Thursday, February 26, 2009

Are We Alone?

You know, I've been hearing for years that isolation is a fundamental quality of the human condition - the whole, "You're born alone, you live alone, and you die alone" thing, and I've nodded my head sagely for years to that triplet.

The thing is, I am realizing that I'm not sure what that means.

"Born alone?"

You come into this world out of your mother's own body, with an umbilical cord attached; within seconds you are in her tender arms being held and cared for with the most primal love there is.

"Live alone?"

Not if you have even the barest shred of empathy, the most minimal social skills; ever notice that when something awful happens (9/11?), we instinctively drop all the crap we use to isolate ourselves from others (money, pride, class, etc), and we remember, if only for a few precious hours or days, that the only thing we have that matters is each other, and we are thus priceless? We are alone only to the extent that we willfully forget our fundamental interconnectedness.

When I was in the Army, there was a kid in my unit named Rivera. Rivera was from Puerto Rico, and was pretty much liked by everyone - he had a quick smile, and would take some of the newer guys under his wing and show them what was expected of them. He had a very pretty wife, and a new son named for him.

When we were out in the field one time, Rivera violated policy and picked up a dud round, a grenade, and it went off in his hands. It took him about 5 minutes to bleed out while the medevac was called in. He died in the arms of a buddy of his who was a surfer from L.A. named Griffin.

After we got back from the field, we had a formation at the end of the month (on payday) where the First Sergeant would call the last names of everyone in the unit, in alphabetical order, and as our names were called each soldier would answer with his first name and middle initial and then fall out. He went through the names, and then called "Rivera!"

There was a terrible, echoing silence; he called again, "Rivera!, and everyone there felt the silence resonate again; he called a final time, his voice breaking, "Rivera!" and by then everyone in that formation had tears in his eyes. His wife held her baby boy, and we could hear her crying softly.

In that moment, we ceased to be black or white, Privates or Sergeants or Majors or rich or poor or urbane or bumpkin; all of that faded into insignificance. We were brothers, just brothers, bound together in our grief. We missed our friend.

"Die alone?"

My father died (of cancer) in my arms, surrounded by his family, and as he left this world I said a silent prayer of thanks that I had him for 34 years, and for him to have a safe journey. All of us told him that we loved him.

Like I said, I've nodded my head sagely for years to that triplet: "You're born alone, you live alone and you die alone."

I'm not sure what that means any more. I'm not sure I've ever known.

Monday, February 23, 2009

I finally saw "Milk" last night.

In San Francisco. In the Castro theater.


Some of my gay friends say it was meant for straights, and there is something to this, but the final scenes of the movie were intensely moving.

I remember that night. That terrible, wrenching night of despair and remembrance. Thousands and thousands and thousands of people, the crowd stretching from the Castro all the way to City Hall, holding candles and weeping for a fallen hero. It was like a river of light and love, defying the day's darkness of murder and hatred.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


A brilliant comment at Daily Kos. My question: Has it really come to this?

That's some catch, that Catch 22.

The...relevant scene from the novel is when the old Italian man (108 years old) tells the 21-year old Lt. that the secret to a long and happy life is to surrender, not fight.

To bend.

To not get in uniform, not get in line, not march with the masses, not stand in the ranks, not espouse the public goal.

To live instead like a knife cutting through water, leaving no trace of yourself while simply being yourself. The young Lt. may not see the next sunset, while the old man has lived the one day given to him, day by day, for 108 years.

Most people can't do it. Human beings live in stories, in myths about nationhood, heritage, generational accomplishments, ethnicity, in sports teams if nothing else. Most of us are eager to stand up and be a part of history, to fight for truth, justice, and a sacred cause larger than our life, to make our mark in this world, to make a difference, to be somebody, to do some thing.

When the only thing you can ever possibly have any control over is yourself, inside your own skin.

Ozymandias in the end was just a man. Though he reportedly shook the heavens and the earth, no trace of it remains. What he took to eternity was who he was, not what he did. Not the slightest speck of any mountain he moved, not the smallest coin nor thread of cloth went along with him to wherever he went.

None of those things were taken. None of those things remain.

It's hard to leave off the story, the country, the cause that appeals to you, and to care nothing about all that.

In the eight years of daily heartbreak of the Bush years now past, I went from grieving for my lost America, to a white hot rage to rescue it, to a determination to change it, to a cold examination of its core deceits.

And there has been a divorce. I've no respect or regard remaining for America's story, for its birth or history, for its government, its leaders, its various wars, or for its aims around the world today. It is not my story or my country even though I live here.

Like the majority of Americans, much has been taken from me in these eight years, and as I watch the fledgling Obama Administration service the robber barons assiduously instead of the people I perceive that even more will be taken.

But I also perceive that these taken things are just things. Job, career, savings, property, pride, prospects, patriotism, optimism, health care, community, anger, shame, love of country. These things that I once thought moved heaven and Earth are gone now.

Like so many Americans, I am standing here in my skin, with no particular loyalty to the nation that robs me, that abuses me, that uses me and then sends along a bill for its services. I won't be paying that bill, and they cannot collect it without taking my very skin, which I aim to keep.

Like so many Americans, I am 'paddling to Sweden' as Orr did in the novel -- I am getting up every morning and doing what is sane and effective to escape a mad and maddening situation, to escape with my skin. My bank is a mattress, my income is barter and black market, my taxes are nought. My interest in the blogs, news, and headlines is to dodge what's coming next, not to fight it, espouse it, worry about it, or live in it.

The oligarchs atop our nation do not grasp how very many Americans don't live in America any longer even though we live right here. How very many of us see that the Dream was only ever possible for 10% of us, and that those 10% have got theirs but good, and have no further concern for the rest of us, or for other nations, or for the planet.

They've virtually left the country. So have we. Catch 22 -- no one lives in America any longer. Some live above it, while most live below it. The Dream is increasingly unoccupied.

The 10% of wealthy Villagers atop America will happily leave the rest of us shivering in our skins, if it keeps them living in their story. In their country. The country they won, that they stole fair and square so they can live happily ever after.

Or until we come for them.

[Update] And an important answer:

May I ask that you keep hold of one thing other than your own skin?


Solidarity with the other 90% (99% is the number I'd use in fact; that semi-rich 9% think they are on the inside of the game, but will be easily pitched overboard without a life vest by the true elite once the ship really starts going down [then .9% of the last one percent will go, and so on]) of us that are in the same situation as you.

Solidarity is what makes us strong. It is what allows us to keep our skin, and that of our loved ones, safe in the long term, as well as providing hope that we may be able to claim a dignified life someday.

If fact, solidarity is the only mechanism we have that will allow us to "come for them."

Republican Abstractions, Democratic Practicalities

In going from Republican (in the early ’80s) to Democrat (now), I’m now actually to the left of a lot of the corporatist wing of the Democratic Party.

The Republicans’ policies made a certain amount of sense to me when I considered as pure abstractions: it is when I saw them operate in the real world that I saw the game for what it is: It is not really about freedom from tyranny and small government. It is really about serving the group of people the Republican Party serves: the economic elites.

The reason I’ve stayed with the Democratic Party (rather than going further left) is that there have been periods in its history when it knew where its success came from: looking out for working people, protecting the non-rich from the rich, and so on.

It does seem like the political battles in this country are often battles between rich people - between the socially “liberal” rich of places like Manhattan and the socially “conservative” rich of the South. I am doing what I can to rally the economic populists within the Democratic Party, but I’m just one guy.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Proof That There Is a Loving and Merciful God

When I was a kid, I was adventurous to a fault. I was legendary for the bike wrecks I used to get into.

When I was about 10 or so, my friend Ray and I were biking around the hills of El Cerrito, along with my older brother Mark and Ray's brother Sertha. Actually, I was on the back of Ray's bike, since my bike was in bad repair (presumably from the previous week's spectacular crash) and goading Ray to take more risks and live a little. His bike's brakes were out, so we had to hop off and walk the bike down the steeper hills.

A time came when we were at the top of a long, steep, curvy street that ended in a "T" intersection. I was sick of walking down hills when we seemed to have two perfectly good wheels to go down a whole lot quicker, and the lack of any means to stop seemed like an awfully abstract problem. Ray, knowing what was coming, immediately said, "No Matt. You've made me do some crazy stuff, but this is too much. My mom will kill me if I get killed because of you. I'm not even supposed to be playin' with you, man..."

15 minutes of teasing, goading, and calling him "chicken" later, he agreed to go down the hill. The plan was, he'd control our speed by putting his sneaker on the front tire as a sort of provisional brake, so we would not get going too fast.

About 15 seconds into our journey, we were going, oh, 35 or 40 miles per hour, and his sneaker was decidedly not up to the task of stopping 130 pounds of kids and their bike. That's when Ray started screaming.

About two thirds of the way to the bottom of the hill, Ray raised himself slightly from the seat, and put his foot down on the front tire with all his might.

Massive mistake.

His foot rode up the back of the tire, and directly into the front forks where it lodged firmly, which stopped the front tire. Instantly. At 40 miles an hour. The bike instantly "endo'ed" and cartwheeled into a parked car, Ray attached. I was launched into the air over the car that Ray was messily impacting, and remember thinking with startling lucidity, "When I land, this is really, really going to hurt..." - just before I landed in some lady's rose bushes. Ray didn't break anything, and made me give him my tee shirt to absorb the blood from his cut face, and I also had to carry the two halves of his bike home. When I got home, mom said I looked like I'd gone ashore at Normandy on D-Day.

Good times.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A chronology of the Economic Crisis

From a commenter at Daily Kos:

1961-64 Robert Kennedy wages war against the Mob. Labor effectively defanged. Economic Elites will eventually learn that they can bitch slap labor without worrying about being slapped back. Mob and Labor part ways.

Liberalism is nothing without labor, labor, it turns out, is nothing without teeth.

1964 High Tide of Liberalism reached. Movement Conservatism formed, funded by the Economic Elites.

1970 Walter Reuther dies from mysterious plane crash.

1973 Per hour Wages peak and stagnate there after. From 1940-1973 wages grow with increases in productivity. Increasingly after this, demand increases only with increased man hours.

1980 Reagan wins election

1981 PATCO - Reagan lets labor step on the banana peel and bitch slaps labor into third tier status. From this point, Economic Elites are on the gravy train.

2001 The Blunder-man "Wrong Way" Bush commeth. For the last 27 years the growth in GNP has all gone to the economic elites (the supply side) by 2001 the economy has more than doubled over 1973 - that's trillions and trillions of dollars to the top 1% of the economy, year-in and year-out. As a result of this excess in flow of money to 'supply-side' demand is soft and beginning to shrink - creating a deflationary recession and stock bubbles (bubble result from too much money finding too little returns across the aggregate of the economy - until one little spot, like new technologies shows decent returns and then all money floods to that spot).

In the face of too much supply, in an economy based 2/3rds on demand, does Bush implement demand side economics? In a word no.

Instead, Bush pores the coals on 'supply-side' economics and by the end of his term may have pushed another 10 or 11 trillion dollars over to the supply side of the economy.

At this point the economy should contract, indeed crater, but it doesn't. Why? Bush is able to borrow cheap money from east Asia to cover his tracks as a substitute for real wage based demand. When the bills come do ... then the economy craters.

That's how we got to where we are.

Wages have to keep up with productivity to be stable. If they don't society becomes top heavy and unstable, like standing up in a dugout canoe: prone to sudden epic collapse.

An Inspired Rant at DKos

We're wasting our time here. Just nationalize the damn banks already. Almost all of the top economists are now in agreement that we should take this step. The people who put the money in are the people who own the company - that's how capitalism works. I'm a die-hard capitalist. I don't want the federal government owning banks for an extended period of time. But what's worse is to continue letting these bankers rob us of our money day in and day out while we sit around like fools.

At the very least, it is unconscionable to get rid of these pay caps. On what grounds do these people think they deserve millions of dollars for bankrupting their companies? How is that capitalism? That's not capitalism, that's cronyism. They pay the politicians, the politicians pay them. They have perverted the whole system.

The Fate of (some of) the Sun Belt

Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, has an article in the new Atlantic Monthly where (among other things) he assesses where the economic collapse is likely to be most keenly felt:

But in the heady days of the housing bubble, some Sun Belt cities—Phoenix and Las Vegas are the best examples—developed economies centered largely on real estate and construction. With sunny weather and plenty of flat, empty land, they got caught in a classic boom cycle. Although these places drew tourists, retirees, and some industry—firms seeking bigger footprints at lower costs—much of the cities’ development came from, well, development itself. At a minimum, these places will take a long, long time to regain the ground they’ve recently lost in local wealth and housing values. It’s not unthinkable that some of them could be in for an extended period of further decline.

To an uncommon degree, the economic boom in these cities was propelled by housing appreciation: as prices rose, more people moved in, seeking inexpensive lifestyles and the opportunity to get in on the real-estate market where it was rising, but still affordable. Local homeowners pumped more and more capital out of their houses as well, taking out home-equity loans and injecting money into the local economy in the form of home improvements and demand for retail goods and low-level services. Cities grew, tax coffers filled, spending continued, more people arrived. Yet the boom itself neither followed nor resulted in the development of sustainable, scalable, highly productive industries or services. It was fueled and funded by housing, and housing was its primary product. Whole cities and metro regions became giant Ponzi schemes.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Some Liberals Piss Me Off

It occurs to me that one of the things that makes Manhattan so much more expensive than Cleveland, or the San Francisco Bay Area so much more expensive than Indianapolis, is our income tax structure.

Don't get me wrong: I think New York and the Bay Area are always going to be more expensive than other places in the country, having to do with more demand existing for housing there due to them being port cities, centers of finance and high tech, etc.

So, of course they are going to be more expensive places to live.

One of the objections to higher marginal tax rates I read here in diary comments on Daily Kos over and over again, is that "a generous salary that will buy a house and car for a family of four in Cleveland, Ohio will barely feed a single person living in a studio apartment in NYC."

Why is that, though? Why is New York that much more expensive than Cleveland? I mean, as I already acknowledged, they are always going to be more expensive, but why is the gap that big?

Under Eisenhower, tax rates were much, much more progressive than they are now: the top marginal rate (paid on the highest proportion of rich people's income)hovered between between 91.5 and 94 percent during his entire presidency. Even considering deductions and tax shelters, it was not worth it for executives to pay themselves obscene salaries and bonuses, since taxes would eat up a huge amount of the excess.

This contributed to what Krugman has called "The Great Compression" - wages were "compressed" meaning there was a much, MUCH smaller gap the country's fattest and leanest paychecks than there had been before the Great Depression, and than there is now. It is worth mentioning that there was no special exemption for residents of the New York, San Francisco or Los Angeles areas.

A consequence was that places like NYC were not as expensive relative to the rest of the country as they are now. Taxes ate up so much of richer peoples' incomes that you couldn't sell 2 bedroom apartments in NYC for the 2008-dollars equivalent of $2 million: the market wouldn't bear it. Not enough people were clearing (after taxes) enough money to pay for them.

Lots of attention has been paid to the gap between the pay of CEOs and their lowest-paid employees; less to none has been paid to the gap between rich states, or regions within states, and poor ones.

Which brings up an awkward situation for many folks who describe their politics as progressive or liberal; they are actually members of an elite. If you are raising a couple kids in relative comfort in Manhattan, Walnut Creek California, or in Suburban Maryland, you are members of an economic elite.

The fact that you are pro-choice, drive a Prius and are a vegan does not change the fact that you are members of an elite. The fact that you agitate for single-payer health care doesn't change the fact that you are members of an elite.

What would change it is to show in your advocacy that you are willing to make sacrifices, and substantial ones, to ensure that America becomes a more just and equitable nation as time goes on. Unions need to be strengthened, the minimum wage needs to be raised, and the tax system needs to become far more progressive than it is now, and the government needs to use those extra tax revenues to provide opportunity to the bottom of the income scale.

You advocate for those things, and (the hard part for elites) you sacrifice some relative economic status in order to live in a more just and equitable, more liberal, more progressive America, and you gain an America that the Democratic Party of Roosevelt, Truman, a million union organizers and my immigrant, welder grandfather would be proud to call their own.

An America of plutocrats and rabble is not a sustainable place - just look at other places in the world where these conditions obtain: revolution, insurrection, assassinations, coups...

I say it again: An America of coastal elites and "flyover" rabble is not sustainable.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Trapper John at DKOS...

...on why Hilda Solis is facing such opposition from Republicans:

So in a nutshell, Solis's opponents are arguing that the US Secretary of Labor should recuse herself from advocating for passage of the most important labor law reform measure facing the United States. Needless to say this is completely insane -- it's akin to saying that the HHS Secretary shouldn't be involved in the health care debate, or that the Defense Secretary shouldn't talk about Iraq. But it's indicative of just how completely scared the Republican Party and its corporate masters are about the workplace democracy promised by the Employee Free Choice Act. No cabinet appointee other than Solis has been subject to such an assault, and it's because Solis is guilty of the GOP's unforgivable sin -- supporting the right of working people to join together and fight for their share of this country's wealth. And if that kind of opposition from the lackeys of the multinationals isn't a sign to you of how good the Employee Free Choice Act would be for working Americans, I don't know what is.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Prayers for Amy Welborn

Michael Dubruiel, Amy Welborn's husband, passed away suddenly yesterday. Condolences and prayers go out to her and her children. Lord have mercy.

"We're asking these firms to take responsibility"

Good for President Obama:

Thank you, Tim, for your hard work on this issue and on our economic recovery.

The economic crisis we face is unlike any we've seen in our lifetime. It's a crisis of falling confidence and rising debt. Of widely distributed risk and narrowly concentrated reward. A crisis written in the fine print of sub-prime mortgages, on the ledger lines of once-mighty financial institutions, and on the pink slips that have upended lives and cost the economy 2.6 million jobs last year alone.

We know that even if we do everything we should, this crisis was years in the making, and it will take more than weeks or months to turn things around.

But make no mistake: A failure to act, and act now, will turn crisis into a catastrophe and guarantee a longer recession, a less robust recovery, and a more uncertain future. Millions more jobs will be lost. More businesses will be shuttered. More dreams will be deferred.

That's why I feel such a sense of urgency about the Economic Recovery and Reinvestment Plan that is before Congress today. With it, we can save or create more than three million jobs, doing things that will strengthen our country for generations to come. It is not merely a prescription for short-term spending - it's a strategy for long-term economic growth in areas like renewable energy, health care, and education.

Now, in the past few days I've heard criticisms of this plan that echo the very same failed theories that helped lead us into this crisis - the notion that tax cuts alone will solve all our problems; that we can ignore fundamental challenges like energy independence and the high cost of health care and still expect our economy and our country to thrive.

I reject that theory, and so did the American people when they went to the polls in November and voted resoundingly for change. So I urge members of Congress to act without delay. No plan is perfect, and we should work to make it stronger. But let's not make the perfect the enemy of the essential. Let's show people all over our country who are looking for leadership in this difficult time that we are equal to the task.

At the same time, we know that this Recovery and Reinvestment plan is only the first part of what we need to do to restore prosperity and secure our future. We also need a strong and viable financial system to keep credit flowing to businesses and families alike. My administration will do what it takes to restore our financial system; our recovery depends upon it. And so next week, Secretary Geithner will release a new strategy to get credit moving again - a strategy that will reflect the lessons of past mistakes while laying a foundation for the future.

But in order to restore our financial system, we've got to restore trust. And in order to restore trust, we've got to make certain that taxpayer funds are not subsidizing excessive compensation packages on Wall Street.

We all need to take responsibility. And this includes executives at major financial firms who turned to the American people, hat in hand, when they were in trouble, even as they paid themselves their customary lavish bonuses. As I said last week, that's the height of irresponsibility. That's shameful. And that's exactly the kind of disregard for the costs and consequences of their actions that brought about this crisis: a culture of narrow self-interest and short-term gain at the expense of everything else.

This is America. We don't disparage wealth. We don't begrudge anybody for achieving success. And we believe that success should be rewarded. But what gets people upset - and rightfully so - are executives being rewarded for failure. Especially when those rewards are subsidized by U.S. taxpayers.

For top executives to award themselves these kinds of compensation packages in the midst of this economic crisis is not only in bad taste - it's a bad strategy - and I will not tolerate it as President. We're going to be demanding some restraint in exchange for federal aid - so that when firms seek new federal dollars, we won't find them up to the same old tricks.

As part of the reforms we are announcing today, top executives at firms receiving extraordinary help from U.S. taxpayers will have their compensation capped at $500,000 - a fraction of the salaries that have been reported recently. And if these executives receive any additional compensation, it will come in the form of stock that can't be paid up until taxpayers are paid back for their assistance.

Companies receiving federal aid are going to have to disclose publicly all the perks and luxuries bestowed upon senior executives and provide an explanation to the taxpayers and to shareholders as to why these expenses are justified. And we're putting a stop to these kinds of massive severance packages we've all read about with disgust; we're taking the air out of the golden parachute.

We're asking these firms to take responsibility, to recognize the nature of this crisis and their role in it. We believe that what we've laid out should be viewed as fair and embraced as basic common sense.

Finally, these guidelines we're putting in place are only the beginning of a long-term effort. We're going to examine the ways in which the means and manner of executive compensation have contributed to a reckless culture and quarter-by-quarter mentality that in turn have wrought havoc in our financial system. We're going to be taking a look at broader reforms so that executives are compensated for sound risk management and rewarded for growth measured over years, not just days or weeks.

We've all got to pull together and take our share of responsibility. That's true here in Washington. That's true on Wall Street. The American people are carrying a huge burden as a result of this economic crisis: bearing the brunt of its effects as well as the costs of extraordinary measures we're taking to address it. The American people expect and demand that we pursue policies that reflect the reality of this crisis - and that will prevent these kinds of crises in the future.

Thank you.

No, Thank YOU, Mr. President

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Howard Dean for HHS

Now that Daschle is officially out, I think Howard Dean would be a great choice: a medical doctor with executive experience.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Conservatism as Anti-Ideology

There's an interesting discussion over at Kyle's place concerning the extent to which Russell Kirk was an ideologist, and whether conservatism could be described as an "ideology" per se.

Commenter Rodak offers the following:

American conservatism as I observe it more resembles the thought of Ayn Rand, with the difference that it tends to embrace (but practice mostly in the breach) an intolerant brand of "Christianity" which has little to do with living the Beatitudes.
I share Kirk's cultural conservatism. But, in America, this seems always to be joined at the hip to a cut-throat, capitalist paradigm that is juiced by a greed and power-lust that is anti-thetical to the message of Christ. I would suggest that Rush Limbaugh is much more representative of American conservatism than is Kirk.

I'm not sure about the Rush Limbaugh thing: he probably represents the (dwindling) populist "ground troops" of conservatism, but conservatism also has Bill Buckley and George Will, two men with whom I mostly disagree, but whose arguments and intellectual integrity I respect.