Fill 'Er Up

Northern California is a strange land when it comes to real estate development and agriculture. Here's two pieces on a massive terra-forming project in Sonoma County.

The short version:
Fill 'Er Up: A massive South County project has environmental watchdogs guessing

The backstory included:
Berg's Vineyard from Scratch

And in other news, CA seems closer to ditching nuclear energy after the CPUC rejects PG&E's application to pay for Diablo Canyon's re-licensing with ratepayer funds.


The Corporate Media's Counter-Counter Attack Against Occupy's Port Blockade

Hearst Corporation's NY headquarters.
In spite of a negative propaganda campaign led by the San Francisco Chronicle and parroted in much of the Bay Area's corporate media, thousands turned out on Monday, December 12 to blockade the Port of Oakland.

Organizers for the Occupy movement explained that the blockade was a coordinated counter-strike against WallStreet and its political servants. It was a nonviolent response to the vicious police assaults against most of the nation's Occupy encampments. That violent wave of evictions, carried out through the month of November, was reportedlycoordinated by city officials and local police forces working through the USConference of Mayors. Many suspect the crackdown was also facilitated with assistance from high levels of the federal government's now sprawling internal security force known as the Department of Homeland Security.

Fittingly then, just as the government's nation-wide attack against the Occupy movement began with a "shock-and-awe" style police raid in the early morning hours of Tuesday, October 25 in Oakland, the  movement's coordinated West Coast counter-strike began in the pre-dawn stillness of the same city. Hundreds gathered at the West Oakland BART station at 5am. Massing to over one thousand by 5:30, they marched in the cold and the dark of the city's industrial wastelands to the Port of Oakland, the fifth busiest shipping facility in the United States, and a crucial choke point in the global logistics system relied upon by multinational corporations like WalMart, Nike, and Starbucks.

By 9am word had spread across the city, across the West Coast, and eastward —into landlocked states where on any other day the BNSF and Union Pacific rail roads normally speed containerized cargoes from the Port on massive snaking intermodal trains— that that morning's crew of longshoremen had been notified by their union's arbitrators, the International Longshore Workers Union, not to cross the blockade's lines, ostensibly because of "unsafe" working conditions.

Word spread in spite of reports by the Chronicle and other corporate media, falsely claiming the morning blockade had garnered only only a few "hundred" picketers. Many of the ILWU rank and file gladly took the day off, even if some would have preferred to earn that day's wages.

The Chronicle had  deceivingly reported the union's position and the sentiments of longshore workers with respect to the blockade in the week leading up to the action. The paper portrayed the ILWU's rank and file as opposed to the Occupy Movement's plans.

The biggest lie of the day of the shutdown though was the Chronicle's narrative of how the action impacted port truck drivers. The sentiments of a handful of frustrated truckers idling intheir cabs outside the terminals, losing a workday because their rigs would notbe loaded on time, were accurately quoted. But the paper failed to tell the bigger truth about the struggle of these workers across the US to better their working conditions and win dignified wages and benefits.

These few truck drivers became a wedge issue in the days leading up to the Port shutdown, seized upon and enormously exaggerated by editors at the San Francisco Chronicle who sought to magnify their lost workday as an ironic example of the Occupy Movement's supposed naivete. This story also served as yet another justification for the crackdowns against Occupy Oakland, and the dismantling of Occupy San Francisco's encampment at the foot of Market Street less than a week before.

The Chronicle has betrayed a strong editorial bias against the Occupy encampments and protests from the very beginning. The newspaper stepped up its campaign to foment popular misunderstanding in the weeks following the violent police raid against Occupy Oakland back in October. Its reporters were repeatedly tasked to write stories that would emphasize property damage as "violence" perpetrated by the protestors, and to fixate on reports of crime, vandalism, and unsanitary conditions around the camp. When Oakland's business lobby, organized throughthe Chamber of Commerce, several business improvement districts, and a fewpowerful downtown real estate owners developed the narrative that OccupyOakland's encampment was harming local and small businesses in Oakland, theChronicle gladly prioritized this story.

The Chronicle itself has never been a friend of labor or working families, or of anything movements in local and state politics resembling democracy. Historian Gray Brechin's account of the newspaper's rise in the late 19th Century under control of the de Young brothers, told eloquently in Imperial San Francisco, is about as damning an account you can imagine of a media company abusing its position to amass political power, largely by scapegoating Chinese and Japanese immigrants to gain support of San Francisco's xenophobic white working class voters.

The newspaper was held by the de Young family until 2000 when it was sold to the Hearst Corporation. Hearst Corp. is of course the corporate offspring of William Randoph Hearst's barony, which began with another San Francisco Newspaper, the Examiner. While the de Young's used racism to roil popular opinion in their favor, Hearst was more openly an enemy of all workers and their unions.

When the Chronicle passed into the hands of the privately owned Hearst Corporation in 2000, San Francisco's flagship newspaper became a small part of an titanic media, real estate, and business services empire. Still largely controlled by members of the Hearst family, Hearst Corp. owns newspapers in fifteen major US cities, but these alone have mostly proven to be stagnating holdings. The Chronicle was drainedof millions over the last decade, suffering from the rise of the Internet anddeclining subscriptions and ad rates. Hearst Corp.'s real moneymakers are in different areas, in broadcast television, network media, magazines, and digital media. The company also owns vast tracts of real estate in California, including multi-thousand acre timber and cattle ranches, and rental properties in San Francisco.

A diversified corporate titan,Hearst is a quintessential defender of corporate capitalism. Its newspapers are perhaps best understood as revenue neutral tools of pro-corporate propaganda, spilling most of their hi-def., color-ink, and center-fold layouts on real estate, food, and entertainment forms of "journalism" that serve the interests of powerful business constituencies in regional markets.

Real journalism still takes place in many of the Hearst Corp. newsrooms. Some of the remaining editors and reporters there still strive to tell the truth, investigate power, and foster democratic debate. There are deeper interests, however, guiding the Hearst Corporation's generation and dissemination of information. The company's newspapers like the Chronicle may occasionally take powerful businesses or politicians to task, but it's important to keep in mind that Hearst Corp.'s earnings are more dependent on media products requiring less than objective reporting, in fact requiring incredibly partisan boosterism of local and global real estate and capital markets. For example, a good deal of Hearst Corp.'sincome derives from San Francisco's commercial real estate market where thecompany plays the role of landlord, as well as chief promoter. Another example, among many that could be used to illustrate this point, is the HearstCorporation's large ownership stake in Fitch Ratings, one of the three most powerful global credit rating agencies. Fitch is partly responsible for inflating stocks values and bonds yields, and promoting many of the bizarre financial instruments responsible for causing the financial crisis and economic depression that began in 2008.

Given these hyper-interested business activities at the core of Hearst Corporation's operations, is it any surprise to see articles touting the unquestionable goodness of corporate profits, or the beneficent impact of rising real estate prices in the Bay Area in the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle?

Then it shouldn't be much of a surprise that the Chronicle's publisher and executive editors, like its owners, have frowned upon a social movement that is deeply questioning the very foundations of capitalism, and the particular powers and benefits that the wealthy elite derive from this system at the expense of the majority.

The Chronicle has wasted virtually no ink exploring questions such as who primarily profits from the Port's activities? What corporate and financial interests operate out of the Port of Oakland? What longstanding conflicts between workers and these companies at the Port might contextualize the blockade that just occurred?

Even after the ILWU's rank and file and some of its leadership made themselves available to the media, explaining that many of the union's workers supported the blockade, the Chronicle chose to run headlines proclaiming "Port shutdownpledged despite union rejection," and "Union not keen on new Occupy Oakland port blockade."

The day of the blockade the Chronicle had largely moved on to the new narrative that the blockade wasspecifically harming the independent truck drivers, obviously members of the 99%. Headlines again hammered away with a message that actually had very little resonance among the nation's port truckers because it crassly over-simplified their concerns, and glossed over the struggles they have been engaged in for years now against the corporate masters who own the major shipping companies and dominate port operations across America. Human interest-styled articles with accompanying photographs of truckers sitting, worry-faced in their rigs, ran in the Chronicle and other papers, replete with quotes about how a lost workday would sting them.

This Tuesday, the day after the blockade, the Chronicle reported "protestors 'ecstatic' after portdisruption," (although this headline no longer seems to appear on the web) recounting the previous day's blockade in terms designed to make the movement's participants sound arrogant and un-caring for the plight of longshore workers and truckers. Accompanying this account was another article amazingly claiming that the "occupy movement fails to connect withblacks." Closing out the Chronicle's triple assault on the Occupy Movement was a column by Chip Johnson claiming that, "march organizers didn't helptheir cause by ignoring labor leaders who did not support this action. Thatmakes Occupiers about as arrogant as business owners who refuse to negotiatecontracts in good faith with their workers."

Johnson's claim is nothing short of idiotic, coming a day after the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports, a national coalition that includes the ILWU, the Alameda Labor Council, AFL-CIO, the Teamsters Union, and 147 other major labor and environmental groups released an open letter signed by some of the very workers Johnson claims to be so concerned about giving voice to.

Entitled "AnOpen Letter from America's Truck Drivers on Occupy the Ports," five veteran truck drivers from America's ports completely refute the kinds of blatant divide and conquer politics Chip Johnson and his employer, the Hearst Corporation's San Francisco Chronicle have pursued with respect to the Occupy Movement's port blockade and other actions.

Their letter is so clear in explaining what the majority of these port workers feel with respect to the Occupy Movement, and what they seek to accomplish in partnership with the movement, that it is worth quoting at length. So rather than wasting any more words myself, I'll let these workers have the last word:

"We are the front-line workers who haul container rigs full of imported and exported goods to and from the docks and warehouses every day. We have been elected by committees of our co-workers at the Ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle, Tacoma, New York and New Jersey to tell our collective story. We are inspired that a non-violent democratic movement that insists on basic economic fairness is capturing the hearts and minds of so many working people. Thank you “99 Percenters” for hearing our call for justice. We are humbled and overwhelmed by recent attention. Normally we are invisible.

Today’s demonstrations [the December 12 ports blockade] will impact us. While we cannot officially speak for every worker who shares our occupation, we can use this opportunity to reveal what it’s like to walk a day in our shoes for the 110,000 of us in America whose job it is to be a port truck driver. It may be tempting for media to ask questions about whether we support a shutdown, but there are no easy answers. Instead, we ask you, are you willing to listen and learn why a one-word response is impossible?

We love being behind the wheel. We are proud of the work we do to keep America’s economy moving. But we feel humiliated when we receive paychecks that suggest we work part time at a fast-food counter. Especially when we work an average of 60 or more hours a week, away from our families. There is so much at stake in our industry. It is one of the nation’s most dangerous occupations. We don’t think truck driving should be a dead-end road in America. It should be a good job with a middle-class paycheck like it used to be decades ago. We desperately want to drive clean and safe vehicles. Rigs that do not fill our lungs with deadly toxins, or dirty the air in the communities we haul in.

You, the public, have paid a severe price along with us. Why? Just like Wall Street doesn’t have to abide by rules, our industry isn’t bound to regulation. So the market is run by con artists. The companies we work for call us independent contractors, as if we were our own bosses, but they boss us around. We receive Third World wages and drive sweatshops on wheels. We have never recovered from losing our basic rights as employees in America. Every year it literally goes from bad to worse to the unimaginable. We were ground zero for the government’s first major experiment into letting big business call the shots. Since it worked so well for the CEOs in transportation, why not the mortgage and banking industry too?

The more underwater we are, the more our restlessness grows. We are being thoughtful about how best to organize ourselves and do what is needed to win dignity, respect, and justice. Nowadays greedy corporations are treated as “people” while the politicians they bankroll cast union members who try to improve their workplaces as “thugs.” But we believe in the power and potential behind a truly united 99%. We admire the strength and perseverance of the longshoremen. We are fighting like mad to overcome our exploitation, so please, stick by us long after December 12.

We drivers have a saying, “We may not have a union yet, but no one can stop us from acting like one.”


A Pigovian Foreclosure Tax?

Some types of taxes are levied on things that are considered socially harmful. For example, there are alcohol and cigarette taxes, the intended purposes of which are to dissuade people from consuming these drugs in excess, and to raise funds to deal with the legal and health consequences of alcohol and tobacco abuse.

Negative externality price-demand curve
These types of levies are known as Pigovian taxes. Named after the economist Arthur Pigou, a Pigovian tax attempts to correct for negative externalities in the market. Negative externalities are costs not reflected in prices, but still born in human suffering, environmental harm, or price increases in other goods and services.

Foreclosures generate numerous and significant negative externalities that are not reflected in the cost of carrying out a foreclosure. So why not institute a tax on foreclosures to dissuade banks from taking people's homes, and to compensate communities hit hard by the housing crisis?

Foreclosure of residential homes has undeniably harmed millions of families and individuals who have lost their residences in the last three years. The dislocation, stress, and loss of equity affects more than just the family losing their home, however. Harm is spread throughout communities where foreclosures are concentrated. School districts and cities lose property tax revenues and population. Local businesses lose workers and customers. Empty homes drag down local economies and become blighted.

Solution: tax the banks when they cause harm. Prevent foreclosures by modifying the incentives and disincentives for creditors dealing with customers who fall behind in payment. Create a source of funds to compensate communities harmed by foreclosures that do proceed.

Here's how it could work. Suppose a family, we'll call them the "Morgans," bought a house for $300,000 at the height of the real estate bubble in 2006. Since the financial crash in 2008, the Morgan's house has plummeted in value to $150,000, but they're still paying a mortgage on the sale price of 300k. They're underwater and struggling.

Now let's say the Morgan family has recently been missing payments. It could be because of an adjustable rate mortgage that kicked into high gear. Or maybe a Grandpa Morgan is sick, and the medical bills have exhausted the family's savings. Or maybe Mrs. Morgan lost her job, and there simply aren't opportunities to make nearly as much income again.

Whatever the problem, this family will soon be foreclosed upon. The bank, let's call it "JP-America-Fargo," will take their home, and they'll have to move.

But now suppose there's a Pigovian foreclosure tax. We could design the tax in innumerable ways, but here's a very simple one just to illustrate the point:

When JP-America-Fargo Bank forecloses on the Morgan family, it must pay 10% of the home's last sale price, or $25,000 — whichever is greater. (Or maybe we should peg it at 27%?)

This tax payment, or "bailout" if you will, could be split two ways. 25% of the foreclosure tax could go to the Morgan family, to help them recover from foreclosure, and 75% could go to the local school district where the house is located.

So if the Morgan's lost their home, JP-America-Fargo Bank would have to pay 10% of $300k - $30k. The Morgan's get $7,500 of this, and local public schools get $22,500.

There are conceivable cases where a home's sale price is incredibly small because it was purchased decades ago, thus a 10% tax on that price would be a bargain for a bank to pay in order to foreclose on property worth much more. This is why we have the alternative minimum of $25,000.

The tax is high enough to create a massive disincentive for banks to foreclose on homeowners, pressuring banks instead to help homeowners who are underwater or who are otherwise having trouble making payments refinance their mortgages and stay put.

10%, or $25,000 might seem like an enormous tax, but keep in mind that the federal government bailed out most of the biggest banks that are carrying out the bulk of foreclosures. Trillions of dollars were spent making the JP-America-Fargo Banks of the world solvent. Little to nothing has been done to help homeowners (and what was tried earlier was geared too much to the needs of banks, not homeowners).

A Pigovian foreclosure tax could help reverse this injustice and prevent socially harmful corporate behavior such as mass foreclosures from continuing to damage America.