote in a new Congress.

Then let them eat cake.

Money in Socks

socksMoney doesn’t just appear of out thin air. Somebody has to build something, repair something, grow and harvest something. Value begins with some real thing that people need: food, shelter, clothing.

So where does wealth come from?

I don’t pretend to be an economist or any other form of expert on financial matters. I get that there’s a need for advertisers, wholesalers and distributors, transporters, and retailers. I agree that those who work hard should gain appropriate reward. I agree that for each phase of ‘handling,’ additional value is added so that the end product costs more than the producer’s price.

My issue is with people whose wealth exceeds imagination and derives from the honest labor of other people. There’s no value added. The only ‘work’ of the rich is to shuffle their money around.

Before the mega rich got mega, local producers of socks made a dollar for every pair the wholesaler purchased. The wholesaler made 25¢ for every pair he sold to the stores in his distribution circles. The store made 25¢ for every pair they sold to consumers. Consumers paid $1.50.

Lots of producers, lots of wholesalers, lots of stores meant lots of employed people making a modest income. They spent their money at the local stores and restaurants and invested in their kids’ schools and city parks. Newcomers could hang up a shingle for their own sock business and get in the game.

Enter the big shots. Sam Walton, for example. His clever idea was to cut out the wholesalers and buy directly from the producers. He sold the socks for $1.25. What cheap socks! Huge success.

Here’s the story. A few years passed and Walton expanded. Pretty soon the producers had no one to sell to except Walton. All the little wholesalers and retailers had been left in the dust as shoppers flocked to the discount store. Then Walton said, hey, sell me your socks for 75¢ a pair or I’ll buy from another producer.

Producers had no option but to seek ways to produce a cheaper sock—lower quality raw materials like synthetics instead of cotton, less expensive sources of raw materials like foreign markets instead of American, compromised design like shorter cuffs and thinner thread. Less expensive labor to produce the socks—foreign laborers who would work for a dollar per week.

Walton was still selling the socks for $1.25. The squeeze on producers tightened—ever lower prices = lower quality. The change was subtle. Yes, consumers noticed the socks were thinner and the cuffs shorter. They noticed the lack of cotton and higher synthetic content. They didn’t like knowing that Walton was sending sock production to China, but hey, the socks were cheaper.

We all went along. Oh, gee, look at these low prices! A big store with everything. Now I don’t have to go to a pharmacy, a grocery, a hardware store, a toy store, a fabric shop, and a clothing store. There isn’t as big an assortment here, and they may not have the same product two years in a row, but it’s cheap!

Meanwhile, income had become stagnant. Where is the money?

Walton started hiring executives to push his money around. Find cheaper sources for socks. All synthetic. All made in Bangladesh.

Walton set up his own trucking company to carry his goods. Truck drivers and other transportation workers came to the corporate loading dock hat in hand.

Walton created an in-store brand that monopolized his shelf space at prices still lower than any previous suppliers. He didn’t have to advertise so his price didn’t reflect the advertising costs sustained by other suppliers. Store brand socks were shelved next to name brands at a significantly lower price.

The sock now costs Walton 25¢. He sells it at $1.25. All the profit flows to the top. To the richest people in the world, the Walton heirs.

It’s a business model that makes grown men weep. They weep not for the loss of mom and pop stores, of local distributors and truckers, not for lower quality goods and the flood of American jobs rushing overseas. The men weep in jealousy.

Why didn’t I think of that? I could be rich.

The model has been emulated many times now in the forty years since the Walton model was set in motion. Corporate is the way to go. Big is best. Everything flows up. It’s a matter of time (and not much of it is left) until all production, distribution, and retailing is controlled by a handful of superrich entities like the Walton family.

Want a pair of nice, well-made cotton socks? Guess what? There aren’t any other stores. Nobody makes socks anymore. Now you’ll pay $2.50 a pair for cheap uncomfortable socks made of synthetics in a fire-hazard factory employing children in Bangladesh.

The horses are out of the barn.

And running fast. Need a house or a car? Need a new roof or a new transmission? Despite “Always Lower Prices,” we can hardly afford the basics of daily life. Our earning power has steadily declined while the mega rich get richer. That giant sucking sound is all the money going to the top.

The solution to your lousy cash flow? Charge it!

The obscenely rich get rich not only by monopolizing the production, distribution, and sale of consumer goods but also by making their money available for your credit. How nice of them! Take your time paying them back—they’ll only charge 15-25% interest. Never mind that you’ll never emerge from debt. This is the new form of slavery.

The superrich have wrangled their way into our political process, our daily lives, and the infrastructure upon which we depend for everything from roads to medical care. Our brightest, most ambitious kids leave college to enter life as indentured servants. They’ll spend ten, twenty, or thirty years trying to pay off student loans—more of the financial empire of the superrich.

In a world where every decision is about profits, there is little hope for the average man. We live our lives in debt, ensuring that we never have time to foment rebellion or even learn enough to question the status quo. The moguls fold their arms and smile down, teasing us along with bits and pieces, at least enough to feed the myth of capitalism’s promise. The great American dream—we wouldn’t want to stand in the way of the little man who thinks he’ll strike it rich.

I can hear the naysayers now. Apologists for greed, for the corporate regime. Look at all the products we have now—all kinds of socks we never had before. But do we need to pay $6 for pink and purple socks? How do we know local producers wouldn’t have offered the same socks for $3?

We knew it wasn’t magic. We knew that the wealth had to come from somewhere. We just didn’t reckon on it coming from us.

Are we hardwired to grovel at the king’s feet, no matter the current incarnation?

Never mind the rebels who try to ‘buy local’ and think outside the box. They’re throwing rocks across the moat.

We wouldn’t want to allow workers to organize for better pay and better working conditions. That might limit profits and you know how all that trickles down.

We wouldn’t want to bust open Wall Street or cap pay for corporate executives—after all, they’re the geniuses who make the world go round.

Without them, we wouldn’t have socks!