Monday, October 27, 2008

But, What is Art?

The cliché in the title most often refers to the ultra-precious art critic who superciliously hides behind posturing to avoid the risk of a definitive stance. It is also a phrase that evokes effete wine and cheese gallery show openings, with competing artists' and patrons' bitchy gossip about each other. All of these have recoiled in horror whenever I have made the philistine suggestion that the art of our time is commercial.

Think of it for a moment.

Recall three or four posters on buses or billboards, selling whatever it was. Couldn't you connect immediately with what the images were about, with the thousand subtle messages in every detail? Couldn't you do that without Sister Wendy explaining what each item meant?

That was how the contemporaries of Leonardo or Giotto reacted to the paintings that today are in museums. The contextual message was obvious.

In the Italian Renaissance, the established (though weakening) worldview was European medieval Christianity, a world of Christs and Madonnas and of ferocious biblical events. That view was propagated in a largely illiterate society through artifacts sponsored (as in paid for, just like modern commercial sponsorships) by the Church.

The maecena, or patron of the arts, shared this worldview. The world had been created by God, who had called certain patriarchs and prophets until Jesus Christ, who had then called upon certain saints to give witness to the truth. All art illustrated the commonly held narrative.

But that's not all.

Renaissance art rarely attempted to be historically realistic. People from antiquity are dressed as Florentines or Parisians dressed in the 1300s, 1400s and 1500s. There's some interpretation, often veiled for fear of the Holy Office of the Inquisition: Michelangelo painted on Hell's denizens the faces of some cardinals he found obnoxious.

What's the difference? Our narrative is about our god, money, and the power, pleasure and freedom it promises to give us all. Every commercial poster, every TV commercial is really selling the uniquely American mythology that everyone can be and have all they want.

Get X (a BMW, a certain deodorant, a certain credit card) and you will be a beautiful woman or be surrounded by them, on a beach near crystalline waters and be envied and admired by all. Note that I used "BMW." Does any reader not know what a BMW is?

And the technique!

The modern, sophisticated television commercial conveys a whole contextual storyline in seconds: we know immediately she's his wife or he's her father. There are emotions: women fall in love with their cellular telephones, or think that their "chocolate" color is appetizing.

Andy Warhol, perhaps one of the first people to recognize commercial art, where he started, as art, and put the message in the following way:
What's great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coca Cola, Liz Taylor drinks Coca Cola, and just think, you can drink Coca Cola, too. A coke is a coke and no amount of money can get you a better coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the cokes are the same and all the cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.
That is why you can go to some foresaken village in the Peruvian Andes of the mountains of Afghanistan and find, somewhere in or outside the general store that red circle with 1890s lettering that reminds everyone in whatever language that the product offered is "the pause that refreshes."

Sure, in our current economic crisis, those who did not realize that mythologies are, well, myths, are suddenly discovering that, just as God and theist religions have their shibboleths, inadequacies and downright fantasies, Mammon will not, in reality, solve all your problems, or even be there when you're in trouble -- any more than God will.

My point is not about money or religion, but about art. When archeologists of the future come upon your skull or mine and mutter, "ah, primitive man!" they will find ubiquitous among our artifacts a circular red metal emblem.They will thereafter write endless papers on the meaning of the words "Coca Cola" in the art of the ancient past.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Joe the Plumber -- the economics

A correspondent has asked me a question about the assumptions underlying the whole Joe the Plumber discussion in the last debate between Barack Obama and John McCain: how much must a company take in before the owner takes home $250,000?

Keep in mind that companies, unlike individuals, are taxed on profits, not on income (unless it's capital gains from investments). From everything a company receives as revenue for the goods or services it sells, one must first subtract the legitimate business expenses (materials, labor, overhead, etc.) that for the purposes of the tax code are deductions.

What's left is profit. Since Obama said he is exempting businesses with taxable income (profit) of $250,000, that means, assuming a low profit margin of 10%, that the company had to have revenue of $2.5 million. That profit can be plowed back into the company, after it is taxed, or distributed before taxes as a dividend to the owner(s), then taxed as the owner's income.

But wait! The owner can still have made $250,000 from the business with a smaller revenue.

Say Joe's business makes $1.25 million, or half of what we just said. If 10% was profit, that would be $125,000 the company could pay him as a dividend, assuming he's the sole owner. Joe could, in addition, have paid himself $125,000 in salary throughout the year.

This is not typical for a plumbing business of that size and I understand that the real Joe makes about $40,000 a year.

Moreover, at that level, the business would not pay additional taxes, according to what Sen. Obama said, because the profits were not $250,000. If Joe took $124,000, he would still be below the $250,000 at which his personal taxes will not be raised.

Last thing. The real median household income in the United States was $50,233 in 2007, the last year for which data are available. This means that half the households made more and half made less.

Want to know what percentage of households earned $250,000? About 5%.

The great myth that John McCain is selling is that Obama raises your taxes. If you are like 95% of all Americans, including me, that's just not true.

Sure, Obama will raise taxes on 7-home households like those of John McCain and his buddies. People at that level will not go hungry.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Shivers

Ever since my late teens I experienced for many years a psychosomatic phenomenon I dubbed "the shivers," for lack of a better term. An unbidden unpleasant memory would pop and I'd shiver to shake it off.

The memories were not necessarily the stuff of novels and melodrama. Most of them were tiny, tiny embarrassing moments.

It was the sort of thing that, had it referred to wrongdoing, people brought up in Catholicism might have called "scrupulosity," in the old traditional language: an obsessive concern with one's personal sins, including "sinful" acts or thoughts usually considered minor or trivial.

A few typical ones of mine:
  • As a teenager my mind used to drift during the Gloria at the point when the congregation says "Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father." While my mouth said the words, my brain would rebel and say to me "son of a bitch." It bothered me. The thought was sacrilegious.
  • Another one that haunted me for years was when I finally earned my Second Class badge in the scouts. I was a Tenderfoot, in some countries Third Class, for the longest time of anyone in my scout troop and, who knows, maybe in the history of scouting. At the ceremony I was given the prized neckerchief and clasp. Being awkward and perhaps unprepared, I didn know what to do with the clasp and kept it in my hand as I attempted to shake hands with the dignitaries present at the podium. I still remember the look of disgust on the face of Father Jean, the stern French-born pastor, as I attempted to shake hands with the clasp awkwardly between our hands, almost like one of those practical joke joy buzzers.
  • Then there are the innumerable times at which I have given answers to superiors that have left me looking either stupid, or plain uninteresting or simply unimaginative. Three seconds outside their door the brilliant response would flood into my brain. Too late. Years of too-lates, I suspect, kept me from becoming James Reston.
OK, so I beat myself up a tad too much. I know. I hated the shivers. I taught those who knew about them to ignore them and let them pass; eventually I learned to hide them.

Several years ago, the shivers finally went away. Well, not exactly. I reasoned them away.

I relaxed and told myself that the moments were not that shameful, or if they were, no one was going to arrest me for them; in fact, no one knew about them but me. I bet Father Jean would not have known what I was talking about if I shared my recollection the scout ceremony.

The point is I haven had them for years.

Then, yesterday at lunch, I found myself running through one after another after another, almost like an uncontainable multiple orgasm of shame, embarrassment and regret.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Save Our Souls

The soul, known in antiquity as anima (Latin) or psyche (Greek), is an imaginary abstraction meant to enfold all that the ancients did not know about human behavior and the psychosomatic functioning of the body. The international nautical distress call, SOS (Save Our Souls), is a modern figurative expression of traditional thinking on something that does not exist.

This, I have realized, is much more important and far easier to demonstrate, than whether there is a god.

While I do not know the science in any technical sense, I have had enough experience with pharmaceutical end-products to convince me that everything I have always thought as uniquely individual and metaphysical within me simply does not exist. I am merely an animated biochemical object that has developed certain properties, such as speech and "thinking," as a result of evolutionary pressures and random happenstance.

That human beings cannot replicate me, cannot fully control the psyche -- indeed, cannot offer me or anyone else the definitive psychological silver bullet in a pill -- is merely a reflection of the limitations, imperfections and underdevelopment of human properties.

The soul does not exist.

Everything you and I feel is, the ancient Greeks put it, a "state of the liver." Everything you and I want and desire is the result of a mixture of genetic coding and social influences.

All thought, all religion, all philosophy, even this blog, amounts to nothing more than the output of a complex biochemical mechanism we do not yet fully understand, but we are learning to influence biochemically.

The will is not free, it is a set of impulses directed by the double influence of nature and nurture. I have wasted my time with ethics: at the core, we are not moral agents.

The soul does not exist.

The music we like and the films we enjoy, the prayers we have uttered with fervor, the love we have soaked in and the utter, weightless, immaterial happiness we have experienced from time to time, all these are mirages, shadows in the cave. Nonexistent.

Of course, the same is true of our dislikes and fears and even loathing. One day there will be a pill to cure them. One day there will be a pill to make us all behave in a way that is best for us collectively -- at least according to those who have power.

The soul does not exist.

We have no need to save what doesn't exist. We will cease to exist, to have consciousness once our animating biochemical processes -- longhand for "life" -- grind to a halt.

Once you begin to look at the world from this perspective, the inanities and stupidities, the sheer greed and cruelty and selfishness of human beings, their destructiveness of everything around them, especially our own kind, makes eminent sense.

We are little different from dogs and cats. In reality. We are not intelligent and feeling and potentially moral. We are merely sentient in a somewhat more complex way.

The soul, if you insist, is merely a convention, a way of talking about seemingly ineffable things that appear to move us and within us, things that are really atoms and protons mating with one another.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Socrates to the Rescue

I made a huge mistake at work, involving a misunderstanding of economic research. I've been covering this for decades now and I still make beginner's mistakes. All I know is that I know nothing. Thank you, Socrates.

I feel I should stop blogging about grand things like the economy and foreign policy. No one cares, anyway, and who am I to say anything?

So instead I'll crawl back into my personal philosphical corner. No one cares about that, either, but I can at least clarify things to myself. I don't talk out loud; I write.

Don't Believe It's Over

Monday's "rally" bargain hunt on Wall Street is not the end of the economic crisis nor of the downturn, by any means, given that we are living in times of records beaten only in 1933.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Thinking Toward a New Economy

We're accustomed to thinking of money and possession as real, tangible things, when in reality both are imaginary. Until we face up to this and reconsider the implications, we will never be free of the lazy habits of mind that trap us all in our present economic predicament.

Money simply does not exist in and of itself. It doesn't have a fixed value. It doesn't represent anything.

Until 1971, true, all convertible currencies were ultimately backed by an international monetary system that rested on the U.S. dollar, which in turn was theoretically backed by 35 ounces of gold bullion. When Richard Nixon devalued the dollar, the international system put in its place a parallel purely symbolic unit, the Special Drawing Right, which was initially supposed to represent the theoretical value of US$ 1,00 = 0.888671 grams of fine gold.

Of course, the dollar value of gold (and conversely the gold value of dollars), is a moving target in actual living experience. There is no such thing as an SDR.

In brief, in and of itself, money is a fiction. We all work for and dream of and believe in (our national religion is really the worship of the dollar) something that, in reality, doesn't exist.

The second customary thought we must abandon is the notion of the right to possess. No one really owns anything.

Sure, if I go into your house and take your computer, you can call the cops, have me tried and put in jail. In theory, society gives you have the power of coercion to your computer as yours and not mine.

Note, however, that in some less safe neighborhoods, where cops are not in evidence, your chance to exercise your property claim is highly suspect. Everything belongs to whoever can seize it first and hold onto it by brute force.

The reality is that those who possess the most have access to the most powerful forms of coercion, from thugs to cops to the atomic bomb. They gain that access by convincing the thugs and cops and military to accept the fictional item known as money, in exchange for protection of their right to possess.

In fact, all of this is always temporary. Even the rich get feeble and die. We possess nothing, not even our bodies.

Everything that has happened in recent weeks on Wall Street and in the financial sector is merely the dawning of these two truths: money does not really exist and no one really owns anything.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Time to Rethink the Economic System

"We're all socialists now, comrade," blared the star columnist of Britain's Telegraph newspaper yesterday, mocking the precipitous fall of major banking institutions into government tutelage. Perhaps this is the way capitalism was destined to synthesize its contradictions into socialism, rather than what happened in 1917.

Here in the United States, as in Iceland and elsewhere, de facto nationalizations became the prevailing response to the present economic emergency -- with more apparently to come. Karl Marx certainly believed socialism would be the outgrowth of developed forms of capitalism.

The Leninist state need never have occurred, save for two things: the obduracy of Russian monarchic despotism and its industrialized Western capitalist backers, on one hand; and the backwardness of the nations that adopted it, on the other.

Much more natural is the bloodless, so far seamless movement this autumn with Fannie, Freddie and several European banks: a simple takeover by the only social institution financially able -- knock on wood -- to do so, the government.

Was the historic slump in Wall Street trading last week the plutocrats' reaction? Do they still think, despite their egregious failures that, as one trader put it, "capitalism ought to be allowed to work things out"?

Does anyone? Does anyone really expect that the "free market" (which is free only some) can resolve the allocation of resources needed to fulfill all of society's basic needs?

Think of a few of the most urgent needs looming in the United States alone: the retirement and aging of the huge baby boom generation, the growing underclass without access to health care, and the deteriorating physical infrastructure. Consider, in global terms, the pervasive conflicts abroad fed in large part by gross economic inequality and unimaginable suffering.

Can anyone really pretend that the free market on Wall Street is no more than a select garden club for a very tiny few, entirely disconnected from the real needs that exist in the nation and abroad?

Isn't it time to begin thinking of democratizing the economy, of enshrining economic rights on a par with the civic rights already in the U.S. Constitution? Shouldn't it be that just as every citizen is entitled to political equality in the eyes of the law, that every human being is entitled to the basic material conditions that make for a dignified life?

Americans are accustomed to dreaming of being rich, without bothering to think much of those outside their immediate family. Isn't it time we dreamed of living in a society where no one is poor?

Couldn't the Human Dream become the hope of shared freedom from want?

Thursday, October 09, 2008


In a random remark at a recent dinner, one person was being offered support for deciding not to work for a while with the justification that "you deserve time off." Ever since McDonald's told us via Barry Manilow, that "you deserve a break today," the American penchant for claiming right to care for No. 1 has taken off. But is it justified?

To deserve is to be worthy of, qualified for, or have a claim to a reward or punishment. Most of us eagerly claim rewards and just as enthusiastically decline punishment. What do we really deserve?

We cannot claim very much of who or what we are as our own individual merit. We did not choose, despite the pseudopatriots who are "proud to be American," to be born in the United States. We did not elect to be born to households with running water and electricity, a given educational and income level.

Much of who we are or have become is an accident of birth.

Then there's luck. Happening on an idea when a society was ready for it -- or not. Imagine being Nelson Mandela in 1964 and having the idea that apartheid should end. Yes, in the end (in the 1990s) he triumphed. But he could be forgiven for wondering where he had gone wrong as he languished in his prison cell in the interim. So should we ponder where luck has helped or hindered.

Finally, there is the matter of free will. Are we really free, or are we a mass of socially and genetically determined impulses that predictably propel us down a course marked for us before we were born?

Sure, as humans we claim "inalienable rights," meaning that our fellows may not deprive us of a fair share of resources and social "bandwidth." Yet, how do we really know that humans are inherently endowed with such rights and not, say, cats or bees or rocks?

In the end, it is very difficult to claim we deserve anything, good or bad.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Palin's WinKKK to AmeriKKKa

Remember where Ronald Reagan launched his 1980 general election presidential campaign? Philadelphia, Mississippi. Odd place to start, unless you were trying to wink to Southern racists that you were one of them, just as Sarah Palin is doing, to judge by the performance reported during her appearance at a Clearwater, Fla., rally.

There, while she launched a red-baiting false accusation against Barack Obama, and blamed "the media" for the fact that her campaign is losing traction, an African-American cameraman had racial epithets shouted at him, concluding with the order to "sit down, boy."

At another moment, as Palin declaimed her falsehoods, the crowd booed and someone called out "kill him," unquestionaby meaning to encourage an old-time lynching of Obama.

Palin did not criticize such taunts, any more than Reagan took time to honor the three civil rights workers murdered there by white supremacists in 1964. The murders were recalled in the film Mississippi Burning.

Indeed, just as Palin threw the red meat of political slurs at a black political candidate, Reagan told his audience in 1980 that "I believe in states' rights ... [I] believe we have distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended to be given in the Constitution to that federal establishment ...," promising to "restore to states and local governments the power that properly belongs to them."

We all know that "states rights" is Southern white racist code for bringing back the Confederacy and keeping out federal troops and the FBI from efforts to keep the South racially segregated and unequal.

Is there any mistaking Palin's egging on an ugly crowd representing the un-American worst and failing to curb enthusiasm for political murder for the lowest-common-denomination, hate-filled demogoguery it is?

I wish there were a way to strip Palin of U.S. citizenship. I wish there way a way to expel the South from the Union, or at a minimum, to reoccupy militarily the miscreant region again, back to the status it richly deserved in 1865 and from which it has yet to show recovery.

Palin and the South represents everything that is embarrassing and horrible in this country.

Let's hope it can be driven to a well-deserved, ignominious defeat in next month's presidential election. In the coming bad times, an administration of right-wing hatemongers could easily rip up what's left of the Bush-disregarded Constitution that represents the greatness of the United States.

Friday, October 03, 2008

The Palin Con

Someone I met on a train told me that Sarah Palin was up to something: the Katie Couric interview and all her other flubs were just a way to lower expectations for her debate against Joe Biden. When the time came, my conspiracy theorist proposed, Palin would spout Hillaryesque wonkery the likes of which we had never seen. Palin didn't quite manage to catch up to Hillary Clinton last night, but she showed herself to be a bit of a con artist: will the real Sarah Palin please stand up?

Despite her terminally cute act with Couric and her "aw, shucks" approach last night, Palin is not "average."

The Palins had a 2007 household income of $166,000, which put them in the top earning 10 % of all households. This year she is expected to make very close to $200,000 and we don't know what her husband will bring in.

She was a beauty queen, meaning that she was willing to exhibit her physical wares in exchange for money; but she is also a moralist, meaning that she has very definite opinions about what you and I should do behind closed doors. This puts her in a self-contradictory category best described in Slate as "sexy puritan."

But most of all, like George Bush, she is a dissembler. Like, Bush, a man born with a silver spoon and a keen mind who likes to pretend he is a hick, Palin likes to pretend to be a simpleminded "hockey mom" as part of her demagoguery.

In sum, Palin salvaged her political career by not behaving like a total idiot on national television in a controlled format that allowed her considerable latitude. However, the achievement is pyrrhic, as we now know that she is smarter, and probably a lot meaner, than she lets on.