Saturday, August 29, 2009

The End of Liberalism?

The fanfare around Ted Kennedy's death is linked to the demise of U.S. political liberalism, even though liberalism died between the presidential elections of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Liberalism could be declared dead by 1973, when the doubling of worker incomes since 1946 turned into a wage stagnation that has yet to end. On Saturday, August 29, 2009, liberalism was merely given its long overdue burial.

"Liberalism" was an American weasel term to avoid being called -- the salts! -- Red. In Europe, "liberalism" was understood as the ideology of the wealthy class spawned by the industrial revolution. They believed free markets should be unfettered, or liberated (hence "liberal"), from government intervention. We in the United States call that view "conservatism."

U.S. liberalism was originally an unorthodox alliance between the political machine of a New York governor from a patrician family of extremely deep pockets and the unions, the Catholic sons of immigrants and even "the Negroes" (where allowed to vote). I'm talking, of course, of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a man praiseworthy -- as Ted Kennedy is not -- for having transcended his upbringing and class destiny. His New Deal wove a threadbare safety net for the average citizen, without risk to a single mansion or trust fund.

President Kennedy drew on that coalition, which mistrusted him for good reason, to win election in 1960. Accidental President Lyndon Johnson, himself from a background close to those lifted from poverty by the New Deal but still without an upward socioeconomic ladder by the 1960s, expanded the New Deal into some, but not all, of its logical consequences.

The War on Poverty was a resounding success: poverty dropped in Johnson's one term from 19.0 percent to 12.1 percent -- nearly 7 percentage points down between 1964 and 1968, a record never equalled since (the 2007 poverty rate was 12.5 percent).

All the political battles since 1929 have been about whether to distribute the fruits of labor among the many who work or among the few who live off the profits. Liberalism had been moderately on the side of the many, while conservatism remains quite rabidly for the few.

Conservatism, of course, has successfully cultivated smokescreen "social issues" such as identity politics (whites vs. blacks vs. gays vs. women, etc.) and fundamentalist-leaning morality (abortion, family values, heterosexual marriage, etc.) to hide the elite's real economic agenda. But that's a whole other post.

The problem with U.S. liberalism is that it ultimately amounted to little more than noblesse oblige, political charity dispensed from limousines. The unions were co-opted -- and forcibly purged of "Reds" -- by the pressure and deals of the big oligopolies of the 1940s and 50s, which turned union leaders into domesticated members of the American managerial class.

The liberals purportedly believed that workers could get their fair share under their moderate reforms of the rapacious system we know as capitalism. But their gradualism led to gradual deterioration. In 2006 the average workers' inflation-adjusted wages were 22 percent below that of their peers in 1973. As noted at the outset, in 1973, they had been 200 percent (or double) what they were in 1946 -- same wages, same inflation adjustments.

The debacle occurred on the watch of Ted Kennedy and Chris Dodd and all the old liberal dinosaurs who still think it's 1965 and thought it was 1965 when Reagan won and still thought it was 1965 when the Republicans took Congress, thanks to liberal spinelessness, in 1994.

Liberalism is dead. Is the new, still unveiling, Obama paradigm up to the task the dying liberal elders flubbed? Or is it merely the same old liberal Kool-Aid with different food colors?

Friday, August 28, 2009

Three Headlines on Ted Kennedy

No wonder folks are awash in Kennedy bathos. Washington Post Aug. 27 front page headline: "End of an American Epoch." Washington Times: "End of Camelot." New York Times: "Senator Kennedy, Battle Lost, Is Hailed as Leader." Respectively, self-referential pop history, Camelot amnesia and, finally, from the Gray Lady, a measured, dignified and even poetic banner that declined to canonize.

The important point made by the Times -- the real Times not the Moonie rag -- is that journalism is about what others say and do, not what journalists think. Ted Kennedy said a lot, but toting up his record, he accomplished extremely little, particularly if balanced against what he received.

It is appropriate to report that others -- mostly politicians desperate for a sound bite -- are the ones drooling about the younger Kennedy. Notice the absence of hard facts in all the praise? No? Well, The New York Times' headline reports it. Take note.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Fast Eddie Kicks the Bucket

Faster than you can say "Chappaquiddick," President Obama has called the newly dead Edward M. Kennedy "the greatest United States Senator of our time.” I stood silent during the absurd, post-mortem lionization of Michael Jackson and fond memories of fluffed hair queen Farrah Fawcett. But I won't stand for the second Kennedy apotheosis in a month -- this one completely undeserved.

I am not a Kennedy hater and I agree with most of the positions adopted by the dead senator. I revered Jack and Bobby. But Teddy, whose life amply demonstrates he should have been nicknamed Fast Eddie, was unquestionably the "bad seed."

Unlike Eunice Kennedy Shriver, kindly rich lady that she was, her brother Edward disappointed only those who expected him to deliver at least as much as he received. After all, Ted Kennedy was born with a silver spoon and delivered a life of dishonest posturing. Then again, that silver spoon had been forged from the Wall Street and Prohibition Era shenanigans of his none-too-saintly father.

The storied double dealing of patriarch Joe Kennedy wasn't Ted Kennedy's fault. Not like his cheating on a Spanish exam at Harvard. Not like Chappaquiddick.

The man now being eulogized as a great liberal allowed the minimum wage to sink below the poverty line. He failed to join forces with Jimmy Carter to prevent the election of Ronald Reagan and to help pass health reform in the 1990s.

Kennedy claimed to be a Catholic, yet after driving a good woman to drink and divorce, he emulated the darkest side of Camelot, finally squiring another divorced Catholic.

Is there anything for which Edward M. Kennedy said he stood that he didn't betray? Is there anything he actually achieved?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Sebelius Is Not Essential

If Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius really meant that a public insurance plan is "not the essential element," then what is reform for? Is President Obama really going to choose between abandoning either 17 million people (House bill) or 36 million people (Senate bill)? Given that the president has plainly agreed that a single-payer plan is the only way to cover everyone: why isn't he simply upping the ante and putting that on the table?

Because, for all the huffing and puffing and all the misspent millions by insurance, pharma and "health care providers" (that's a good one!), all the town hall meeting disruptions put together don't amount to a hill of beans. Just because some cranky, ignoramuses let themselves be fooled by the first snake-oil sales pitch the gougers lobby can throw at them, it doesn't mean they've won.

Democracy isn't about who screams the loudest nonsense.

Indeed, the health gougers have been using every anti-democratic tactic in the totalitarian playbook, contrary to the blathering of Big Lie artists on wacko right-wing radio and Fox television. Go back and look at how the dictators of the 1930s climbed to power and you'll see screaming white young men with short haircuts chanting "USA! USA! USA!" (only back then it was "Sieg Heil!").

All right, maybe Sebelius can be excused her weak knees because she was not on the campaign trail with Obama in 2008, when I distinctly remember being promised "change." Maybe she's the "fall guy," to use Chicago Mafioso talk, which seems appropriate given the high level of corruption involved in this whole pseudo-debate.

Let's not weasel out of campaign promises and go for the most expedient route, the one that helps people the least. Let's show some guts here and call the bluff of the Republicans and the health-industrial complex.

Don't want a moderate reform plan? Fine, let's create the U.S. National Health Service. Something modern and serviceable, such as I observed while living in Canada and the United Kingdom, that replaces everything that exists now.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

What for?

An endless avenue of years
stretch before me:
bus, coffee, newspaper,
do, done, plan to do again
lunch on diet, lunch on wine
work and wonder
bus, kids, wife
then a book to curl around
at day's end; at week's end
books and movies,
baseball games and dinner feasts,
a trip when there's an itch.
Dear me, what for?

It will happen over and again:
Christmas tree and Lenten ashes
fireworks and All Hallows' masks,
sunshine or rain; house, office, and bus
fend off my lust,
my fear of nakedness, of pain ...
to be poor, lonely, old,
to grow weak and hear my body ceasing
to obey
all that can happen, all I dread,
some of it will come before I am dead.
Then I will ask my inner self: whatever for?

Once I thought
I was made so love could shine in winter
so God could be man again
to bless the creatures;
but that feature played to mixed reviews
that coin's been wasted on the beggarwoman
the preacherman's "Jeezus" is a broken record
and the creatures do not tell me what they want
nor can I guess, were I able to fulfill their dreams ...

Before all pleasure turns to rust
my desire pilfered from some others
as theirs is drawn from me till ennui,
I may yet ask the beggarwoman
what have I to give a life
simply to die each day,
to lie undead ...
or what else, and what for?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Writer's Blog

Rummaging through drawers I never go into, I found a couple of short stories I wrote in the 1980s that -- if I say so my fictionally unpublished self -- aren't bad. Why could I never convince a fiction editor to publish anything I wrote? I've had "faction" published in major newspapers all over the world -- well, in a few countries.

Recently I submitted a short story I had posted here. Had to take it down for that reason. Nothing. Maybe I misclassified it as a short, rather than a short story. Maybe I didn't sleep with the right people. Maybe it was lousy.

At one point long ago, when my writing was still unforgivably juvenile, I did send out a whole rafter of stories out. I had a file full of rejection letters, which I think I've since thrown out. I even composed a "form" rejection reply: "I regret that I am not able to reply to your rejection letter personally, but given the volume I receive, it is impractical. Thanks anyway for the opportunity to review yours."

By that time, I had given up submitting stories and thrown away two "novels," an act that probably did the most that was ever done in the 20th century to rescue western civilization -- which, as Gandhi noted, would have been a genial idea.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Socrates in Chicago Debating Health Care

(The following is an dialogue written in the style of Xenophon, between a wonkish Washingtonian, whom I'll call Socrates, and a citizen from the U.S. heartland, whom I will call Critobulus, after the dialogue figure in the famous work Oeconomicus, regarded as one of the earliest works on economics. The proper title for this dialogue should be Oeconomicus Sanitatis, but I thought the Latin would scare people away.)

INTERLOCUTORS: Socrates and Critobulus

PLACE: Grant Park, Chicago

CRITOBULUS: Ah, so it goes, my friend: politics as usual. I don’t know why a person would continue to fight a losing battle. Money is what makes things happen not altruism.

SOCRATES: That's right. Abdicate. We can use fewer nay-sayers in the fight.

CRITOBULUS: Well, food, shelter, and clothing are more important than health care. One can get along for substantial periods of time without health care services, but one cannot survive for long without food, shelter, and clothing. Given this plain fact, why don’t the proponents of "free" universal health care demand "free" food, shelter and clothing?

In other words, if a citizen, just in virtue of being a citizen, has a right to health care, why doesn’t the same citizen have the right to what is more fundamental, namely, food, shelter and clothing?”

SOCRATES: You think human beings don't have an inherent right to these? Is it all right if I take them away from you, then?

CRITOBULUS: You have no more right to take them away from me than you have a requirement to give them to me. But "inherent right"? As in, because I’m a human being others are required to see that I have these things?

SOCRATES: Inherent right. If you don't have an inherent right to food, shelter and clothing, then no one has a right to exist. Everyone may be killed, tortured, stolen from, raped, anything you want.

What did you think was meant by "We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness"?

CRITOBULUS: Right. “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” but not free food, free shelter, free health care and whatever else the government comes up with. Food, shelter and health care is not the responsibility of the federal government.

SOCRATES: What do you think sustains "life"? People can live without food and shelter and other essentials? Can you?

CRITOBULUS: What am I supposed to answer? That, no, I don’t need food to live? I wish that it were so. But does that mean than someone has the responsibility to feed me?

SOCRATES: Well, if you need these things to live and you have a right to life, then there is an inherent right to food, shelter and other essentials of life, isn't there? Are we agreed on this?

CRITOBULUS: We are in agreement that it is essential to have food and shelter in order to live.

SOCRATES: The proposition is "There is an inherent right to food, shelter and other essentials of life." Agree or disagree?

CRITOBULUS: Oh, all right. Agree.

SOCRATES: So, then, do children procure their own food, shelter and essentials, say, when they are one year old?


SOCRATES: So, if they have an inherent right to the essentials of life, someone must procure that for them. Right?


SOCRATES: Who should that someone be?

CRITOBULUS: His or her parents.

SOCRATES: What if the parents are unemployed, disabled, sick or dead?

CRITOBULUS: Then grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, cousins.

SOCRATES: What if things are so bad that none of them has any time or resources to spare?

CRITOBULUS: Well, the community.

SOCRATES: What if the community is poor or unable or even unwilling?

CRITOBULUS: Then the State.

SOCRATES: OK, so assuming that by "the State" you do not mean Montana or Maryland, but government in general, you will also agree that a similar chain of responsibility exists with respect to the elderly and the infirm, right?

CRITOBULUS: By “State” I did mean Montana. Montana takes care of their residents; Maryland takes care of theirs.

SOCRATES: Conceptually there is no difference. They are simply different levels of government. Distinctions between states and the federal government are almost entirely artificial.

Functionally, it is very difficult to separate the states and the federal government or distinguish between them. All states have tripartite government, agencies modeled after the federal, constitutions similar to the federal, etc., etc. If you had a Kingdom of Montana and a Grand Duchy of Wyoming and a Soviet Republic of Idaho, well, that might be somewhat different. But they all function on basically the same Lockean theory of government.

CRITOBULUS: OK. The state, in general. And I see the same chain of responsibility for the elderly and infirm.

SOCRATES: So what about people who are laid off? Or towns in which a plant that is the main industry, after the plant closes? Should government help them make sure they have the necessities of life?

CRITOBULUS: I think the idea of unemployment insurance is good if it’s used as it was intended. In other words: a means of seeing someone thru an in-between-jobs length of time. I don’t think a differentiation should be made between layoffs of large employers and small employers.

At the same time, people have to get back in touch with the idea that you don’t spend everything you make as soon as you make it. I don’t know how that can be accomplished if they always have someone to bail them out. I know this isn’t an option for people making minimum wage but it is an option for more people than seem to be using it.

SOCRATES: OK, but in principle, you've agreed that a rather large proportion of the population should get government for the necessities of life. Is there any reason this should not be extended to all citizens who need such help?

CRITOBULUS: It would be ideal if everyone who needed help received it and received it in the amount that they truly needed and in a manner that didn’t undermine their self worth.

SOCRATES: OK, then, we have agreed that, provided it is financially feasible and done well, there ought to be a system of social insurance and health to make sure that everyone has the necessities of life.

CRITOBULUS: I don’t think I would go that far. Health care doesn’t have to be insurance, does it? In other words, I don’t think the heath care business would be in the shape it’s in, if insurance hadn’t been involved. Insurance was supposed to be a "gamble." They gamble that you won’t need it, you gamble that you will. It wasn’t supposed to be they win if you don’t use it and they win if you do, because they get to jack up the premium.

SOCRATES: In this context, "social insurance" not insurance in its everyday sense.

I'm speaking of a system, or set of programs. In this framework, the risks that one might not be able to obtain the essentials of life are transferred from the individual or household to society. The resources needed to face the risk is pooled by society, though the government. After all, in a republic, the government is the holder of public goods and resources.

The result is that, when any person faces circumstances that prevent him or her from obtaining the essentials of life, society would rush in to the rescue. A single-payer health plan, for example, might be one component. Unemployment compensation would be another, and so on.

CRITOBULUS: That sounds good. Until the end-of-life decisions need to be made. Who says when? Who says this much treatment and no more? Would I rather have the government make that decision or make it myself within whatever means I can finagle? And I guess it boils down to how much trust do I want to place in the government.

SOCRATES: The question in political philosophy is what the proper role of government is. We've agreed, with the framers of the U.S. Constitution, that government is properly involved in the general welfare of the people, particularly when people can't do so themselves. No one should have to face the choice between good health and food or rent.

Saturday, August 01, 2009


For several years now, I've been noticing a phenomenon in the United States that didn't exist 30 years ago, when the purportedly work-ethic conservatives first got naked power. It's something called Ferragosto in Italy, or the closing down of nearly everything, traditionally in the middle of August, now extended throughout western Europe to the whole month.

One notices it in Washington when Congress gets ready to leave town for the month-long vacation no one else in the USA gets. No one, except the W Administration, of all the administrations I've watched clearly the laziest by far; they were major ferragostans.

Ferragosto comes from Feriae Augusti, or Feast of Augustus, as a fertility season of revelry and rest. It later was christianized to the 15th of August, feast of the Assumption of Mary (Catholic) or Dormition of the Theotokos (Orthodox), a religious holiday celebrated in the Early Church.

This is not merely a Mediterranean custom any more. Germans, the French and the Brits slow down to a crawl and, if they can afford it, fly off to Mayorca and the Spanish Costa del Sol.

Americans always used to work year-round, especially in the cities. New York City not only never sleeps, it never used to stop even in the genteel days without air-conditioning in which John Cheever wrote about life in the city.

No longer. Those who are not busy making or consuming methamphetamine in the once-great breadbasket of the central states -- and there aren't too many left who aren't -- are lazing in the sun or the mountains or in Europe or even unscrewing fire hydrants in the inner city.

Decline, like death, doesn't come with trumpets and the clanging of cymbals but with sopor in summer.