Introduction to the Oct. 7 Econ Salon

Thanks for coming out to this experiment in culture forms, the econ salon, as part of my poetic investigation, the Happy Valley Project. I initially launched this project thinking about the contradictions between foreclosures, bank-owned property, shells of shelter, and the need for shelter. I puzzle over how to imagine a social landscape with such an uneven distribution of shelter. We, each of us, take up such different amount of space when it comes to shelter.

But as I’ve continued with this project, I’ve begun to dwell—a word that has entered much of my work—on the chasms between abstract finance and material life. As I’ve read and read—and I put some selected reading out on the papercutter—I began to think there was something very strange about the fact that I don’t know what an asset backed security or collaterized debt obligation was.

There’s a lot of blame going around about reckless homeowners, but something seemed fishy about that. A book by Nomi Prins helped me smell out that stink. Folks were making a lot of money on those loans in ways that had nothing to do with the land and shelter that people are now losing. It was the fancy financing that was dancing around those loans, and Nomi Prins figures that financial speculation—which I imagine as these mystified dust clouds—were valued at 10 times the amount of subprime loans. The sliced & diced mortgages became the assets to back securities—those mystified dust clouds of speculation—that puffed out to 10 times the amount. Nomi Prins estimates that 1.4 million dollars worth of subprime loans were leveraged into 140 trillion dollars. If all those mortgages alone had defaulted, without the massive speculation, our economy wouldn’t have crashed.

So much speculation was going on, who owned what has become a tangled mess, and we’re seeing the house of cards start to fall this week as JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, and the Alley Financial under GMAC all have suspended foreclosures in 23 states, caught for dubious paperwork. Some judges are scrutinizing foreclosure claims because too much is amiss. All the fast and furious financing created less reputable paper-trails of ownership, and now, the ambiguities are catching up.

Our real economy—our jobs, schools, social services and the trains that run our city—is destabilized because of esoteric. Rather than simply placing all our energy into thinking about painful cut-backs, rather than simply feeling stricken, and turning on each other, how can we use our creative and varied minds to thinking about how high finance achieves tremendous power when most of us aren’t paying attention . It’s dangerous to leave finance to the financiers.

So for this Happy Valley Project, I’ve decided to emphasize the format of the Econ Salon, these gatherings in cultural venues—bistros, studios, galleries—to think about economics. I started these econ salons late in 2008 when the financial catastrophe that was bringing down our real economy was evident, and congress was debating TARP. Tonight we have gathered musician & poet Cynthia Nelson, who is performing her music that dwells on money, her “Money Song,” and “Sand Dollars Paper Dollars.” Allison Cobb will read excerpts from her book, Green-Wood, a wide-ranging investigation of a Brooklyn cemetery. One of the many threads in her book is the history of property in this country. Jules Boykoff will read from his poetry that has long dwelt on the grail of Greenspan, as he puts it, and the ways neoliberal economics guts the public good for private power.

I’ll start off by reading three small selections. As I prepared for tonight’s gathering, I was struck by how much I have long dwelt on the way profiteering can be abstracted from the material necessities of everyday life. This first poem, “feedback,” (from my collection interval) emerged in part from listening to a friend in an MBA program regale me with the fabulous mechanisms of black-box equations, which, as I remember it, determined that a business should cut back on labor to maximize profits, and which, I remember my friend saying, he did not understand. Much like a magic trick is mesmerizing, so were these black box equations. The box looks empty, but now see a rabbit, a sash, a sprightly bouquet of flowers.

This next selection, “uptick,” is a poem from Remember to Wave. I composed lines in response to frames of film made by a Pacific Northwest machinist in the 1930s and 40s, William Cheney. While I was thinking about how this film represented landscapes and actions from 70, 80 years ago, my writing became a kind of time capsule for the months in 2008 in which I was composing. This was a time when folks at Goldman Sachs were speculating on wheat to such an extreme degree that the prices when up ten-fold—despite the fact that more wheat was produced in 2008 globally than any other year prior—and people starved and rioted over food scarcity as a result. More extreme than the speculation on homes, shelters, is this speculation on food—people made billions by abstracting food and gambling on the risks of trade, and thus, they made food to expensive for the world’s poor to eat.

The final poem I’ll read is a tiny book, roof of locked shields, collaged in part from definitions of ‘shelter’ in the Oxford English Dictionary. This poem serves as a prelude to this poetic investigation, the Happy Valley Project.

The next Econ Salon will be Thursday, November 4, emphasizing stories and games, followed by more in early December. Some things to look forward to—economist Robin Hahnel will discuss the sleight of hands involved in these tricks of capital, while world champion whistler Mitch Hider will perform magic tricks.

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About thehappyvalleyproject

The Happy Valley Project is a poetic investigation of the relationship between housing foreclosures and financial speculation. Grappling with the high finance that furthers our economic turmoil seems like a good job for poetry. I borrowed the name of this project from the nearby city that experienced such a high foreclosure rate after the housing bubble burst. This project gathers poets, musicians, economists and others, using poetic form, video, installation pieces, economics lecture, and music. A key format for the Happy Valley project is the Econ Salon, gatherings around economics in various cultural formats (bistros, studios, galleries, etc). The Econ Salons began during the early days of the TARP bailout for financial institutions in 2008 when so many of us were quickly learning about the financial mess (here is a description of past econ salons). Now, two years later, I am interested in furthering those efforts through a poetic practice that brings together vigilance, investigation, and conversation. This project is funded by the Regional Arts and Culture Council.
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