The Case for Universal Income

The Cost of Living: Do We Need a Basic Income

Directed by Shayne Blackwell and Wayne Welsh

Film Review

This documentary examines various argument, pro and con, for a Universal (Unconditional) Basic Income.

Britain’s highest profile UBI advocates are journalist George Monbiot and the late anthropologist David Graeber. The main arguments they (and others) offer are

  • Britain’s extremely high levels of extreme poverty and destitution, despite being the fifth richest country in the world.
  • The systematic dismantling of Britain’s welfare system (over the last four decades).
  • Growing food poverty levels among Britain’s working poor.
  • An aggressive speculative property market,* a major driver of inequality.
  • The need to free up working class Brits to perform work not considered “employment” (child and elder care, higher education, and voluntary work).
  • The protection a UBI provides against exploitative treatment by employers (employers are forced to provide better working conditions when employees have the freedom to say no.
  • Ongoing loss of jobs do to automation and offshoring and relocation of manufacturers overs.

Although the documentary was released prior to the 2020 COVID crisis, the economic crisis triggered by global lockdowns has only accentuated the dismal working conditions of the world’s working poor.

The main arguments used against UBI are that that it’s “too expensive” (meaning it would lead to higher taxes and/or debt); that would encourage laziness by removing the incentive to work); and that it would cause inflation.

David Graeber (author of the History of Debt) points out that that the “too expensive” argument stems from a misunderstanding of where money comes from in modern society. At present, in most countries other than China, governments allow private banks to issue 98% of the money in circulation as loans. This includes loans to government to cover budget deficits.

Graeber stresses that allowing banks to create and control our money supply is a political choice. There is nothing to stop government from issuing their own funds to cover their deficits (as both Lincoln and Roosevelt did).

Ironically (as becomes clear in the film), people who endorse the “laziness” argument assure us they would continue working despite receiving a UBI – it’s just other people who would quit working.

Prior experiments with UBI in Indian and African communities produced decreased a decrease, rather than increase, in inflation. The additional community income caused an increase in goods and services in the economy. This, in turn, tended to drive prices down.


*A Universal (Unconditional) Basic Income is a system under which government provides regular, permanent cash payments to each citizen, regardless of their income or work status.

**In the UK, as in the US and New Zealand, the primary cause of housing inflation is a monetary system that allow banks to focus most of their money creation in the housing market (rather than the productive economy) without any effort to regulate the amount created.

Public library members can view the film free at Kanopy. Type Kanopy and the name of your library into your search engine.

 

3D Printing: Increasing Profits While Eliminating Jobs?

Printing Out the World

DW (2020)

Film Review

This documentary literally gushes over 3D printing, which in my mind makes great leaps in eliminating both manufacturing and warehouse jobs. Increasingly the wealthy elite refer to large scale job elimination as the Fourth Industrial Revolution or the Great Reset. While aspects of this new technology are both fascinating and exciting (especially for billionaires seeking to increase profits), I find it concerning the film fails to mention the social impact of the mass elimination of jobs.

Recent advances mean that current 3D printers are much faster and less energy intensive than early models. This increases the probability that more manufacturing will return to the industrial North from the Third World, leading to shorter supply chains and eliminating the need for warehouses. Using 3D printing makes it possible to produce spare parts as they are needed, increasing the lifespan of a wide variety of machines. This new technology also has the potential to eliminate overproduction, a traditional bugbear of the capitalist economic system.

The filmmakers visit a major German 3D printer manufacturer and Radius, their US counterpart.

At present 3D printing is used to produce a variety of plastic parts for Airbus, significantly reducing the weight of their aircraft, thereby increasing their fuel efficiency and reducing their carbon emissions. 3D printing is also used to produce soles for Addidas shoes. Although Adidas is headquartered in Germany, the soles (which are printed in Germany) have to be shipped to Asian factories for assembly. 3D printing is also used to produce cellphone cases.

Although most 3D printers use built-up layers of liquified plastic (a major environmental contaminant) in the products they make, it’s also possible to 3D print products out of aluminum and carbon fiber. It’s also possible to 3D print with biodgradable plastic made of cornstarch.

In India, there are projects that recycle the PET from plastic bottles into plastic filaments used to 3D print sung;asses and other produces.

 

2005: New Zealand’s Right Wing Populist Moment

The Hollow Men

Directed by Alister Barry (2008)

Film Review

This documentary, based on leaked emails cited in Nicky Hager’s 2006 book of the same name, the delivers a blow-by-blow account of New Zealand’s 2005 election campaign. In that year, pro-corporate New Right champion Don Brash nearly became prime minister via shrewd “populist” anti-Maori, anti-welfare, Islamaphobic campaign messaging

The film mainly focuses on Australian political consultant Bryan Sinclair (whom Brash hired as a personal assistant) and Australian social research strategy group Crosby Texter (which adapted the shrewd negative campaigning style of Bush advisor Karl Rove) in crafting deceptive political messaging to make Brash’s his pro-corporate ultra-right wing leanings appear mainstream.

The infamous Orewa speech Brash delivered in January 2004 was based on a cynical  Crosby Texter strategy to boost poll ratings by tapping into white resentment towards Maori.

In a second Orewa speech in January 2005, Brash blamed New Zealand’s “entrenched” social welfare system for increasing crime and domestic violence. Because National had already won over all the country’s rightwing biggots, it produced only a slight improvement in National’s polling.

Likewise a July 2005 Whanganui speech aimed at stoking Islamophobic sentiments produced only a slight temporary polling blip

The two most egregious events of Brash’s 2005 campaign were a Washington DC visit in which he promised a National campaign victory would see New Zealand’s anti-nuclear policy “gone by lunchtime” – and the secret collaboration between the Brash campaign and the NZ Christian fundamentalist group Exclusive Brethren. Although their religious beliefs forbids them to vote, Exclusive Brethren are allowed to campaign and lobby for parties with a compatible moral perspective.* In 2005, they spent nearly $2 million on leaflets attacking both Labour and the Green Party. Because the leaflets made no mention of the National Party, this expenditure fell outside the party’s electoral spending cap.**

Despite polling six percentage points above Labour the day before the election, National ultimately lost to Labour by one seat.

Nicky Hager published The Hollow Men on November 21, 2006. Nine days later Brash resigned as National party leader.


*The Exclusive Brethren opposed Labour’s proposed civil partnership legislation (because it extended to gay couples). Although Don Brash initially supported it, he reversed himself on learning it could help him win votes among Christian fundamentalist.

**Brash’s campaign team rewrote the leaflet to ensure it didn’t violate NZ electoral law.

Public library members can view the film free at https://beamafilm.com

Denial: An Unlikely Path to Sexual Transition

 

Denial: The First Step to Acceptance

Directed by Derek Hallquist (2016)

Film Review

This is a very unusual documentary. I assumed it would profile the climate denial movement, but it does so only very indirectly. The film is actually a very touching profile of the filmmaker’s father, the obsessive compulsive CEO of a Vermont electrical utility who makes the difficult decision at age 50 to transition to female.

David Hallquist, whose Vermont Electricity Cooperative runs on hydropower, has been an industry pioneer in promoting the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. In the film, his wife and adult children struggle with his decision to become female. It features clips from the therapist they work with. The latter helps other family members fully understand and work through their feelings of denial.

For me, the most intriguing segment of the film concerns Hallquist senior’s diagnosis of state 3 prostate cancer. When his oncologist recommends castrations (which has a 90% success rate), he’s almost gleeful to be relieved of the difficult decision whether to move from occasional cross dressing to full hormonal transition.

 

 

 

 

The Reality of Class Society in the US

People Like Us: Social Class in America

Directed by Andrew Kolker and Louis Alvarez (1999)

Film Review

Produced in 1999, this video long predates the systematic destruction of the middle class that began following the 2008 global economic crash. Thus many of the observations it makes about social class are no longer strictly accurate.

Nevertheless the claim that that bias against working class people is the last acceptable prejudice* still rings true – as does the filmmakers’ premise that separation into social classes (eg preppies and dorks, nerds, goths, ghetto and other losers) begins in high school. The assertion that the vast majority of working class Americans consider themselves “middle class” seems less relevant with the galloping poverty the US has experienced over the last 12 years.

I am also skeptical of the filmmakers’ claim that all Americans feel more comfortable surrounded by members of their own social class. After 32 years of working professionally with people across all social classes, I’ve always agreed with sociological studies describing a district working class culture** placing high value on community, extended family, loyalty and emotionally intimate relationships. I’ve also found that working class people tend to have better social skills – owing in part to childhoods spent playing in the street (while rich children attend piano, dancing and soccer lessons) and in part to greater ease expressing strong feelings.

In contrast, I’ve found that competitiveness, status seeking and difficulty expressing strong emotions turn social relationships in society’s upper echelons into somewhat of a mine field.

I’m also leery about the way filmmakers emphasize style of dress (with rich people wearing more expensive designer labels) in distinguishing rich from low income Americans. For some reason they totally fail to acknowledge the current trend (starting in the mid-80s) for wealthy Americans to affect a grunge/punk dress style.

For me, the most interesting part of the film concerns a battle in Burlington Vermont over a city council decision to favor a locally owned food coop over a Shaw’s chain supermarket. It was interesting to see the city’s working class residents express their lifelong frustration with their more well-to-do counterparts trying to impose their tofu-oriented lifestyle on them. In the end, the coop won the permit but began stocking white bread to appease Burlington’s working class.

I also found the section on social class in the Black community extremely enlightening.


*Eg, Hillary Clinton referring to them as “deplorables.”

**See Working Class Culture

Anyone with a public library card can view the film free on Kanopy. Type “Kanopy” and the name of your library into your search engine.

 

 

Facebook Follies

Facebook Follies

Directed by Geoff D’eon

Film Review

This gushy 10-year-old film is essentially a Facebook informational. The narrator is a breathless female filled with adolescent awe at the the thought of connecting millions of global strangers at the click of a mouse.

While this so-called documentary is clearly geared to adolescent Facebook users (who have since migrated to Instagram, Whatsapp, and Tik Tok), it also features a 60-year-old Welsh farmer who was banned from Facebook six times (and kept coming back with new identities) for arranging sexual encounters with 350 women.

To its credit, the film provides clear warnings (mainly addressed to young adult users) about Facebook posts becoming a permanent record hindering your future ability to run for office and even your employability. It also warns about the high potential for identify theft (based on all the personal information people post on Facebook), as well as for your fabulous vacation pics advertising to thieves that your home is vacant. In addition, according to filmmakers, a number of users have been duped by the Facebook version of the Spanish Prisoner* scam.

Surprisingly (given its 2011 release), the film also features a warning about the dangers of allowing any corporation to collect massive amounts of data about your life. It presciently warns that Facebook only gives the illusion of being free – that every Facebook user pays for the service with the vast amount of personal data they provide Mark Zuckerberg.


*The Spanish Prisoner is a confidence trick originating in the late 19th century. In its original form, the confidence trickster writes to his victim informing him that he is a wealthy person of high estate who has been imprisoned in Spain under a false identity.

Anyone with a public library card can view the film free via Kanopy. Type Kanopy and the name of your library into your search engine.

 

Growing Old Under British Austerity

Old

Directed by Kate Blewitt and Brian Woods (2017)

Film Review

This documentary, released three years ago, profiles the sad desperation experienced by 2.5 million British seniors living below the poverty. It would appear that this vulnerable population is also at special risk to die of COVID-19, owing to clinical protocols likely to deem them unsuitable for hospitalization, difficulty spatially isolating healthy residents from those with coronavirus infection, and failure to provide care home staff with adequate PPE (personal protective equipment).

The British government is predicting that as many as 30% of their care home residents could die of coronavirus.

After watching this film, I’m inclined to agree with this prediction. In my mind, however, the true culprit is austerity-induced poverty – not the loss of immunity allegedly experienced in everyone over 70.

In the film, viewers meet a victim of physical and financial abuse by family members; a woman battling (in court and in street protests) local council efforts to close her nursing home; an elderly man housed in a homeless shelter, a council staffer responsible for organizing funerals for poor seniors who die in total isolation from family members or friends; an elderly male repeatedly robbed and terrorize by teenage residents of his council estate, and an elderly woman who sleeps on the street in her wheelchair.

In the UK:

  • Over 180,000 seniors are abused every year in their homes.
  • One British senior is victimized by crime every 24 seconds.
  • Ten nursing homes close every week – in 2016 these closures affected over 12,000 care home residents.
  • 21,000 elderly live in homeless hostels.

The Red Cross Secondhand Clothes Racket

The Dirty Business of Old Clothes

Directed by Michael Höft and Christian Jantzch (2019)

Film Review

This documentary is about a racket involving the German Red Cross and other charities that sells 700,000 tonnes of donated secondhand clothes to a for-profit company called Soex. Soex, in turn, sells the clothes to Eastern Europe, Middle East, and sub-Saharan markets.

This particular scheme is similar to those operating in other European countries and the US. The Red Cross receives five cents per kilo for donated clothing that is resold for €1.20 per kilo.

Filmmakers follow one shipment of secondhand clothing to Tanzania, where most people live on less than one euro a day. The flood of cheap second hand clothing into the port of Dar es Salaam has shut down a local clothing factory that formerly employed 9,000 workers. No textile manufacturer in the world could compete with an industry selling clothes they source for free.

The film features heartbreaking interviews with unemployed workers who often go days at a time without eating.

The filmmakers attempt to interview the chairman of the German Red Cross about the program, but he declines to speak to them.

 

 

Surveillance Capitalism: How Google and Facebook Use Your Data to Exploit Your Inner Demons

Soshona Zuboff on Surveillance Capitalism

VPRO (2019)

Film Review

This documentary features Harvard Business School Professor Shoshona Zuboff, author of the popular book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.

Zuboff begins by emphasizing that most of the data tech behemoths like Facebook and Google collect on us is unrelated to what we actively post on their sites. They and the companies they sell our data to are far more interested in the information we reveal inadvertently (ie our online contacts and purchases, the games we play, our geographic location, and the time we spend on specific sites).

By making their Android operating system available free to smartphone manufacturers, Google successfully captured 90% of the mobile phone market. This, in turn, enables them to capture phenomenal amounts of location-based data (linked to the phone’s GPS function) from Android-based smartphones. Google also collects personal information from the hidden microphones (that were never disclosed to users) on Google Nest, an Internet-based security system.

Collecting this type of metadata on hundreds of thousands of individuals enables complex algorithms to make surprisingly accurate predictions about our psychological state. Tech companies use these predictions to create what Zuboff refers to as “lure modules” – which they sell to a range of online and offline businesses. Their purpose is to increase “click-throughs” for on-line merchants and “footfalls” for brick and mortar outlets.

The Pokemon Go game is the best known experiment using a popular game to lure players to offline locations to spend money. Although marketed by a so-called startup called Niantic, Pokemon Go was developed over many years using Keyhole, a software program created by the CIA that Google purchased to create Google Earth.

Employing similar algorithms, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg flaunts his company’s capacity to monitor-moment to-moment mood shifts in more than six million Australian teenagers. This, in turn, enables advertisers to predict when they need a confidence boost (eg by buying your product).

Zuboff also cites the case of Cambridge Analytica, which purchased Facebook data depicting the “the inner demons” of 80 million Americans in 2016. The British company would use this data to develop targeted messaging to trigger Facebook users, where to click, what to read, and who to vote for.

Will Japan Cancel the Summer Olympics?

Back to Fukushima

RT (Dec 2019)

Film Review

I don’t get it. Why doesn’t Japan cancel the Olympics? The Coronavirus gives them the perfect excuse to do so, without losing face over the ongoing disaster at Fukushima.

This eerie documentary follows a half dozen or so elderly Fukushima residents as they return home. The Japanese government is slowly reopening decontaminated* areas as “safe” for returning residents.

Most returnees carry hand held Geiger counters, and there are ubiquitous digital road signs that display ambient radiation levels (in microsieverts).

It’s primarily elderly retired residents who are returning, given there are no schools or work opportunities in Fukushima. The government has reassured returnees that the elderly are more “resistant” to radiation, as most radiation-related cancers take decades to develop.

The government has built a 50 unit public housing facility, of which 30 units have been occupied. Most returning residents have been warned to remain indoors as winds flowing in from contaminated areas can increase radiation levels unpredictably.

At present visitors to Fukushima stop at checkpoints to be given protective clothing and dose meters at checkpoints. They are also scanned for radioactivity on their departure.

After watching the video, I still find it mind boggling the Japanese government still plans to hold the Olympic baseball and softball events in Fukushima in July. I can’t see how they can do so safely without providing protective clothing and masks for all the athletes and spectators.


*The main decontamination that has occurred is the wiping down of contaminated buildings and the remove of contaminated topsoil (to be stored in mountains of plastic bags in decontamination areas) and its replacement with new uncontaminated soil.

The film can be viewed free at Back to Fukushima