Posts Tagged ‘ Howard Zinn

Local Thugs Enforce Transportation Monopoly

A buddy of mine recently pointed me at an interesting story. A local business, Electric Cabs of Austin, shuttles people around downtown Austin in electric carts at no charge.

“We actually got the idea from the city of Austin, who was operating golf carts in the downtown area. And we decided to take it one step further,” said Nielsen [the owner]
He bought five electric, golf-style cars and hired friends to drive them around the city. Just like the pedicabs, they ask for tips only.

They make their money from selling advertising space on the carts themselves.

This is the sort of spontaneous activity that adds to the deep reservoir of color and charm in what would otherwise be just mid-size city in Texas.

The Austin municipal government, like all governments, tries to remain relevant by jumping on various bandwagons that emerge organically from the wider community. To demonstrate its commitment to a cleaner, greener city, Austin government has installed a hundred or so electric car charging stations in anticipation of emissions free[1] transportation. You would imagine that the city council would be all in favor of an electric cab company, right?

OK, I sort of cheated on that last question, because I forgot to mention that the gas powered cab companies that currently hold all the licenses to give rides to people have paid the mayor and the city council tens of thousands of dollars towards their campaign funds.

For unrelated reasons, I’m sure, the city council has been unable to figure out a way to license Electric Cabs of Austin for . . . wait for it . . . 3 years.

My more advanced readers will already skip to the part where it’s criminal to interpose oneself between someone who wants a ride and someone who is willing to give them a ride. Nielson, the owner of the Electric Cab Company, though, is more of a business person than an agorist martyr; he’d rather just get the permission slip from the nut-jobs at city hall than rot in prison on principle. I’m sympathetic. Apparently, he’s trying to run the cab service despite the legal hangups and has wracked up 200+ tickets and arrests among his driving staff. So maybe he’s part agorist martyr.

A twist on the story, and this is also a staple of government, is that nobody is really clear on exactly what law is being violated. City Council candidate Kris Bailey, who has no chance of ever being elected because he is relatively sane (Green party, pro-marijuana legalization, etc.) tried to find out on what grounds the city police have issued 200+ tickets and made arrests of the electric cab drivers:

There is no law actually prohibiting him from operating this business, it is true but, the enforcement side of the city (the police) have taken this lack of a law regulating the business as operating in violation of a law. He [Nielson, the owner] is violating a law that does not exist. . .
I met with multiple council members and made several phone calls, wrote emails, etc…. I realized that he was right, he is being ignored, and the City of Austin does not wish this business to exist. [Here’s the whole post for people who have Bookface accounts]

Baily, as part of his City Council campaign, I presume, took one of the cabs for a spin one evening:

I gave 2 rides on Friday night. The first ride was to a couple of women who when dropped off handed me a few dollars and thanked me. I did not charge them. They voluntarily handed me the money. At this point, 3 APD [Austin Police] officers stopped me and wrote me a ticket for “Operating without a permit” and “no chauffers license.” I tried to explain the permit and license do not exist, they did not care. I asked if they had read the ordinances I was supposedly violating, I asked multiple times and the officers refused to quote the law I was breaking. They told me if they saw me operating again, they would arrest me.

I decided that the Austin Police Department does not have the right, nor the authority to shut down a business on a whim. I picked up another person, and gave him a ride. I dropped him off where he asked to go. The police officers saw him hand me $4 (again, I did not charge him) and immediately came to me and put me in handcuffs. I was arrested without discussion or hesitation and taken directly to jail.

Baily is very generous to the folk who caged him that night, but he’s a politician and has to go easy on “law enforcement.” Essentially, the police are hired thugs for the other cab companies in Austin. As Kevin Carson notes in a recent essay,

the true nature of regulation as a naked power grab by incumbent businesses is nowhere more apparent than at the local level. At the lower levels of government, conventional, brick-and-mortar business establishments are heavily involved in using regulatory enforcement to shut down low-cost competition.

Brick and mortar doesn’t apply directly here; I’ve also noted this trend, locally, in a piece on food trucks–another wonderful feature of Austin–and their creeping strangulation at the hands of larger contributors to political campaigns. The point stands though, where the interests driving national political policy have a 24 hour PR outfit in the mainstream media to provide a sheen of legitimacy to wars and regulations, the “naked power” serving concentrations of capital is far easier to see on the local level.

A last note along these lines. The United States is experiencing unemployment around 22%.
Nothing outside of murder or theft should be illegal for a small business owner. The idea that people are being fined, jailed, and otherwise disallowed a living for giving somebody a ride, cooking somebody a meal, cutting hair, painting nails, or selling something some sunday school teacher doesn’t approve of is atrocious; over 20+% unemployment, it’s ridiculous.

OK, two last notes along these lines: this is not some crazy aberration. Protecting established wealth against emerging ingenuity (usually among the poor) is the very and sole purpose of government; read Kevin Carson, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Gabriel Kolko–I know I repeat myself, but seriously, read that shit. It’s time to trust in our fellow humans and allow them to arrange their lives according to their own choosing and not some lunatic who’s trying to micro-manage the lives of hundreds of thousands of strangers.

  1. [1] At least in the city itself, the poor bastards by the power plant still get the emissions

Early Corporate Welfare: “An act for the relief of sick and disabled seamen”

A friend pointed out a fascinating article on “An act for the relief of sick and disabled seamen[1] which the author points to as a precedent for Congress mandating health coverage for citizens of the United States.

I don’t have any disagreement with his conclusion, that the Constitution in no way prevents the government from mandating . . . well anything really, but specifically the purchase of some consumer good or service. I’m most interested by the story behind his example which is already pretty illuminating, but becomes even more so when translated from its high-school civics format into a reality-based narrative (a process I humbly think of as conferring a Zinn-like quality to the tale).

But before we get to that, one last word on the Constitution and those who believe it constrains human behavior in any way: it doesn’t. Unless the goal of drafting the Constitution was to create the largest government apparatus in human history (and as I recall, the goal was supposedly the opposite[2]–but opposite often accompanies violent solutions to problems), the piece of paper has missed its mark. A quick stroll through the Bill of Rights while simultaneously observing the interactions of the state with the citizenry should register an multitude of discrepancies across the spectrum.

On to the tale. We begin with “the founders” in 1798 . . .

During the early years of our union, the nation’s leaders realized that foreign trade would be essential to the young country’s ability to create a viable economy. To make it work, they relied on the nation’s private merchant ships – and the sailors that made them go – to be the instruments of this trade.

Zinnified: The rulers of the nascent United States were tightly tied to overseas shipping. Many of the revolutionaries had been smugglers or associated with organizations who opposed the British crown’s claim to a portion of the revenue from shipping in and out of major colonial harbors. Everyone in the political class of the time stood to benefit from increased shipping profitability, either directly as a merchant, or indirectly as one in control of the newly won power to levy taxes.

The problem was that a merchant mariner’s job was a difficult and dangerous undertaking in those days. Sailors were constantly hurting themselves, picking up weird tropical diseases, etc.
The troublesome reductions in manpower caused by back strains, twisted ankles and strange diseases often left a ship’s captain without enough sailors to get underway – a problem both bad for business and a strain on the nation’s economy.

Zinn’d: The problem is that physical laborers get hurt and decrease the workforce willing to work at a particular wage level. When the number of available workers doesn’t meet the supply required by business, business has to increase wages . . .
a political solution can be sought, which, when the beneficary is the ruling class, it always is. The government built a series of hospitals to treat “injured and ailing” sailors. And who paid for the hospital system that was so obviously benefiting the shipping industry?

This government provided healthcare service was to be paid for by a mandatory tax on the maritime sailors (a little more than 1% of a sailor’s wages), the same to be withheld from a sailor’s pay and turned over to the government by the ship’s owner.

Ah, no Zinn-lation needed here. Sailors preferred to spend money on pursuits that did not directly benefit their rulers and employers (not even %1, apparently). They could not be induced to contribute to this collective endeavor voluntarily, so the monopolist of violence was called on to compel the workers to subsidize the business interest.

Here we are 200+ years later and look how fantastically this system has worked out for our rulers. So many of the things that one might expect a profitable company to pay for: medical care, retirement, and insurance for the workers; and even infrastructure and dispute resolution (courts) that almost exclusively benefit the corporate class are all paid for by the workers themselves.

The workers produce for a the military that occupies foreign countries to ensure corporate control of resources and foreign labor, which helps drive down domestic wages. They even pay for the domestic security state which protects the property of the rulers from workers who have fallen on desperate times.

The children of the workers are collateral on loans taken out and handed to the corporate class and the meager savings, where they exist, have their value driven towards zero by the creation of additional dollars that are summoned from thin air and spent by the state, typically to buy products from favored corporations.

Sooooo, yeah. Nothing groundbreaking with this particular aspect of compulsory mandate. It’s interesting that anyone even noticed, really. For anyone who is concerned that our rulers will have their plans foiled by their own courts in this matter, put aside your fears. Any setback will be extremely temporary, and the corporate-political class will carry on draining the wealth and resources of the country until it’s time for them to board a plane and flee the wreckage that their rule has created.

  1. [1] It’s funny to note that the naming-things-the-opposite-of-what-they-do scheme, popularly identified by Orwell’s 1984, extends all the way back to this act. An act that forces seaman to pay for the suppression of their own wages named an act for the relief of sick and disabled seamen. Brilliant.
  2. [2] That’s the narrative anyway. See RadGeek’s comment for the actual reasons for the creation of the Constitution, which are entirely correct

Revisionist History, aka Reality Based History

I like the thought-exercise of viewing historical events as if one were a disinterested Martian. When stripped of the rhetoric, oratory and emotional appeals to the psychological hooks by which we’re so easily manipulated, what does an event look like?

The resulting narrative–in this case, of the creation of the american revolution and creation of the constitution–looks alot like this post by IOZ.

A gang of propertied tax yahoos who’d read a bit too much Cicero did what any patriotic Roman might’ve done in days of yore. They raised a private army and made civil war on a tyrant. They won! And in the decade the followed, they crafted a Roman-style aristocratic Republic, from slaveholding through general manhood citizenship through a vaguely consular system of government. That’s not some anachronistic metaphor. That was their self-conscious project. How many fasciae, how much cognomenizing of Washington as Cincinnatus does it take, huh? Anyway, after a few hundred years, that Republic, which was a little less glimmering than nostalgia recalls, is now deformed beyond recognition or repair. It has inevitably acquired an imperial identity, as you’d expect given its past economic and military success, and its consular-dictatorial office has acquired the trappings of a monarchy. . .

Alright, so maybe IOZ does express a point of view greater in strength than the Martian description. I may be inclined to forgive a bit of non-objective sarcasm and derision since the next-most-mainstream position already incorporates the honorary, “Founding Fathers.” You’ve got to travel a long way past the last outpost of Serious politics to find the position that the constitution is: “neat historical document, like the Twelve Tables, or Leviticus, or Hammurabi’s code, but it is the law of the United States in the same sense that we are guided by, say, the Ten Commandments.”

I’ve still got Howard Zinn on my mind and so I hunted down his take on the American Revolution:

In the year before those famous shots were fired, farmers in Western Massachusetts had driven the British government out without firing a single shot. They had assembled by the thousands and thousands around courthouses and colonial offices and they had just taken over and they said goodbye to the British officials. It was a nonviolent revolution that took place. But then came Lexington and Concord, and the revolution became violent, and it was run not by the farmers but by the Founding Fathers. The farmers were rather poor; the Founding Fathers were rather rich.

Zinn sticks more to my ideal of Martian detachment–he’s even generous enough to use “Founding Fathers” instead of “gang of propertied tax yahoos,” though I favor the latter description myself.

What is presented in both pieces are perspectives stripped of the propaganda accepted as truth, or a close approximation thereof, by virtually everyone. It’s no small part of the pain and suffering in the world that these clear-eyed perspectives on the history of nations and peoples is considered “radical” rather than “reality.”

Goodbye, Howard Zinn

Looking back on it now, Howard Zinn had a major impact on my radicalization.  I remember reading The 20th Century, essentially a subsection of The People’s History, on a park bench in Rutland, VT.  I recall my surprise that the progressive political agenda whose return I had hoped for during the Clinton presidency was, in fact, a reactionary force.

The political giants of the era who, I had been told for years, fought against greedy and monopolistic corporate barons had, in reality, actively crushed social movements challenging the economic dominance of said barons.  The 20th Century also introduced me to dozens of individuals and communities that I had never read about, but with which I felt an immediatel and powerful solidarity*.

I spent most of that day and the following months and years unlearning the “leftist” history I had accumulated in my first quarter century on earth.  I marveled at the monstrosity of the crimes committed by the paragons of the progressive political narrative*.   The ruthlessness with which they smashed nascent unions, sowed discontent between the races, and used police, prisons, and the courts to break up organic social structures that were rapidly forming across the working class brought into question, for the first time in my life, the notion of political solutions**.
In Zinn’s telling, every chapter ends in a victory for the conservative establishment.  Every populist movement is destroyed or absorbed, its energy dispersed or twisted to serve the increasingly powerful ruling class.  Throughout the entire book, chapter by chapter, you get a sinking feeling that, if the pattern doesn’t change, the people he’s writing about are going to end up . . . well, exactly where we are.
Dennis Perrin wrote a post about Howard Zinn’s passing titled, The Human Train which does a better job of expressing my sentiments than my own post.  The title triggered a feeling within me, which I’m having a hard time pinning down.  I feel loss, which I am not accustomed to when strangers pass.  Maybe it’s a feeling of connection and motion, even between people far removed.  Anyway, I’m saddened by his passing, and very grateful for his work and the influence it’s had on my life.
* Yeah, and the ones on the right too, but I already knew they sucked.

** RIP that notion ~2002