2008 is Dark: Redefining Work and Refining America’s Work in the World, Part I

The following interview was conducted November 11, 2008, part of a series of discussions called “44,” with people of varied background about their reactions to the 2008 election of Barack Obama. This interview was with Robert Blain, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Dr. Blain is the author of several books, including Real Money, Sociology For Everyone, and Weaving Golden Threads: Integrating Social Theory, and influenced the Provisional World Parliament to adopt the “hour” monetary unit.

I saw a great bumper sticker the other day. It said, “I love my country, but I think we should start to see other people.” I think that’s pretty much the case.

You have more an outside-in perspective to the Unites States, then?

We think of “chauvinism” in a gender context—a chauvinist is someone who favors males over females. But I looked the word up, and a Frenchman named Chauve was nationalistic and militaristic in France. And that’s how it came about. Somebody was once looking for a world language, and the fellow who represented France said it was a good idea—as long as it was French.

Chauvinism is like that, and we’ve been very chauvinistic. We talk about “America” like we are America. We aren’t America. I like when Obama says “The United States of America.” Because it’s a recognition of that we’re just part of America. There’s all the rest of it: Latin America, Canada. Not simply here in the United States.

And we have to think in global terms, but just what’s best for us. And that’s generally true, at a personal level, a national level, an international level. This is a spaceship, the Earth, and we’ve got to pay attention to everybody on board.

Our national outlook, however, has been from a different angle, from the time of the Monroe Doctrine, which said hands off everyone else of the Western Hemisphere.

Well, the Monroe Doctrine. That is how we are taught to understand it. But another interpretation is that the United States was saying, “the rest of the world, keep your hands off the rest of America, because we want it.” And that’s the way we treated the world, as if it belongs to us. And that’s not been a good thing.

The United Nations would have been a much better institution had we not set it up to be dominated, along with the other winners of World War II, with a permanent veto in the Security Council.

The International Monetary Fund would have been a better institution if we didn’t dominate it and make the dollar the international currency, which is now coming back to haunt us. Most of the American money that has been issued has: right here. U.S. money is in the rest of the world, so we have a lot to make up for.

I can tell you two problems that are shared more by Americans than all the rest of the countries. One, is where our money comes from. We have the impression that our government issues our money. It doesn’t. Our government borrows our money. And that’s a very bad idea. Governments should issue money, not borrow it.

                           Dr. Robert Blain

We decided, by act of the 1st Congress of the United States, in 1790—the first serious business it took up—was what to do about the Revolutionary War debt. And the decision was to pay interest on the debt, and use the debt as a foundation for a private bank, which would create money by lending it. James Jackson, in 1790, said in the 1st Congress, “Let us take warning by the errors of Europe, and guard against the introduction of a system, followed by calamity so general, though our present debt be but a few millions, in the course of a single century it will be multiplied to an extent we dare not think of.”

That’s what happened. The we have now—that’s the original debt multiplied by compound interest at just under six percent. Jackson had studied what happened in Europe, and he said “don’t do it,” but we did it anyway. It was in the interest of the wealthy. They were the ones who held the debt and were going to get rich. And therefore we have this huge debt.

What Barack Obama needs to do—you know they are talking about a stimulus package? They need to issue the money, not borrow it. If we paid all our debts there wouldn’t be any money in circulation. We’d have the worst crisis we’ve ever had: no money. Because it’s based on debt. We need a money system based on the payment of money into circulation.

And if this was proposed on the first day of the 111th Congress?

Economists would immediately say “Wild inflation. That would be inflationary.” Yet they never say it when the banks do it. That’s one problem, and I don’t know many countries that have this problem, but I suspect they all do—I just don’t know. That is, their central governments are borrowing the money instead of issuing it.

A second problem is the money isn’t denominated in a unit, in a measure, everyone understands. With the metric system there is a ruler; a meter stick used to measure. With money there is no comparable quantity to define what the numbers mean. That’s a huge problem. We have to decide how much—we guess the value of money by looking at different prices. We arrive at a sense of its value inductively, from the details to the general. Yet with every other unit of measure we’re given first the unit, and then we apply it to the specific.

The consequence of having no unit is people can walk away with hundreds of millions of dollars, while other people don’t get enough to pay their groceries. And have no argument against it.

This sounds familiar.

The C.E.O.s running off with all this money, right? Well, let me give you a way to understand it.

The gross domestic product of the United States at the present time—the GDP per hour—is $50. We are all producing $50 worth of product per hour. The should be the standard wage. $50 a hour. If it were, and you worked 40 hours a week, fifty weeks a year, you’d work 2,000 hours. It would mean an income of $100,000 a year. Okay? Which would be enough for most people. Plenty. They’d eve be able to save. Call that one year—how long would it take to make a million dollars? Ten year, right? To get to $100,000,000 at this rate, it would still take take a thousand years.

Now, three of the executives where they have mortgage companies, with all of the mortgage problems, took $460,000,000 in five years. We say $460,000,000 is a lot, but Warren Buffet is up to around $50 billion as a net worth. Well, how much is that, $50 billion? That would take 50,000 years, at $50 a hour. That’s absolutely nuts. That’s the problem we have all over the world, including here.

We need to denominate our money in hours of work. So two things: issue the money instead of borrowing, and denominate it in work-time. Will that go over in the United States? No, but the Provisional World Parliament has already adopted out “hour” as the world currency unit.

Yet it seems to be institutionalized in the U.S. that what a wage earner makes is a direct reflection of that labor’s skill and difficulty. “A minimum-wage earner deserves the minimum,” and so forth.

That’s the rationalization of it, yeah. But it’s not true. My general impression is that people who work the hardest get paid the least.

The G-20 just met, and part of their recommendations were 1) closer macro cooperation 2) support of emerging and developing countries. This doesn’t sound like a plan that would be very popular on the American Main-street right now.

Right, we’re focused on ourselves pretty much. What’s going to happen to GM, to Ford. What’s going to happen to the dollar. What I find fascinating is how “regulation” is understood. We need more regulation. And I suppose that’s related to the G-20 concern about the Third World. How are we going to organize the world in such a way that people living in poverty are going to get some relief? So they’re saying the rich part of the world has to help the poor part of the world. But the question is always: how?

Whenever help is mentioned people think it means we have to take away something from us in order to give to them. And that’s not what regulation means. The word “regulation” comes from Latin: Rex Ragus. Which is “king,” “ruler.” To regulate is to put in place a rule that everyone will like by. What has happened to that word, it has come to mean you’ve got to have a self full of statutes, covering every possibility. It’s like a coral reef, continually adding and adding.

Well, there’s a different way to understand regulation, and that is in terms of the stick we call a ruler. We don’t call it a “ruler” because we make lines with it. If it were we’d call it a “liner.” We call is a ruler because everybody that would use that stick can resolve any conflict about length, using the stick as a measure.

In the same way we need to do that with money, and if we did it with money we would find we’re not paying enough for the good we’re buying from other countries. That is why they are staying poor, even though the work is very hard. Small pockets are prospering, but the societies at large, generally, are suffering more than ever. You see pictures of women in long rows, assembling small microchips, things of that sort, hour after hour. Slavery. It’s no way to live. But why is it happening. It’s because there’s a disparaging difference in the value of their money; we’re able to buy whatever they’re making far cheaper than it actually cost. So if we are going to help the Third World the best way would be through a standardization of currencies.

That’s a big “if.”

That’s particularly because you’re talking about rich people making the decision. It’s like the GM crisis. Not a single one of the C.E.O.s will tell us how much they make. Have any of them said what their salary is? We if they took the same kind of pay their workers do. But to do that you really have to it is a society rather than as an individual. We’re faced with: if you as a C.E.O. do decide to act as an individual, you end up crippling yourself only. It has to be systemic. The rule has to apply to everybody.

What responsibilities, if any, do rich people have to the poor?

Most wealth is inherited, it’s not earned. I’m thinking of Christianity. There’s a real contradiction today between what passes for Christianity and how I understand Jesus Christ to have lived. I don’t think he was carried around, except perhaps that one time on a donkey, when the palm leaves were laid down. But other than that he was clothed in a simple robe and sandals, and was dependent on people’s generosity for him to be able to eat. He had no gainful employment, as they say. And it was a model.

Rich people are generally like somebody who settled on a pot of land that is right at the mouth of a river. Everything passes by them and they charge a toll. And therefore they get even richer. It’s in a sense an accident. They’re not earning it, at least the second generation and on, they’re just taking it. And that applies today. One of the nice things is you can’t take it with you, but they sure try by leaving it to their kids.

To challenge this a bit, it might be said that C.E.O.s often do not inherit their positions. They go to college, work hard and get the grades, then rise through the ranks and so forth.

That’s a good question. See, that’s a good hypothesis. Let’s investigate it and find out. Because they say the best predictor of your social class is the social class of your family. And it’s very difficult to rise above it, because of the reinforcing factors. I would like to know what C.E.O.s do with their day. What is it, what happens in those offices? What are they talking about—and what’s the connection this and what’s happening in the rest of the organization? I’ve often wondered that about the university. We have an administration, and if you look up the salaries there’s all kinds of sweeteners: a housing allowance, an account for travel that really bumps it up quite a bit. I haven’t a real idea what they make but it’s in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The New Deal is brought up a lot at present, bandied about. Is it fair or accurate to compare the 1930′s to the 21st century?

What we’re up against is a philosophy—or an ideology, rather. I won’t dignify it as a philosophy. It’s an ideology, a theory, and it’s called capitalism. And some say that Franklin Roosevelt saved capitalism. He did not reform it, he saved it. Because if they had not done something to help the unemployment and get the economy there might have been some much more fundamental changes in the country.

But what really saved us with World War II. It wasn’t’ the New Deal. I’m one of the beneficiaries of the New Deal. I grew up in a federal housing project. A very nice place. And it was built under Franklin Roosevelt. However, I learned recently that they couldn’t build additional units. And you had to be poor—as soon as we had additional income as myself, my brother, and my sister started working, they wouldn’t let us stay. So we had to rejoin the capitalist system by buying a house in the suburbs.

In that respect Huey Long had a better idea, and we still need to do it: put an upper limit on income. We can’t let people just take as much as they can get away with. That’s our fundamental problem. We have to cap the top. And Huey Long wanted to cap it at $5 million. This was the 1930’s as well. He was a senator at the time and he knew a lot of senators would support it.

It would take less than a second for most of the country to shout that such an idea fundamentally restricts my opportunity, my ability to see how far I can go, my shot of the American dream.

Is that the American dream? I think it’s the American nightmare. How far can you go—do you know what I mean? We are human beings. We have limits. We can only eat so much, we can only wear so many clothes. We can only be at one place at a time.

Yet we are interdependent social beings, unable to survive as individuals. For this reason my American dream must include other Americans. Otherwise it’s just hoarding. Being indifferent to other people. That’s self-destruction, not a dream.

Might this economic downtown have been unavoidable, a result of globalization’s fundamental disproportional distribution of wealth around the world? Part of the symptom of the Depression was inequality of wealth—is it simply on a bigger scale now?

The root problem again is hoarding. Hoarding. Karl Marx analyzed this in his book, that capitalism’s essence was taking money and using it to always reinvest and make more of it. Another way to say that is hoarding. Capitalists have been hoarding wherever they go. So this has been happening in the United States. At a certain point they’ve got to expand to some place else, to other untapped markets. Globalization, from the capitalist’s standpoint, is driven by the need to find news places to hoard from. In that respect, globalization led by capitalism would mean an eventual collapse. That’s what we’re seeing, and in that respect it was inevitable.

Is a prudent economic philosophy one that is adaptive and situation, or should it be maintained to weather any circumstances?

One of the things we’re up against is a separating of things that should not be separated. We separate economics from government, but it should not be separated. Money is government. The root of the word economics is house management. Eco means house hold. Government politics comes from poly, meaning many. These two things should be together. And you hear in our society, “Get government out of the economy.” What, how can that be? It’s like saying keep your head away from the rest of your body.

That’s one separation. Another separation is morality. They’ll say, “If you’re concerned about morality go to philosophy. We’re realists. We’ll just tell you the way it is. All those bleeding hearts always wanting to help people—that’s not reality.”

What you have there, true enough, are people who don’t know philosophy, who don’t recognize the limits of their own thoughts system. Everything is related to everything else. That’s the fundamental reality. We’re sitting here because of gravity, atmospheric pressure, and temperature. Chemicals and gases in the air.

We’re here because of the certain order in our society as well. Because of laws and law enforcement we’re not very worried that someone will come through the door and shoot the both of us. There’s all kinds of interrelationships, and this must be recognized.

We’re not going anywhere. We can’t. We’ve got to get along. We may shoot a uranium bomb on the other side of the world, but uranium vaporizes into the atmosphere. It travels all over the world. So when we poison Iraq we’re poisoning ourselves.

Moving to the wider national landscape and the election, what have your initial thoughts been?

It is absolutely wonderful that Barack Obama was elected. he could turn out to be one of the best presidents we’ve ever had. His background is excellent of it: his mother is white, his father is from Kenya, he’s had international experiences in terms of living in a foreign state, Indonesia. He went to Harvard law and was editor of the Harvard Law Review. And when he could have gotten the best job in the world and gotten rich, instead he went back to Chicago and worked as a community organizer. And talk about leadership—he did a wonderful job of leading the campaign to get elected against tremendous odds. And against a Republican attack that was similar to what was done in 2000 and 2004. But he was able to overcome whatever they threw at him in a respectful way.

I think he’s going to bring in a whole bunch of great people to help him. He’s bringing in , however, a lot of the old paradigm. That is, the economists that don’t know what’s going on and haven’t a clue about what to do. What I’m hearing—and I may be wrong—economists can describe what is happening, but they are not able to say what to do about it. Because their basic approach is that the market is going to do it for us, let the market have its way. And that’s just words—that’s just blowing smoke. It doesn’t mean a thing.

Because the market is just people making decisions, and the question is: what’s the foundation of their decisions? And they’re all working for their self-interest, but every single one of us has a sense of reality that is very narrow. It’s bounded by our own life experiences.

I remember in kindergarten the teachers telling us about peas in a pod. And when the pod was green and the peas were green, one pea turned to another and said, “The world is green.” And then the peas turned yellow, the pod turned yellow, and the pea turned to another pea and said, “The world is turning yellow.” And that’s pretty much our view of the world. It’s what’s happening to us; we tend to generalize the rest of the world, but that’s not what’s happening in the rest of the world.

So what color is 2008, here and in the outside world?

The color now is dark. And scary.
We have great advantages, and I am thinking of the internet and computers. It changed the nature of politics, it is changing the nature of our perceptions. We think of the earth more as a spaceship, more as a whole. In a way, the emphasis on, quote, “America,” that we’re having is antiquated. It’s out of date, it’s obsolete. We need to think more of ourselves as part of a community that includes not only people but everything else. We depend on our connections with nature, and we’re trashing nature. Our old model was that we’re supposed to dominate and everything is here for us. Instead, we’re responsible for what is happening in the earth, more than any other species. We are able to respond, so we have to behave in a responsible way. Global warming—wow. That is so scary, and is so much upon us that we’re going to have a big job. And we’re not going to deal with it unless we think holistically, systematically. What is happening to our planet, and what is happening to the rest of the crew and passengers on out spaceship.

And Barack Obama.. You know, even his name suggests an international relationship, right? And we’re very hopeful, and I hope he can—I mean, I don’t want him to go after bin Laden. I don’t. I think we have to stop this notion that it’s okay to kill people. You know, we’re against the death penalty when people commit heinous crimes. We say, “No, let them rot in jail, for life.” But don’t kill him—well, I’m not sure about that myself, okay? But, I think war is something we shouldn’t be doing anymore. The weapons are too dangerous. There is no “smart bomb.” If it was we wouldn’t call it a bomb. Bombs just blow up indiscriminately . And we’re got horrendous weapons—the devil could not think of worse weapons. Or could God. You know, he thought of hell, and that’s pretty bad. Or at least we thought we thought.

We need to beg forgiveness from the rest of the world. You know, Obama has been reading Lincoln, and the thing that comes to my mind is, “With malice towards none and charity toward all.” What he said after the Civil War. Now you can imagine the hostility and hate that was throughout this country because of that war. And here we are, with the notion that we can go after bin Laden, because of what happened on 9/11 when 3,000 people were killed. Terrible, terrible thing. Really, a heinous crime. But it pales in comparison to what we have done since then. And what he did before that.

It’s easy to read it in a history book, but hard to apply to our own lives.

And the Bible says that too: we see the speck in our brother’s eye, but not the beam in our own. It’s true. There is a history the American people do not know, and I learned it myself only very recently. What was happening during my lifetime, during the Fifties! we were going into other countries and overthrowing democratically-elected governments and installing dictators.

Hoping for a peaceful world that it’s all that peaceful. In every conflict or crisis, any people of the world—perhaps rightly, perhaps not—say they are only responding, defending their families and so on. Don’t they have this right?

That’s why it continues forever. It has to stop by someone saying, “It doesn’t matter who started it. What matters is we don’t want to continue it.” Again, I think this applies to Osama bin Laden. One of the things I don’t like, and seems so out of character for Barack Obama to say is, “We’re going after Osama bin Laden and kill him.” It makes me uncomfortable for a variety of reasons. Not only so I not think it’s a winning strategy, it’s a movie strategy. That’s what they do in Hollywood to solve the problem. But it continues. They don’t solve their problems, they just create other enemies. We don’t even know if Osama bin Laden is still alive. We don’t know that. There’s been no evidence he is alive. It’s just a possibility. So what are we going to do now? We’re going to put our troops in that mountainous region in Pakistan. Get a bunch of people killed on both sides, a lot of innocent people. If we don’t find Osama bin Laden we’ll say he escaped, so we have to go somewhere else. It will be forever, and we could be chasing a ghost.

On just this point, his number two Al-Zwahari released a tape in which he taunts and tries to provoke Obama by calling him a “house negro.”

It does get to Obama saying we’ll go after bin Laden. And I would have been okay with that, had we first handled the attacks on the World Trade Center as a criminal act. Not an act of war. We interpreted it as an act of war because that’s what we’re prepared to fight. We’ve got all these weapons—what are we going to do with them? We’ve got all these people trained to use them, what are we going to do with them?

We should have treated it as a crime, and then used law enforcement methods to go after Osama bin Laden with the idea to arrest him and put him on trial. Not by reacting to his actions by killing a bunch of people and destroying a country. No.

Do you think they’ve been trying to find him the last seven years?

No, they haven’t been trying to find him. And they’re not going to find him by chasing into those mountains. The supply lines—there’s were you have to take the action. You have to get the cooperation of the people of the surrounding areas.

Where have to traveled, that you have had personal interactions?

When I retired I said I wasn’t going to travel. I’ve traveled more since then. Before I went to New Zealand, and of course across the Canadian and Mexican bounders. That was it. But since New Zealand and then retirement, on September 12, 2001 I was supposed to go to Warsaw for a monetary conference. It was rescheduled for April 2002, still in Warsaw, for to change money. And then in 2006—that was a busy year—I went to Libya to the Ninth Provisional World Parliament, after they had adopted the hours, the world currency unit. That was the basis of the book of mine, The Most Worth for the Least Work. The Secretary General of the Provisional World Parliament he read it and he took it to the original World Congress in 2004. And they adopted it, the hour, and the currency unit. So I support the Provisional World Parliament for that reason.

So in April of 2006 I was in Libya, and in August I went to Australia and toured that on monetary reform. I went to India at the end of 2004 for a global symposium. In 2007 I went to Togo to the Tenth Provisional World Parliament.

I’ve witnessed Libya, a poor country. A lot of oil but it’s desert. And I learned about the American aggression against Libya. We were there on the anniversary of the American attack in April of 1986. I was there for the twentieth anniversary.

What did they tell you?

There had been an explosion is a discotheque in Frankfurt, Germany. That was used to justify an attack on Gaddafi. What I had thought had happened before then was that we attacked Gaddafi in his home. We did far more than that. There were about 60 planes that attacked Tripoli. And another 60 planes from an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean attacked Benghazi, the other real city in Libya. Killed at lot of people. In Gaddafi’s case his home was in the middle of a military complex. And they took the delegates of the Provisional World Parliament to that site on the evening of the anniversary of the attack. So we saw the house—it’s a museum. It’s a museum to American aggression. It’s as it was that night. Now, it’s not totally demolished; the missile apparently hit the lawn in the front and went into the house. But you see destruction around it. We didn’t get in the house but there was a plaque on the stage out front, with seats out front with a pamphlet on each seat saying, “Peace. No war.”

A big banner with a dove on it said, “Hannah, Peace.” Hannah was a two-year old girl that was killed by the bomb. She had been adopted by Gaddafi; she had been the daughter of an air force pilot. And she was killed. Another daughter of Gaddafi’s spoke to us that night, who had been a little girl at the time. And she gave is her recollections of that night, how terrified they were.

And then, the most amazing thing. When she exited the stage Lionel Richie came on stage. And it transformed the atmosphere! Up to that moment I was a little afraid, because I was there with my 18-year old son. And we had tags on saying we were from the United States. I thought this might be the opportunity for them to vent some anger. You know, I was worried—I’ve exposed my son to this danger. And then when Lionel Richie came on stage the whole scene changed. They loved Lionel Richie. They knew the words to his songs.

During the international conference there was a fellow I was told that was close to Gaddafi. When you listened to him speak, he was furious! He ranted and raved for fifteen or twenty minutes all all of the atrocities, from the recipient’s point of view.

We’ve destroyed hundreds of villages with our bombing. Not just Libya—he was talking about Iraq, he was talking about Afghanistan. And he was angry as you can imagine anyone to be. And sitting there, the thought crossing my mind was that I should stand up and defend my country, but then I thought what the hell is that going to do? So I held my tongue.

But when it was over I sought him out. They has a little V.I.P. room, with security the door, you know, and I went in and told one of the security, “I want to speak to him.” The security guy went over and asked him if it was okay. Finally I went over and said, “There are people in the United States as angry as you about what happened here. This is a terrible thing, we should have never attacked Iraq. But, our government has done this, and we’ve got to deal with it by those terms. The problem is that we have no international order to resolve conflict. We have all of these sovereign nations, and the United States is the biggest, so it’s the most public. We do the most damage, but it is a universal problem. We need to have an agency that’s better than the U.N. to help us resolve these conflicts without violence.”

When I was finished he stood up, and I stood up, and we embraced. I had an Earth Federation button. I took it off to show him—well, he took it to mean it was a gift, which is fine, this Earth Federation button. It is that kind of transformation that makes important that Obama is talking about talking.

What have you experienced that crystallizes this moment of promise and peril?

I was on a tour bus in India. Kids were right outside the window

For Part II for the interview, click here:


***For more oral history interviews concerning the 2008 election of Barack Obama, click here:

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