Blog of the AMM

Michael Tencer: Letter from America

Michael Tencer Reports from the US
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I was going to write you an essay on dreams, but I’ve been awfully restless lately. Reality has a way of insinuating itself round these parts like, for instance, Hubert Selby, or a brick wall.

So far as I can tell, the next big business booms are for bankers doubling as real estate agents, & prisons doubling as slave labour contractors.

The banks here now have more equity in houses than do human homeowners—nearly 29% of mortgages in the States are ‘underwater’, which is bankers’ post-Katrina jargon for ‘fucked but we own them’. The majority of the houses owned by banks, moreover, aren’t listed for sale or rent: they’re empty & mostly deteriorating, out of circulation as a means of artificially keeping housing prices from dropping.

The current estimate memeing about is that 1 in every 7 houses in America is empty, while 1 in every 402 Americans is homeless. The former figure is hard to confirm because of the ‘shadow inventory’ banks are allowed to keep (in Miami alone there are 30,000 properties on the market while over 200,000 are owned by banks, empty but not on the market, ‘waiting it out’). The homeless figure is also nearly impossible to confirm, given the fact that it’s counting people without an address, but we know for instance that around one million are in shelters, about two million have been evicted in the last five years, & nearly five million houses are at some stage of foreclosure. Add to that the fact that both the unemployment rate & the American population living in poverty hovers around 15%, plus the steadily eroding work opportunities, the decline in public assistance & affordable housing over the last 30 years, plus the pathetic value of minimum wage in this country1, & you begin to wonder whether the figure of 1 in every 402 Americans homeless might not actually be way too optimistic.

As for always-reliable statistics, give or take a few ‘disappearances’, there’s the incarceration rate in the States: as of 2009, 7,225,800 adults were under ‘correctional supervision’, which works out to 3.1% of the total population—the highest incarceration rate in the world. That’s around 1 in every 31 adults2. The poor are, as the sociologists say, overrepresented: more than half of the jail population consists of the homeless, the unemployed or people paid poverty wages. Non-whites get the brunt of the punishment: though whitey comprises nearly three-quarters of U.S. Americans, 70% of the prison population is non-white. &, while 1 in every 27 Latinos is behind bars compared to 1 in every 45 whites, by far the ethnicity hardest hit by the prison industry remains African American. As 12.6% of the U.S. population, they comprise almost 40% of incarcerated Americans. Nearly 1 in every 10 African Americans is under ‘correctional control’—around three million people. To give some perspective, in 1860 there were 3.5 million enslaved African Americans living in the United States.

Oh I’m sorry, did I say slavery? Is it really fair to discuss contemporary incarceration in America using such inflammatory language? In a word, yes. Read the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the official outlawing of slavery eight months after the close of the Civil War: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Which meant forced labour could continue, & did, for anyone judged a criminal, from the chain gang jails of ‘Reconstruction’ to the for-profit prison corporations of today, with their lucrative contracts in manufacturing, construction, agriculture, & even customer service3. These human beings literally locked in to their jobs are deducted the cost of their own incarceration—to the tune of earning a whopping 17 cents per hour. A growth industry!4

Meanwhile, on the Outside Now, they’ve kept on using this term ‘recession’ for the last 5 years, as tho to tilt the axis of the chart slightly could keep from revealing the downward spiral. Let me ask you, Do you wake up every day feeling recessed? I rest my case.

As hard as the Pentagon lackey pundits push the Iranian agenda, shoving stock images of women in burkas up against the screen while stirringly debating whether to repeal a woman’s right to contraception, the monitor goes quiet on the half dozen other fronts where America remains a mercenary charge in progress. Does your cable service provide that channel? I can’t seem to find anything from inside the factories either, or jails, or on the streets below the counter. Instead there’s an endless parade of pretty apple pies, eternally 20 or 30, whose liberated clothing & accessories require virgin sacrifice abroad.

Weirdly enough, war no longer means work for all—the contracts are all sealed up before the war’s even declared. For the Things there’s contracting firms which make no thing: Halliburton, for instance, in charge of tanks & rations tho Halliburton makes no weapons, vehicles or food products. That’s the logic of the iPhone factory building safety nets for suicides: if the contractors are the true employees, there’s no responsibility to provide for anyone so needy & so messy as labourers. Then for the Triggerfingers, there’s mercenaries: Blackwater, for instance5. Cheeper than an army or the politics of conscription, because it avoids having to deal with that old pesky byproduct, veterans. Mercenaries you get thru contractors & ‘consultants’, so again, no embarrassing responsibility for any Abu Ghraibs or civilian collateral damage. The arms manufacturing is in constant production—$800 billion each year, domestic & abroad, with a current home supply of 5,113 nuclear warheads & counting. Then there’s the military bases, well over 1000 worldwide, tho exact figures are notoriously slippery. Plus the costs of maintaining the FBI, CIA, secret service, Homeland Security; given such an indefinite ‘recession’, it’s no surprise the Department of Defense has begun programs for high school students to build drone technology for free6.

Anyway, the taxes going to weapons budgets all end up as corporate profits—the real money made in war today is in oil & in water, because if you own those you don’t even need to colonise. In Libya, the U.S. & U.K. got the oil contracts & France got the water; Gaddafi signed his own death warrant when he built the pipeline to freely distribute potable water to the region. France controls more than 40% of the global fresh-water market, & not only do they get to oversee (i.e. privatise) Libya’s water after the war, they’re also in charge of repairs to the pipeline after they destroy it.7

For the rest of us the conveyor belt keeps crank-crank-cranking along. The only production jobs left in America outside the clink are factory line affairs, from Walmart to McDonald’s to Hollywood sequels & remakes, & as Taylor & Ford advised from the start, better education means less efficient workers for dumb, repetitive tasks. To keep the workers easily replaceable, the job must require the bare minimum of training, & our education system is more than happy to accommodate. No Child Left Behind: Test until they pass or drop out! The teachers & librarians keep coming up in the crosshairs whenever Congress cuts another budget—how dare these intellectuals get pensions or healthcare worthy of bureaucrats!

& speaking of healthcare, remember Obama’s gift from God to the HMOs? Oddly enough, one-fifth of all American citizens still have no healthcare at all. That’s 60 million people, not counting the illegal people of course. I’m one of those can’t-get-sick Americans, incidentally, but I’m not too worried about it—because even among the Americans bankrupted by medical bills, 75% actually have health insurance. So I’d say my odds are probably better for survival without it!

Then again, with talk this loose I might end up NDAAleted off the face of the earth, where health care becomes an oxymoron. Isn’t it better we should ignore such gauche & depressing conspiracy theory topics as military partnerships with prison corporations? I know, let’s talk about something safe & entertaining, like radical poetry, or French philosophy, or airhockey! The best way to Escape from L.A. is not to wind up there in the first place, so if you want to avoid getting peeping tom’d by a bunch of crewcut security perverts, just eat this letter & forget I said anything.

America’s wonderful. When are you coming?


Michael Tencer, ii-2002

ps Why haven’t you heard of Fred Ho yet? Are we not Musical Marxists? Don’t just Kill Ugly Radio—Boycott shitty media!

pps If you do actually come here, willingly or otherwise, remember;


1. Federal law: $7.25 per hour; for employees receiving tips of more than $30 per month: $2.13 per hour.
2. Tho only 100,000 kids at any given time—1 poor bastard in every 843.
3. That’s right: call centre operators. Prisoners. Credit card transactions. Remember all the racist media fuss about call centre jobs being farmed out to India? Where’s that flag waving now?
4. For more on that, including a list of companies employing slave labour Made in the U.S.A., see this—a largely correct assessment, unfortunately marred by the same ridiculous masculinist bias of the website it’s featured on. While there are approximately 9 times more men than women in incarceration in America, female prisoners are indeed subject to the same penal exploitation as men, as well as much higher rates of sexual assault from prison staff & a host of other injustices. See, for instance, this, which accurately describes women in American prisons forced to work at a pay rate of $10.63 per month. Incidentally, can anyone find out what percentage of products made in the U.S.A. are produced or assembled in prisons? Or how much prison labour accounts for GDP? Given the rise of the for-profit prison corporations, & their entry into public trading on the New York Stock Exchange, there must be some hard economic data charted over the last several years somewhere, no? Please email me if you find it…
5. Renamed first ‘Xe Services’, & now ‘Academi’.
6. anyone remember the movie Toys, the room full of kids playing ‘video games’?
7 They even bombed the factory that builds pipes to repair any damage, because, after all, who needs competition.
8. cf., particularly roule 21.
9. Ever since Rolling Stock, Howard Zinn & Franklin Rosemont bit the dust, & until Obama waterboards Julian Assange Falluja-Megaupload-style, there’s Greenwald, Blum, Chomsky, Pilger, Zangana, Cockburn, AK Press, PM Press, Autonomedia, Penelope Rosemont, Charles H. Kerr, David Simon & ZNet (& aaaaarg, while it lasts…).


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