I Feel Like A Number

To workers I’m just another drone 
To Ma Bell I’m just another phone 
I’m just another statistic on a sheet 
To teachers I’m just another child 
To IRS I’m just another file 
I’m just another consensus on the street …
~ Bob Seger

I have seen every Super Bowl ever played. I remember the empty stands at Super Bowl I in the Los Angeles Coliseum.  But this year’s Super Bowl made me feel more a serf than an American.

superbowl

Quietly, over the past three decades, American business has been part of a massive, silent takeover that has seen over half of American book publishing ownership move overseas, dozens of banks merged into a mere handful, the chocolate industry virtually taken over by Nestlé of Switzerland, and companies vanishing even as the labels remain the same.

Take a look at this chart (from Mother Jones):

big-bank-theory-chart

click chart for article; click here for the full size chart

All those banks (that have become megacorporations “too big to fail”) now gone and replace by four big banks since 1990. Thanks to dead Bork, the notion of “antitrust” shifted from what’s good for business competition to what’s “best for consumers,” which is oxymoronic, when you consider that monopolies can use their sheer size to undercut competition and sell at under cost to produce, throwing their smaller competitors into the trash heap of history, which is “good” for consumers until competition ceases and then monopolies can charge anything they like.

grab

Serious antitrust needed to be engaged in starting in the early 80s (thanks Ronnie!) and now that we’re faced with a desperate need for it, the Borkian perversion tells judges to prefer the very qualities that MAKE a monopoly in deciding whether a monopoly is bad. Thus: monopolies continue to grow.

The US just won a trade case with Mexico, which now produces half of all US tomatoes. Seems that Mexican producers were selling their tomatoes UNDER their costs to produce to more or less transparently attempt to put US tomato producers out of business.

tomato

US, Mexico settle tomato war, anti-dumping probe ends with proposed reset of wholesale prices
Washington Post
February 3

WASHINGTON — A proposed agreement on fresh tomatoes imported from Mexico would strengthen anti-dumping enforcement and reset minimum wholesale prices, the Commerce Department said.

The agreement with Mexico’s tomato industry would suspend an investigation initiated after Florida tomato growers complained that Mexican producers were selling fresh tomatoes for less than the production cost.

The proposal would replace a pact that’s been in place for 16 years. The Commerce Department on Saturday released a draft of the agreement for public comment.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says it would allow the U.S. tomato industry “to compete on a level playing field.” […]

Uh, yeah. Here’s a sweet tale:

chocolate-bar

Big Chocolate” is a business term assigned to multi-national chocolate food producers, much akin to the terms assigned to “Big Oil” and “Big Tobacco”.

According to fair trade proponents including Ghanaian cooperative Kuapa Kokoo, “Big Chocolate” companies are Kraft (after their purchase of Cadbury plc in March 2010), Mars, Nestlé, and The Hershey Company. Together these companies process about 12% of the world’s 3 million tons of cocoa each year…

And, as big chocolate continues to crush all competition, take a gander at this:

In 1998, UNICEF reported that Ivorian farmers used enslaved children—many from surrounding countries. A 2000 BBC documentary described child slavery on commercial cocoa farms in Côte d’Ivoire. In 2001, the US State Department estimated there were 15,000 child slaves in cocoa, cotton, and coffee farms in Côte d’Ivoire,  and the Chocolate Manufacturers Association acknowledged that child slavery is used in the cocoa harvest.

Malian migrants have long worked on cocoa farms in Côte d’Ivoire, but in 2000 cocoa prices had dropped to a 10-year low and some farmers stopped paying their employees. The Malian counsel had to rescue some boys who had not been paid for five years and who were beaten if they tried to run away. 

Malian officials believed that 15,000 children, some as young as 11 years old, were working in Côte d’Ivoire in 2001. These children were often from poor families or the slums and were sold for “just a few dollars” to work in other countries.Parents were told the children would find work and send money home, but once the children left home, they often worked in conditions resembling slavery.  In other cases, children begging for food were lured from bus stations and sold as slaves….

The blame for the slavery in cocoa production has been passed from one group to the next. Those who sell the children to the farmers claimed they did not see the slavery.  The Ivorian government accused foreigners of using and selling slaves and blamed multinational chocolate companies for keeping cocoa prices low and farmers in poverty

Or, consider WalMart, which has made a distinct business model of destroying competition with monopolistic price-cutting tactics, using Chinese (let’s call it what it is) slave labor. You can fill in the blanks here.

wal mart suckiness

As the Washington Monthly noted in 2010:

Who Broke America’s Jobs Machine?
Why creeping consolidation is crushing American livelihoods.
By Barry C. Lynn and Phillip Longman

If any single number captures the state of the American economy over the last decade, it is zero. That was the net gain in jobs between 1999 and 2009—nada, nil, zip. By painful contrast, from the 1940s through the 1990s, recessions came and went, but no decade ended without at least a 20 percent increase in the number of jobs. […]

But while the mystery of what killed the great American jobs machine has yielded no shortage of debatable answers, one of the more compelling potential explanations has been conspicuously absent from the national conversation: monopolization. The word itself feels anachronistic, a relic from the age of the Rockefellers and Carnegies. But the fact that the term has faded from our daily discourse doesn’t mean the thing itself has vanished—in fact, the opposite is true. In nearly every sector of our economy, far fewer firms control far greater shares of their markets than they did a generation ago.

Indeed, in the years after officials in the Reagan administration radically altered how our government enforces our antimonopoly laws, the American economy underwent a truly revolutionary restructuring. Four great waves of mergers and acquisitions—in the mid-1980s, early ’90s, late ’90s, and between 2003 and 2007—transformed America’s industrial landscape at least as much as globalization. Over the same two decades, meanwhile, the spread of mega-retailers like Wal-Mart and Home Depot and agricultural behemoths like Smithfield and Tyson’s resulted in a more piecemeal approach to consolidation, through the destruction or displacement of countless independent family-owned businesses….

My point. I  could take you through a lot of different sectors of the economy, as local and regional brands have vanished, or been subsumed. A year or so ago, I suddenly had a craving for a Mars bar, my favorite from late childhood. And I looked and looked. No Mars bars. But then, I learned that:

The worldwide Mars bar differs from that sold in the US. The American version was discontinued in 2002 and was replaced with the slightly different Snickers Almond. The US version of the Mars bar was relaunched in January 2010 and is initially being sold on an exclusive basis through Walmart stores. The European version of the Mars bar is also sold in some United States grocery stores, usually being found in the imported or ethnic food sections…

US-Mars bar

Goodbye Hello

Yeah. Snickers almond. And, since I never shop at WalMart (without cutting off my nose to spite my face, of course) I haven’t seen the “relaunch. But that’s been the whole stealth nature of this thing: brands appear and vanish (mostly the latter) but even more, brands stay the same, while the ownership changes hands, ofttimes right out of the country and to being manufactured in conditions that predate the labor movement of the first decades of the Twentieth Century.

But, because the humans being exploited, or, as noted in the ch0colate industry, being forced into ACTUAL (not just virtual) slavery, we can neatly discard all our Abolitionist tendencies and pretend that there’s not blood on our Mars bars.

Blood diamonds? Try blood chocolate bars, instead. It’s not just elite wearers of furs and diamonds who are funding this, although it’s the only class that you hear much about.

Synchronicity, NPR is playing a Super Bowl-related story on Morning Edition as I write this:

SodaStream is the first Israeli company to advertise in the Super Bowl. The company has dodged controversy in efforts to break open the soft drink market. Its plant in the West Bank has made it a target for an international boycott movement…

The story talks about how SodaStream maintains sweatshop conditions in its Pa, while touting their David and Goliath “environmentalism”  in their ads. CBS supposedly rejected an ad (because the “public airwaves” are now a heavy-laced-with-irony joke) featuring Coke and Pepsi delivery trucks, because Coke and Pepsi are big CBS advertisers and the ad might offend them.

Which is a story of monopoly and consolidation IN AND OF ITSELF.

new monopoly 2

No: SodaStream treats its workers like crap and has its plant on West Bank “settlement” land, and is the subject of an international boycott.

Not a huge story, but one that sticks up like the tip of an iceberg, of which, you might recall, 7/8ths are under water, fundamentally unseen, though, as Titanic survivors  could tell you, it’s the unseen part that’s most dangerous.

And so, if you think about it, with the “Mercedes-Benz” SuperDome (because we are hornswoggled by big signs, as in “University of Phoenix” stadium in Arizona, where the credulous believe that it has something to do with a school that sells, essentially, correspondence school college degrees, but which probably doesn’t have so much as a small gymnasium, but SEEMS, to most viewers, a giant arena analogous to the giant campus of the non-existent University, per se) from the Germans, the Jeep sponsorship from the Italians (Fiat has the right to acquire majority ownership in Chrysler), and the Toyota Halftime and Postgame shows …

Super Superdome

The Axis Powers (supposedly defeated) now own our American Super Bowl.

Just like those Korean pricks own the “car” version of Santa Fe, from whose public High School I graduated forty years ago.

hyundai santa fe

Has NOTHING to do with Santa Fe, New Mexico
just corporate heritage-rape for greed

I am sorry, but the notion of nations has a VALUE. It has a PURPOSE. It has NOT been supplanted by mere cynicism and the laughable notion that I am an Island, born in a log cabin that I built myself.

We subsidize slavery and pre-labor working conditions abroad, and, in the case of “illegal” immigrants — with no legal rights working at sweat shop wages in a regime where no employer crime can be reported, lest one be deported, up to an including rape and murder — right here in the Good Ol’ USA.

This has bothered me for a long time. It is the reason that I left Southern California in 1989 — because I could not bear to live another moment in a megalopolis DEFINED and IGNORING virtual slavery. (My Quaker forebear Peter Preston, left Virginia — West Virginia today — for exactly the same reason, and moved to the territory that would become Ohio.)

But we have allowed this consolidation, this monopolization to eat away at the very fabric and foundations of our society, to the point that anyone who didn’t get the bitter irony of Dodge’s “Paul Harvey” paen to the American Farmer, hasn’t paid any attention at all.

It has NEVER sucked this bad to be an American family farmer: chicken farmers are, in essence, share-croppers, with the chicks owned cradle to edible grave by the large Chicken Monopolies (Tyson, etc.) and required to raise said chicks in Dachau-style concentration camps: no sunlight, no movement, no life. Monsanto sells “terminal” seeds that will not germinate in a second generation, and sues farmers whose corn has inadvertently been pollinated by their “PATENTED!” Frankenstein GMOs.

You know, the ones that produce their OWN Roundup® — which is the trade name for Agent Orange, BTW.

goya the sleep of reason breeds monsters

But who the hell cares that you’ve got blood on your chocolate, and your genetically modified corn taco shells represent a hostile takeover of the American Yeoman Farmer tradition that Jefferson believed the bedrock of the new America that would make Jefferson weep?

We have sold our beer to the Belgians. Our publishing to the Germans, and our souls to the devil.

And in an appropriately blacked-out Super Bowl, featuring a Mercedes Benz commercial wherein a fellow is tempted to sell his soul for a new, cheap Mercedes (featuring the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” — forever stained by Altamont Race track), one could not escape the feeling that I am no longer a member of an American Middle Class, but, rather, a sad anachronism in a new age of corporate feudalism.

And by “corporate” I mean, by the monopoly players who control vast industries that THEY THEMSELVES DO NOT UNDERSTAND.

greed

No, the vulture capitalist sees only carrion, as the football viewer only sees the pretty pictures, and never thinks that Budweiser’s new foreign overlords have completely shattered the Northwestern hops farmers, having decided to use cheaper hops extracts, rather than continue a long-standing relationship between farmer and brewer that has lasted generations.

Businessweek:

The Plot to Destroy America’s Beer
By Devin Leonard
October 25, 2012

… There has never been a beer company like AB InBev. It was created in 2008 when InBev, the Leuven (Belgium)-based owner of Beck’s and Stella Artois, swallowed Anheuser-Busch, the maker of Budweiser, in a $52 billion hostile takeover. Today, AB InBev is the dominant beer company in the U.S., with 48 percent of the market. It controls 69 percent in Brazil; it’s the second-largest brewer in Russia and the third-largest in China. The company owns more than 200 different beers around the world. It would like to buy more…

budweiser-sexy-girl

Reptile brain Pavlovian conditioning

And they don’t really give much of a crap about the product, just makin’ that old cash:

In the Hallertau region of Germany, small farmers had long made a living growing high-quality hops like Hallertauer Mittelfrüh, an integral component in Budweiser. Budweiser, after all, was originally a Bohemian-style beer, brewed with European ingredients. Hops, a bitter kind of flower, provide the dry smack that rides atop the sugars in a beer. After the 2008 takeover, however, AB InBev said it was cutting its purchases of the Hallertauer hops. “They announced they were no longer going to use the Hallertauer Mittelfrüh variety,” says Johann Pichlmaier, president of the Association of German Hops Growers. “We’ve had to reduce the acreage in the past few years.”

Martin Bauer, a sixth-generation hops farmer in Hüll, isn’t so busy these days. He putters around his barn in a flannel shirt and overalls. He keeps his farm going more to stay busy than for the money, which isn’t what it used to be. Bauer remembers meeting August Busch III, who came to the area once a year with a Mercedes-driving entourage. He fondly recalls how the former Anheuser-Busch CEO paid a high price for Hallertauer Mittelfrüh. He has nothing good to say about AB InBev, which, he laments, is brewing its beer with cheaper, less flavorful hops. “As long as people buy the beer they brew, they won’t go back,” Bauer says. “The Chinese and the South Americans prefer lighter beer anyway.”

Erna Stanglmayr is even more doleful. She says AB InBev is killing small hops farms like the one she’s run with her husband for 35 years….

The FTC just blocked (or put on hold) their attempt to buy up Modelo in Mexico, but these new monopolies have transcended mere nation-state. No single nation can rein them in, and, without any real enforcement or oversight, the international “business” world has become a wild, wild West of greed, with no clear-cut line between international trade and international crime.

bud

“An American lager”

The US Government’s feeble attempt to regulate ought to be seen for what it is, however, impotent, rather than important:

When AB InBev bought Anheuser-Busch, it acquired about 50 percent of Grupo Modelo, Mexico’s largest brewer and the maker of Corona, America’s No. 1 import. In June, Brito announced that AB InBev would purchase the rest of the company for $20 billion.  (Businesweek, ibid.)

In the US, the same holds true for hops that happened in Germany:

Four years ago, things were great for Gayle Goschie. She was growing hops on the same 1,000 acres in the Willamette Valley that her parents and grandparents had tended, selling a key ingredient to Anheuser-Busch. The sharp-eyed, soft-spoken farmer vacationed in Nepal and Peru and had plans to summit Mount Hood.

Everything changed in the summer of 2008.

Belgian conglomerate InBev purchased Anheuser-Busch. Although the company had billboards trumpeting the Oregon hops in Budweiser beer, Goschie was fearful. Oregon grows the nation’s best flavor hops and was once the top hop producer, but it can’t undersell the cut-rate version grown in Washington’s Yakima Valley….

Maybe that weepy Clydesdale commercial BS* will seem less tear jerking to you now. Or maybe not.

[*Hilariously, you will have to watch an advertisement to watch the Budweiser “winning” advertisement.]

clydesdale ad winner

We grant our loyalty to uniforms and trademarks and billboards, nowadays, and not to that which underlies them. Many watching the Super Bowl yesterday thought that the Forty-Niners on the field had something to do with previous San Francisco incarnations, even though nothing — even the stadium and the owner — remain. The uniforms are the same, that’s all. Or that the “Baltimore Ravens” are actually the original Cleveland Browns, and the current Cleveland Browns are an entirely new franchise with the SAME NAME AND UNIFORMS!

cleveland-browns

It’s just a logo. A picture.

So, too, take a look at your “favorite” brands in the supermarket. The names are the same, but the owners have changed. The uniforms are the same, but that’s the only resemblance to the product you grew up with. Indeed, like Budweiser and hops, very often it is ONLY the brand that matters, as they sell you swill in a package that you recognize.

And, as we worship yesterday’s Super Bowl commercials, in our annual genuflection to the most expensive flim-flam ever created by the mind of humbug, let us reflect that our choices have actually decreased exponentially, even as we see the same fundamental crap in more and more different “brands” owned by fewer and fewer companies. And that Mercedes Benz has as much connection to the Super Bowl as the current day 49ers have to the Joe Montana 49ers. *

[* Or that no quarterback named “Joe” has ever lost a Super Bowl, save for Super Bowl XVIII.]

lombardi trophy

I do not pretend to have answers. But I can report that my “nationalism” seemed very quaint and pointless in the face of our Axis Super Bowl.

And I no longer felt like a citizen.

I felt like a number.

Gonna cruise out of this city 
Head down to the sea 
Gonna shout out at the ocean 
Hey it’s me 

And I feel like a number 
Feel like a number 
Feel like a stranger 
A stranger in this land 
I feel like a number 
I’m not a number 
I’m not a number 
Dammit I’m a man 
I said I’m a man

~ Bob Seger (“I Feel Like A Number,” 1981)

Rah, team! Go!

Courage.

====================

A writer, published author, novelist, literary critic and political observer for a quarter of a quarter-century more than a quarter-century, Hart Williams has lived in the American West for his entire life. Having grown up in Wyoming, Kansas and New Mexico, an honorary Texan, Clown (ditto) and a veteran of Hollywood, Mr. Williams currently lives in Oregon, along with an astonishing amount of pollen. He has a lively blog His Vorpal Sword. This is cross-posted from his blog

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About Hart Williams

Mr. Williams grew up in Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas and New Mexico. He lived in Hollywood, California for many years. He has been published in The Washington Post, The Kansas City Star, The Santa Fe Sun, The Los Angeles Free Press, Oui Magazine, New West, and many, many more. A published novelist and a filmed screenwriter, Mr. Williams eschews the decadence of Hollywood for the simple, wholesome goodness of the plain, honest people of the land. He enjoys Luis Buñuel documentaries immensely.
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