Thursday, April 30, 2009

Preparing for Living

In advance of the coming economic bad news -- bank "stress test" results on Monday, unemployment on Friday -- allow me to ponder what is really happening at a level that affects all of us: a profound job insecurity that won't get better even when the so-called "macro" numbers look better.

Then allow me to bring up a comment by my friend and reader Luciano in response to my post of March 19: "Post-industrial production is production without labor. This means the END OF THE JOB. Repeat after me: The AGE OF THE JOB is past. The traditional 'job,' which has determined our consciousness for 300 years, is gone forever. The jobs now being lost will not come back. We don't need the workers anymore."

In technical principle, this has been possible for at least half a century. A relatively small -- and declining -- proportion of the population is needed to produce the materials essential to human dignity, such as food, clothing and shelter, much as was foreseen by John Maynard Keynes in his 1930 essay "Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren."

He saw the end of "the struggle for subsistence" in the then-unthinkable year of 2030. That struggle persists today largely due to disparities and injustices, but not actual need. We have and produce more than enough for everyone.

Confront the equity issue, however, and we come to the real future problem, also prophesied by Keynes:
... for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem-how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.

The strenuous purposeful money-makers may carry all of us along with them into the lap of economic abundance. But it will be those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes.
This is what today's children -- who will be young adults in 2030 -- should be learning: the art of life itself. This is education not merely to have a skill to make a living, but education to learn how to learn and live and grow, in harmony and fairness.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Ugly American as a Nunny Bunny

You know how when you notice something it's suddenly all around you? This is happening to me with international do-gooder women and their irretrievably imperious Ugly American attitudes.

One of them is a nun who writes an innocent enough blog, La Paz de Susan. What could be wrong with that? Plenty. Sister Susan jetsets back and forth from El Salvador to the States and lives in obvious luxurious digs with a complement of paid guards. A Poor Claire she is not. There's more.

She has gone to help the benighted Salvadorans delivering volunteer health care. But she hasn't bothered to learn the language beforehand. Oh, how "cute" she is speaking pidgin Spanish! Salvadorans who mess up her name or make some other mistake concerning her status are ridiculously silly and subject to mockery.

Of course, being a Catholic nun she's not above the occasional fund-raising scam based on -- wait for it! -- a needy child. And let's not forget to post the picture of the woman with the basket on her head to delight the folks back home with a picture of the "natives."

Reading her blog I have no doubt why the Salvadoran military men knew they could murder four American religious women in 1980 with impunity. Without a doubt, these insufferable, self-absorbed dogooders have no clue as to their surroundings.

All they want is to feel good allegedly helping the poor subhumans.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Education for the Future

As I continue to outline details of my "revolutionary manifesto," this time I'll focus on education policy. If you're a regular reader  have written some of the basics about this before (see here).

What is there to do, in addition to federalizing education, consolidating bureaucracies, connecting  educational schools to work preparation, putting all university students in education service for at least a year and coordinating education with public assistance programs? Lots.

Let's merge private and public education so that everybody has the same stake in the same system. And let's fund schools by population, not political clout or wealth.

Let's establish one national curriculum designed for a world power, not a county fair. It's incredible that Americans who have supposedly been educated cannot place a substantial number of countries on the map, nor recognize an amendment of the Constitution, nor speak a foreign language with at least passable fluency!

To rid the system of its deadwood, let's establish an exit career track for educators at 5, 10, 15, 20 years of service. Most teachers who can't teach won't leave because there is nowhere to go with a teaching credential.

Similarly, let's liberalize credentialling to allow people who actually know and have experience at something useful to share their expertise with young people, even if they don't speak pedagoguese.

Let's replace unions, which are more suitable for industrial settings, with professional societies that promote excellence in exchange for salary and job security.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Reversal as a Path to Understanding

In e-mail discussions with a correspondent in another country, I have hit upon a method of bridging deeply embedded biases of largely cultural origin that I thought I would share with the world. It's very simple: switch sides.

What if people were able to do this, gaining similar insights as we did, along a whole variety of issues? What if we held a debate at some hallowed hall of Harvard or Yale in which
  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued for the illegitimacy of the State of Israel and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defended the right of Israel to exist?
  • Barack Obama were to spout the anti-liberal rhetoric, while Rush Limbaugh took up the defense of every position of the Obama Administration?
  • Richard Dawkins were to be an apologist for Catholicism and Joseph Ratzinger, the pope, to rant about the likely nonexistence of any deity?
  • Gloria Steinem were to defend the traditional roles of women, while Phyllis Schlafly were to defend feminist single moms having everything including a cracked job ceiling?
I really think this is a kind of solution to handle disagreements. You learn that everything the other guy is saying is not complete and absolute bunk, but also that your own position has its weaknesses. You also see how you might espouse the other view given a different personal history and culture.

Role reversal is a technique I intend to continue to use in all my interactions whenever conflict arises. I really believe in it.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

1001 Airheads

Left over from my post with a notable lack of glückenfreude (see 1000 Readers) is the still broiling issue of why our culture is awash with semi-literate nonsense. It wasn't so much that so many are craven enough to click elsewhere, but that elsewhere is so low brow.

One would prefer to be bested by Paul Krugman or Robert Reich or Maureen Dowd.

One of my favorite professors in college, a Canadian author of short fiction whom the fickle goddess Pheme has so far undeservedly passed over, was fond of regaling the dozen of us in his short story seminar with a wide range of intensely memorable stories and vignettes from his life. It was, I suppose, a way of teaching us how to tell a story.

This included the one about the former student who, dropping by his office, declared that he was "into a new kind of reading." Intrigued, my prof asked what, assuming perhaps that the young man had discovered the then-hot Donald Barthelme. The answer, my prof said, amid gales of laughter that forced him to repeat himself so we could make out the words, was TV Guide.

Indeed, I later learned, when circulation and subscription figures became of professional interest, that TV Guide used to have tens of millions of readers and still garners 3.2 million. In contrast, Newsweek has a circulation of 2.7 million and the magazine I would have died to see my byline in, The New Yorker, only 164,000.

So, what's with that?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Tax All Inheritance 100%

This is my all-time favorite show-stopping plank. Everybody thinks of their darling orphaned children, little realizing that even in the land of Horatio Alger, it still takes on average five generations for someone who is poor to become rich or the less-desirable reverse.

American economic mobility is not what most people think. The streets of America aren't paved with gold. Indeed, they never were.

As we all, know, the United States arose because a group of wealthy bewigged landowners and businessmen was too cheap to pay taxes for the defense of their holdings from Indians. Just as they and their heirs have been to cheap to pay for slaves, indentured servants, industrial workers and everyone else who made their fortunes possible.

Why not, then, abolish all inheritance, plow it into a common pot from which the biblical widow and orphan shall be provided for generously and well? What we could fund with the fortunes of the 400 richest Americans, who had a combined net worth of $1.57 trillion in 2004 (or $3.9 billion on average)! And that's just the tippy top.

Imagine a wisely husbanded fund of several trillions devoted to care for all parentless children and all surviving companions unable to work. Imagine returning the 80 percent of all assets, owned by only 20 percent of the people, to 100 percent of the people. Imagine sharing.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

What's Progressive About it?

The comments on my last post about progressive taxation suggest that I should have made myself a lot clearer about what was I proposing -- and spelled out what other options there are. In brief, I suggested we return to a graduated set of tax rates that levy a higher proportion of income from those who earn more and a lesser share from those who earn less.

This is "progressive" in a very simple, mechanical way: the rates progressively get higher, according to income. This has been the basic framework of U.S. taxation of income since the Supreme Court declared such levies constitutional in 1913.

Taxes became ever more progressive and leaned ever heavier on the upper income strata from Presidents Franklin Roosevelt to Carter, then reversed under Reagan and under the second Bush -- both of whom cut the upper tax rates sizably (to benefit the wealthy), as I mentioned in my post.

There have also been "regressive" forms of taxation. The most common one is the sales tax: everybody who buys X pays a certain percentage of the price. This is regressive because it ignores the disparity in ability to pay. Rich people buying X pay a smaller proportion of their income in sales taxes, while poor people pay a higher proportion -- so even both pay the same amount of money, it hurts richer consumers less than it hurts poorer one.

In the 1996 and 2000 presidential elections, Steve Forbes proposed a modified version of the "flat tax," a levy of 17% on all personal and corporate earned income above $33,000. This is the sales tax principle applied to income.

Like sales tax, it is regressive -- otherwise you can bet your sweet patooties that Forbes, now publisher of the eponymous business magazine, would not have proposed it. This would have meant that folks paying the lowest tax rate at the time, 15%, would have experienced a tax increase, while those paying at the highest rate, then 39.6%, would have had their taxes cut by more than half!

And it would have bankrupt the government faster than you can say "George W. Bush" or "Ronald Reagan." Guess who wins there? Those who have big incomes and don't need anything from government, except the occasional war on which to make profits.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Let's Return to Progressive Taxation

People who hate taxes and hate government must hate roads and schools and libraries and police and courts, not to mention certified foods and medicines and a whole host of other hallmarks of a civilized society today. The issue is not whither taxes, but whither unfair taxes.

From the 1930s until the 1980s, the United States had a progressive tax system that did a mildly good job of undoing the vast shift toward income and wealth inequality of the late 19th century through the 1920s. Under that great red revolutionary, Dwight David Eisenhower, the top marginal tax rate was 92%.

So why does the political marketplace of ideas accept as dogma that anything worse than Reagan and Bush rates of 28% and 35% are sacrosanct? Why should there be just three rates topping at little more than a third, when the revenue they produce simply fails to pay for a good health care and retirement system for all (not to mention the odd war our country must somehow always be fighting)?

Given that 20% of the people own 80% of the nation's assets, shouldn't they who are more able, contribute substantially more to a society that has made their riches possible?

These are rhetorical questions. President Obama (how nice that still sounds ...!) is being overly timid in suggesting that rates merely return to President Clinton's 39.6%. That's not how a changed America will come about.

(By popular acclaim, I am returning to my clarifications concerning the revolutionary agenda I proposed, which I admit was never my wholly original idea. In the next few posts I shall be attempting to review the points in greater detail.)

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The Tabloidization of Michelle Obama

Just as Condoleezza Rice made a splash in Europe with her boots, MIchelle Obama is making a news with bare arms and -- gasp! the salts! -- hugging a queen. Obviously, Rice had fun amid her prevarications about Iraq and Obama decided to play with the hand she was dealt.

Does anyone remember what Rice, no dummy by any standard, had substantively to say and how she fell short of her oath of office? Has anyone remembered that Obama -- who did not run and was not elected -- is a lawyer with training and experience every bit as rigorous as her husband?

Why are people discussing Obama's looks and manners when the world is beyond the brink of disaster?

Perhaps it is that the powers that be, who own the "news" media, don't want anyone to be thinking, lest they realize how badly they have been shafted. Perhaps we are all too lazy or lobotomized to rub those two brain cells we've got left.

The G-20 meeting was important but essentially secret. Why was there no questioning of how come those democratically elected heads of governments were keeping secrets from their electorates?

We, the public, owe it to ourselves not to feed on lazy, tabloid journalism.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Snowball in April

A friend suggested that it would begin to happen more frequently now. My parents died more than a decade ago and surely they would have been dead by now if they hadn't. A very close friend's older sister just died. Now a school classmate has cancer and is undergoing chemo.

For the first time in my life, I'm older than the president. My father died "young" and I will soon be older than he was at the time. Then what?

I've been at the top of the hill for a while now and I'm beginning to feel that that plateau in which one is at one's prime is running out. All I can say is that I wish myself and my contemporaries a swift and painless death, whenever it comes.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Getting No Better Than Anyone Else

One of my favorite Beatles songs was always "Getting Better All the Time." You remember the song? No? Well here are my favorite verses:
I've got to admit it's getting better, better
A little better all the time, it can't get no worse
I have to admit it's getting better, better
It's getting better since you've been mine

Me used to be angry young man
Me hiding me head in the sand
You gave me the word, I finally heard
I'm doing the best that I can
Let me do a little twist on that.

In the manner of Dante, I spent years consigning my deceased father to the deepest circles of hell for having abandoning my mother and me when I was a child. In the end, although I haven't copied the history and I am a distinct person, I realize I'm not much better than my father.

And that's what I really call getting better.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

1000 Readers

Call it sour grapes, dyspepsia or mere grumpiness, but I was flabbergasted to learn that a blog whose name itself is a bit edgy has 1,000 Google Reader subscribers (actually it's 1,136). This one has a mere 10.

OK, so there are other forms of subscribing to my blog, but even if I add up all those, this blog is still woefully out of the ballpark. That's not the point.

Here I go, offering insights into the way our politics and economics work and intertwine, trying to sort out philosophical questions, attempting the odd poem. I am offering pensées. My friends and a few new cyberacquaintances pop in now and then. Maybe 2 leave a comment.

But "Black Hockey Jesus," the blogger of the site noted above, posts an invitation to join his "cult" and posts something titled Suicidal Jesus, which -- yes, yes, yes -- is wickedly funny, and he gets 60 comments.

What's wrong with this picture?