Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Wing Nuts are Right -- and Left

The House failure to pass the bailout plan has evoked images of lunatics in charge of the asylum. Yet there is one sense in which the wing nuts, most of whom are right-wing, are right and, ironically, also left: a traditional bailout of financiers by the committee of capitalists we call the government is certainly not the answer to what ails the United States -- or the world.

Any solution to the problem of a burst bubble of snake oil mortgages has to begin where the problem began. One cannot perennially expect that an economy whose ever greater productivity is relentlessly squeezed out of service and production-line workers, but whose rewards flow only to the top, to be based on a firm grounding.

Why is there a credit crisis? Because Americans have overborrowed. Why have Americans overborrowed? Because the nation's vast economic engine depends on consumption and, since the incomes of average Americans have stagnated for the last five years in a row, purchasing has had to occur on credit.

Don't believe this? Consider that between 2005 and 2006, the top 1 percent of households (with incomes above $375,000) added $73,000 to their incomes, the next 9 percent gained $16,000 and the bottom 90 percent (below $105,000 a year) increased their incomes by just $20.

That's a finding that is consistent with data for all of the current decade, as examined by two economists who also found that income disparity is the largest it has ever been in the United States since ... wait for it ... 1929. (See a paper based on the research, Striking it Richer: The Evolution of Top Incomes in the United States by Emmanuel Saez.)

And who is finding themselves unable to pay their mortgages? The stagnating majority, who have reaped only a quarter of the wealth generated by their labor in the past economic expansion.

Unless we collectively make it possible for the 90 percent to increase their incomes, no amount of lending to financiers will solve the problem. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this calls for answers remarkably similar to -- gasp! the salts! -- socialism.

Americans hear "socialism" and their McCarthyist muscle makes them see Soviet Gulag prison systems. Yet socialism has been very successful in Sweden, Britain, France, Germany, Spain and Italy, where not everything is government owned, as in the old Soviet Union, but the society as a whole guarantees everyone's basic well-being.

Indeed, the capitalist class in this country has always believed in socialism for corporations and the rich, of which the proposed bailout plan was a perfect example. I am just suggesting that all of us get a bit of that socialism, instead of their doling out capitalism for the middle class and the poor, while taking our tax money to subsidize themselves.

Specifically, this moment in history calls for a top-down revision of the American economic system, for a vast democratization of the economy similar to the democratization of civic life begun in 1776. I can think of two basic principles that would undergird such a new society:
  1. All people have the inalienable right to the basic necessities of life, including food, clothing, shelter, schooling, work and life itself.
  2. Beyond what is needed for the bare necessities, all earnings must bear a direct relationship to work making something or delivering a service.
With those principles in mind, housing becomes an essential that no one in a country with the resources of the United States should ever lack, rather than a luxury which a hardy few can obtain, and, on the other hand, investment, inheritance and manipulation of assets does not amount to work.

This priority-reordering scale of values would mean that any bailout plan would seek first to perform the tasks the failing institutions are performing.

In the case of AIG, for example, instead of securing the firm itself, the goal would have been to secure the insurance policies while seizing the money and firing the entire management. When IndyMac was seized, regulators first froze all foreclosures, then began an analysis of the outstanding loans, one by one.

This may take trillions and many years. But only a framework to deliver help first at the bottom and only secondarily to the top, a framework that would be gradual, one that recognizes that the current structures simply don't work, will ultimately solve the many problems facing the United States and the world.

So the obstructionists of George W. Bush's 9/11-style call for a blank check were right. We all need to sit down and think our way out with a little deliberation. Perhaps we need to wait to after the presidential election, so we can start from scratch to build a new economic democracy from scratch.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Death Comes to the Comic Character

This picture appears to have gone viral (origin unknown). Enjoy!

Friday, September 19, 2008

A Suit for the American Psyche

In every era the United States has chosen a leader that represented some key aspect of the national psyche, or else the nation has stumbled until one could be found. In 2008, we have already tried on three -- Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Sarah Palin -- in the political dressing room. Although I see the excitement about the third fading as beachwear after Labor Day, I'd like to stop and dwell about what these choices say about our favorite topic -- ourselves.
Palin, the candidate we now know as the hypocrite who ... is really an apt reflection of the inherent contradictions Americans collectively embrace.
We want a green planet, but we also want our very many, often enough hugely unnecessary cars. We claim equality but, deep down, we're all a little racist (or even a lot, as Palin's cover for white women who can't abide a black man amply shows). We want to think of ourselves as law-abiding and church-going, but we cheat on our taxes, jaywalk, commit adultery and ultimately want everyone else to be barred from doing certain things, so long as we can secretly sneak in a poach after hunting season is over.
Hillary Clinton, the Clinton I would have voted for in 1992 had I been given the chance, represents the spirit of generosity that we Americans are so capable of individually and yet so pigheadedly averse to as a society. The contradiction kills us, undoes us, paralyzes us and keeps our society looking like an industrial museum piece from the 1940s.
Clinton dropped the ball on her own presidential campaign, just as she did on health care reform in 1994. My gut sense is that she thought having her heart in the right place and the genius to conceive of grand ideas was enough to make it happen -- just as the American Dream is for the majority of us.
This leaves us Barack Obama.
In the 1950s, the United States was in the middle of a baby boom and predictably chose a president who looked like the Gerber logo's baby, Dwight David Eisenhower. Ike was likable and he had been the referee-commander of a global military coalition by virtue of that quality, rather than because of military genius.
Next decade we tried John F. Kennedy, who looked the very picture of health, youth and American altruism, but we now know he was physically very ill, aging all-too-rapidly and capable of breathtaking selfishness.
There has been a lot of myth and falsehood, but there were also some home truths in those experiences.
Obama cannot possibly be the Olympian figure captured delivering a photogenic Berlin speech even before the formality of an election. He will surely disappoint those who think so. But we don't need to have a crush on Obama.
In this most serious season in the history of U.S. political economy, we just need to decide just what kind of people we want to be. Do we want to rise to the challenges or satisfy our complacencies?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


The following is my shameless adaptation of a post by Savia, "Do Re Me me." Consider it belated beach reading.

I am ... me.
I think ... slowly, ponderously, systemically.
I know ... the instant of peace at life's apex.
I have ... Liesl, my beloved C230.
I wish ... I had a million dollars (or should that be a billion?).
I hate ... unfair criticism.
I miss ... what might have been.
I fear ... ending up poor and homeless in a Third World country.
I hear ... the bells on Christmas morn.
I smell ... like aftershave in the morning.
I crave ... salt.
I search ... for my glasses when I don't have my glasses on.
I wonder ... what will happen to my remains after I am dead.
I regret ... I can't do it all over again knowing what I now know.
I love ... you!
I ache ... to become Albert Schweitzer.
I am not ... who I am.
I believe ... in no one.
I dance ... with angels on the head of a pin.
I sing ... the song of the three young men, who ran down streets naked in estival frenzy.
I cry ... when I am very sad.
I fight ... with words.
I win ... with history questions in Trivial Pursuits.
I lose ... angrily, ready to bring down everything with me.
I never ... open other people's mail.
I always ... forget something when I am going out the door in the morning.
I confuse ... colors -- that's because I'm colorblind, silly, not because I didn't learn my colors.
I listen ...to women intently.
I can usually be found ... at the computer.
I am scared ... of a million things going wrong.
I need ... about a million U.S. dollars, in unmarked, non-sequentially numbered $100 bills.
I am happy about ... my sons.
I imagine ... introducing my grandfather to my sons.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Have Sex

Our text today is, yet again, one of my godless commandments(1) namely: Thou shalt enjoy the flesh of others, respecting their own desires as well as thine and taking responsibility for any consequences thereof. Some people may argue that we don't need a philosophical imperative to have sex, but I would argue that we humans could use a positive and universal imperative about sex.

Let's face it: without sex we're very likely to end up screwing someone else in any number of unpleasant, non-sexual ways. Ever wondered whether the history of Iraq might have been different in the last four years if George W. Bush and Dick Cheney had gotten laid, but good? Besides, none of us would even be here without sex!

All right so the matter of principle is not so much whether, but how one should have sex. The commandment puts forth two conditions that I suspect are universally necessary for ethical purposes:
  1. We must engage in mutual pleasure giving as well as receiving.
  2. We must take responsibility for the consequences, such as pregnancy and disease.
These two exhaust the totality of ethical requirements that apply universally to all men and women of all religions or degrees of non-belief.

In the first, your pleasure is equated to the pleasure of another. You have a legitimate claim to receive pleasure and there is nothing wrong with desiring sexual pleasure and obtaining it; but the consequence of that is the duty to be concerned with and desirous of giving pleasure -- which is a pleasure all its own.

In other words, sex is not just for you: it's for you and the other person -- who is a person, not a toy (except, obviously, in the case of masturbation with toys, about which ... later). This also excludes all forms of sex for power (this is the definition of rape), money, or anything other than giving and receiving of pleasure.

There's something about us mammals that is relieved and assuaged in the feeling of full frontal nudity, skin to skin, with someone we chose to so so voluntarily -- nay, eagerly. This is why masturbation with toys falls short, except in times of necessity, other than to provide temporary release -- in a sense, it's not really sex.

Secondly, sex is a path to reproduction and a way to get diseases and even a way to express particular feelings about another, to the point of sometimes being called "making love." When we have sex we risk becoming parents, becoming ill and even dying, or becoming sentimentally entangled with another person.

We can be called upon to give a response -- in other words, responsibility -- for our action, by stepping up to motherhood or fatherhood, which is usually a role that lasts a lifetime. We can be faced with giving or receiving a terrible disease -- and telling all others who may be or have been exposed to us in similar ways, "get checked for X because I have it."

Last but not least, I've been told there are hormones similar to those that induce bonding between parents and children. These are stimulated with sex to the point that all sex has some emotional and psychological consequence.

None of this draws a straight line to the altar, nor to deciding whether to have or abort a child, nor does it cure a single disease or broken heart. The point of responsibility is not some formal piece of paper or law nor a textbook answer. Responsibility is needed because, precisely, we live in an uncertain world.

In such a world we must answer to ourselves and our fellows, especially those with whom we have sex, for our actions.

(1) PS to George, this is the ninth (there are ten).

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

If American Voters Aren't Stupid, What Are They?

All the while I was having a laugh over bumperstickers proclaiming that some village in Texas was missing its idiot, George W. Bush was having his Machiavellian laugh on me: he's not an idiot, he's simply a consummate dissembler. A similar lesson dawned on me upon reading Rick Shenkman's piece in The Washington Post, 5 Myths About Those Civic-Minded, Deeply Informed Voters.

OK, so if the American public isn't stupid, what are they?

I mean, a society in which half of the population makes about $50,000 or less voted twice for Reagan and three times for a Bush, despite the fact that these men abundantly showed in their policies that they only cared about the top 5 percent of all earners, those who make about $175,000 a year -- or much, much more. Something's wrong, no?

How can Americans consistently support the pauperization of single mothers and children? War? Greed? Sucking oil and other resources from other countries at exploitative and polluting rates?

Far fetched, you think?  How about the many instances in which bystanders in America did nothing to help someone being victimized? How about the cities in which ignored beggars have become the norm? How about a public that is always keen to see the rights and the suffering of white Americans and oblivious to their trampling on those of everyone else?

American history is, when you think of it, one rape and pillage and looting after another: from the swindled Indians to the kidnapped Africans to the conquered Mexicans to the abused women to the exploited and overworked working majority. Who stole the land and enslaved and stole again and put down and underpaid? Martians? Who was complicit in all this? Venusians?

If American voters really aren't stupid. If the Rush Limbaugh dittoheads score unassailably high on intelligence and general knowledge tests, as Shenkman credibly proposes, then the venom they endorse is really in their hearts of hearts.

Now there's a scary thought. Close to half the population, or enough to make up a convincing show of being a majority, are mean enough to actually want truly bad stuff to happen.

Monday, September 08, 2008

It's the hypocrisy, stupid

Sarah Palin didn't sell the jet on eBay, didn't oppose earmarks (in fact, got $1,000 per capita for her town and more for her state) and did not oppose the bridge for nowhere. But that's just starters for what is so profoundly wrong with this politician.

Let's be clear about this: Palin may invoke God and call herself a Christian all she wants, but the message of her words and her life is everything but. Palin appeals to the kind of person who is insecure enough to pursue a comforting smugness.

First of all, Palin and her cohorts all declare their pride in being American.

In Christianity, pride is one of the seven capital sins. In the biblical account of the Garde of Eden, the first human couple eats forbidden fruit (no apple is mentioned) in a bid to become as God. (And I have already noted the silliness of deriving luster from the place of one's birth.)

Second, Palin parades herself as Christian.

What did Jesus say about pride in one's religiosity? Here's a sample of what seems a refrain in the gospels:
And when you fast, be not as the hypocrites, sad. For they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Amen I say to you, they have received their reward. But thou, when thou fastest anoint thy head, and wash thy face;  That thou appear not to men to fast, but to thy Father who is in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret, will repay thee. (Matthew 6:16-18)
Thirdly, as a Republican, she proclaims an agenda of wealth creation, bluster and pride, deprecating humor and utter disinterest and even disbelief in the notion that the world is not rife with injustice. To Palin every one similar to the people in that convention hall had a God-given entitlement to power and wealth and happiness at the expense of everyone else in the planet, or even the planet itself.

All of this is antithetical to Jesus "constitution" for his new realm, the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-11; Luke 6:20-26), in which he exalts the poor, the meek, the mourning and those who hunger for justice; and reviles those who are rich, who are satisfied, who are laughing, who are blessed by men.

Palin may be a good Republican, but she has not shown the slightest inclination to live out the faith she claims.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

"The Laptop Rule" vs What?

A young man I know has passed on to me what some in his generation regard as a humorous epigram called "the laptop rule." This is supposedly a rule by which a male is supposed to choose girlfriends. I searched high and low for the opposite equivalent: a pithy, crassly facetious expression of how a young woman might select a boyfriend. I confess that I have failed.

Here's where the sexes fail totally to even connect! OK, by this point you're probably wondering what the laptop rule states. Here it is in its full glory:
Every three years get one that is thinner, faster and does more things.
That's more or less an apt description of the march of laptop technology. Of course, that's because laptops are built with obsolescence in mind. 

Personally, I hate laptops. I bought a desktop PC in 1991 that I managed to keep in operation until about 2001 -- by which time only the actual box and the floppy drive was original.

Similarly, my most significant relationships have tended never to end. I retain some contact with friends from infancy, second grade, high school and university, even though they are spread out through three continents.

The laptop rule might be a way to describe retrospectively a sowing-wild-oats period, but as a rule of thumb for life, it thumbsucks, if you will.

Never mind that. "Don't women have a similarly pithy rule?" I asked of several female friends. Like what, they wanted to know. 

Oh, say, like the Loco Rule: never get close to a locomotive unless it hitches up. Too 20th (or 19th?) century.

Or how about the ATM Rule: get a new one when money stops being dispensed. That's a guy talking.

Or ... I give up. Anyone know one?

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The E-mail Peace Pipe

"We, the cyberassembled people of this correspondence, gathered by the Internet for the purpose of improving the terms of intercommunication, and sustaining a long and viable friendship, do hereby establish the following Treaty ..." Thus, with a bow to the Constitution, begins my peace pact in a quarrelsome exchange of mails. Is it a model?

Let's see. I'll translate the pseudo-legalese into a few rules of the road for e-mail peace.

To communicate we must first assume that everyone is, in principle, equally deserving of being heard. Just because some have areas of expertise by way of schooling, work, location and so forth, it doesn't mean that others lack standing to raise factual and logical challenges.

Truth or validity should rest on verifiable, sourced evidence or sound reasoning, rather than biases, feelings or opinions.

No one should appeal to
  • force, sentimentality, pity, inexpert third parties not in the discussion, vanity or snobbery;
  • arguments against the other person, abuse, circumstantial incrimination or dismissal;
  • claims that two wrongs make a right; 
  • picking apart and/or attacking a "straw" argument that has not been made;
  • raising red herrings or baiting; 
  • weak induction, including appeal to unqualified authority, ignorance or lack of evidence;
  • overgeneralization, false cause, compounded exaggeration; 
  • weak analogy, presumption, ambiguity, grammatical analogy;
  • questions with built-in assumptions, false dichotomies, suppressed evidence.
No one has to assent to a statement merely on someone's say-so, but you are always free to take someone else's word. If you assert something, you bear the burden of proof; without it, what you say is just an opinion.

Whenever someone takes offense, the matter should be dropped without further question, regardless of whether the reaction seem reasonable. Conversely, however, just because someone takes offense it doesn't mean that offense was intended or warranted.

Take what is said at face value unless humor, irony, sarcasm or figurative meanings are expressly communicated. This is especially necessary in international communication.