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Shit you couldn't make up
Rick Perry is taking a beating for calling Social Security a Ponzi scheme.
In 2005, I wrote:
I was, I admit, shocked to figure out years ago that Social Security is funded like a Ponzi scheme: the contributions that the latest members make are used to pay the earlier ones.
Perry is simultaneously right and wrong: he has hit, perhaps accidentally, on a truth, but its one that is unpalatable and May Not Be Said in American political discourse. Since the people trumpeting it the loudest, like Perry, are those trying to destroy the American middle class, I have no issue when such truth-tellers take a punch in the nose. More than that, Perry is a mean man, an ignorant bully with no underlying commitment to truth. I hope he is forced out of the presidential race, with howls of execration, for this particular act of honesty.
I got invited and went, over Labor Day weekend. I would probably like myself a little better if I didn't even mention it here. (Great quote I heard there, attributed to Golda Meir (and not aimed at me): "Stop the humility! You're not that great!") But I'm too vain to pass over it. An embossed invitation arrived in the mail, which I almost threw away, as the seeminly endless round of weddings and bar mitzvahs in our two families has temporarily ceased. Someone anonymously recommended me, and I didn't know for what, as I've done a few different things (written a book? Worked on ambulances? Theater?). But it was probably for the Spectacle. I have placed myself so far outside the middle class and political norms that there was nobody there whom I expected to give me a job, invest in a business, or hire me to write something. One very rude man asked who I was, then visibly dismissed me as I answered as someone who could never help him, and turned away in mid-sentence. But it was particularly enjoyable to go without any expectations, as a fly on the wall, as the Spectacle guy. I got to ask a few questions I have long wanted to put to someone who may know the answer: How do you fix global warming without a world government? Is Afghanistan different than Vietnam? How do you reconcile Darwin with God, given his famous statement about the digger wasp? I also buttonholed everyone involved in the health care debate, to tell them what I pay for insurance, and that I just met a lot of lawyers who don't have it. Intellectually I completely belonged there, socially not so much, in my Kmart clothes, possibly the only person there who pays for health insurance out of pocket, drives a used Sonata, and buys the cheap cuts of chicken in the grocery.
Not much more I can say. Renaissance weekend is like Fight Club: the first rule is, you don't talk about it. I had a great time there, and what I learned will infuse articles here.
I may have a neurological deficit which keeps me from thinking of the social consequences of speech, a kind of Tourette's. Every day, people lose things they care about (most often, a political career, or a shot at a better job) when something is disclosed they said years ago, in another context. With employers now using the resources of the web to do a background check, that drunken Facebook rant may deny you the cool job you so badly wanted. Meanwhile, month after month, I write that George Bush is too stupid to be President, that Barack Obama is a disappointment, that Rick Perry is a bully, that Justices Scalia and Thomas have sold out to the billionaires, that Sarah Palin is a wing nut. I find it easier to live this way; as we say in Brooklyn, what's on my lung is on my tongue. I am not ashamed of anything, and at this late date I don't expect any job or role that could be denied me because of my opinions. No politician will ever hire me, I will never be a lawyer for a Senate committee or a prestigious nonprofit. I don't much care about that. I would have liked to file some more amicus briefs in my life, but it is probably not so great an idea after the things I have written here about particular serving justices. In the end, the only role I really care about: writing the Spectacle.
I think I have more freedom of speech than most people in America. The First Amendment grants no protection against nongovernmental interests, so you can legally be denied a job or fired from one, or nonviolently hounded from a neighborhood, by people in private life. Most of us (including no doubt the majority of those I met at Renaissance Weekend) are not really free to say everything on our minds. I have, and have loved doing so, since 1995.
We were badly frightened during Hurricane Irene. That was useful, as I spend entirely too much time thinking of myself as a courageous person able to handle any sort of disaster. However, knowing that a huge, powerful storm is headed your way is very intimidating, and the media hype ("severe" and "destructive" in every lede) magnified the anxiety. Our home in Amagansett is only a few hundred feet from the water, and the neighborhood where we were staying in Valley Stream was ordered to depart for higher ground, though we did not go. There was a strange moment, the day before, when I went from the scary prose on weather.com to the actual prediction (after searching two or three local zip codes) of fifty mile an hour winds. In Amagansett, we eat fifty mile an hour winds for breakfast and are still peckish afterwords. After the storm, I naively posted some exultatory, embarrassing free verse on Facebook ("who ricane? no ricane") only to receive a lecture from several "friends" about narcissism: the storm I was taunting had flooded the Catskills, Vermont and large parts of Jersey, and killed some people. They were right but wrong, like Rick Perry: ragging on people for being self involved and superficial on Facebook is like....well, never mind. It did make me think that it takes Facebook for me to write stuff I am actually embarassed about; so maybe I shouldn't be there.
The week before, there was the earthquake. I was in a room full of lawyers who felt it, but I did not. Sometime in the 1980's, we had a tremor which woke me with the impression a large truck passed by, but this one made no impression on me at all. They evacuated our building, which apparently is not the thing to do and caused Californians to feel very superior to us.
I am always fascinated when ads backfire. There is a campaign now for a product which claims that you will, if you eat it, experience "pudding face", turn into a psychotic-looking freak with a physically impossible wide grin. I would go miles out of my way to avoid anything which would transform me into that particular vision. In writing this, I realize that I also have no clue what the product is (Jello? Something else?) so the ads fail on a second front.
My favorite clueless ad was the mangy, dirty squirrels with scratchy voices in the ads Quiznos ran about a week. I would stay away from any establishment which might have creatures like that infesting the kitchen.
The Tea Party fades
I was intrigued by reports based on polling data that voters are turning against the Tea Party.
This is mainly good news but has some disturbing subtexts. The Tea Party does not present a viable alternative for a reasonable, stable American future; if its pious adherents such as Michele Bachman or Rand Paul ever came to power, we would face a world of grinding poverty and gross inequity. But its quick rise and fade, and the prevalence of polling data in our decision-making, underlines the fickleness of the public, the fearfulness of our politicians, and the near impossibility of getting anything meaningful done in an impulsive, thrashing political world. There is an argument that we need a steadier electorate, not one that throws out the party in power every two years.
The other issue is the extent to which this is all possibly being orchestrated. The old Republican right, taken by surprise by the Tea Party, is simply re-asserting its supremacy. It will co-opt whom it can, and discredit the rest. Politics the old fashioned way.
I noticed years ago that American conversation has only two modes, bragging and complaining. This column consists mainly of the latter, but this month I seem to be in a boastful mood. Since I have already sinned, let me make the most of it. Now that I have been publishing the Spectacle for seventeen years, I think my track record is fairly good. What I mean is that I have been out in front on issues and made some accurate predictions. I am not aware of having made any forecasts, or divined any trends, which were grossly incorrect.
Here are examples. In 1995, I was already focusing on the issue of Republican hate speech: "It is a shock when the standards of political discourse get rolled back, when first the impolite and disrespectful, then the racist, and finally the murderous become the order of the day. This is what is happening to us now--and the people who are revealing their real nature to us with this kind of speech are missing two important things. Substantively, they are missing compassion or even common sense. Procedurally, they are unaware that they must take responsibility for their words, that they--and their children-- will have to live in the world they are helping to create with their hateful words." The following year, I wrote about gay marriage, "I had the choice to marry or not, and chose to marry; and the sweetness of my marriage is not decreased if gay people also marry. To the contrary, as a human being I am rewarded if gay people also marry, because the stock of enduring love increases in the world." I also wrote of Ross Perot that year, "A billionaire president is just a damned bad idea. That much money warps people." As we invaded Iraq, I wrote, "I am very worried that we are leaping into a bloody adventure based on misplaced enthusiasm and bad information." (That last was an easy one; you don't need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.)
In the interests of balance, here are some statements I regret. I went over the top with an article called "'Interview with the Vampire' is the Real Pornography", and have been called to task by many vampires since. I still detest the morality of that movie and the book on which it is based, but should not have muddied the issue by calling it porn. More significantly, in the 1990's I was opposed (along with the ACLU) to regulation of campaign spending on free speech grounds. I think this was an honorably naive position, but the result has been the Citizens United case and the proliferation of anonymous attack ads sponsored by billionaires.
Israel continues to jump off a cliff, in very slow motion. It has alienated Turkey, once its most secure Islamic ally. Turkey, which is swinging away from the secular, has taken the moral high ground by offering to escort future ships to Gaza to test the Israeli blockade. Given the killing of unarmed passengers on a Turkish ship last time, for which Israel has not apologized, this is not a strange or disturbing pronouncement. Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, one of the most divisive and corrupt figures ever to assume high office in Israel, is reportedly studying ways to punish Turkey, perhaps by supporting Kurdish separatists. Why an Israeli government would ever put someone like Lieberman in the foreign ministry is beyond me--his hateful, divisive pronouncements over the years seem to preclude him from a job which should consist of relationship-building, especially in a dangerously isolated land surrounded by enemies.
He is the only "finalist" in the Republican race who is the least bit presidential: he isn't crazy. But he is also, like almost all politicians, amoral and opportunistic, taking positions in which he does not believe in order to win the nomination. The greatest spectacle of all is his attack on Obama's health care plan, given the largely similar one he superintended in Massachussetts. Since, at this late date, I still want to see President Obama re-elected, I don't know whether to hope for the Republicans to nominate an un-electable hick ideologue, or to be relieved that the process will pit two people against each other who are actually qualified for the job, which has not happened in most Presidential elections since I first voted at age 18 in 1972.
Later--I would love to think Romney will outfox his own party and then, once elected, prove to be a Rockefeller Republican (as he was at least in leading health care reform in Massachsueetts). More likely, he is simply one more benighted blowhard willing to make a deal with the devil to be President, like John McCain. Anyway, his head to head battles with Rick Perry are fascinating, a battle for the soul of the party: is it to be mean, ignorant and conservative, or intelligent, practical and conservative?
I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the FBI, to see if I had a file. This was partly an exercise in determining what kind of country this is; the idea being if that if someone like me--obnoxious but lawful--is on the agency's radar screen, we are in trouble. One of the lessons of the exercise was that, after spending hundreds of millions on failed automation projects, the agency is still paper-bound and decentralized. I had to send two requests, one to the New York field office, one to headquarters in Washington. In a surprisingly short time, a matter of a few weeks, I received an equivocal and confusing response, which I will print in full when I get my hands on it again (I am between three different residences now, and my papers are all over the place). As I understood it, it said that per the central index, there is no file on me now, but it appears there may have been material on me destroyed in the 1980's and after. This implies that publishing the Spectacle never attracted attention, but that my involvement leading antiwar demonstrations at my high school circa 1971 may have. I imagine the angry, immature principal of our school, or the malicious dean of boys, talking to the FBI about us, and shudder.
At Renaissance weekend, I was on a panel called "Developments in Our Field" and drew a complete blank in preparing for it: At this late date, what is my field? If I was invited because of the Spectacle, as I suspect, then my field is human life. I took the safe way out, deciding my field is freedom of speech, and prepared a three minute discourse on the "Citizen's United" decision. But the crisis of indecision underlined a feature of my own life: whenever I have gone too far vertically, as a software lawyer, software company executive, or nonfiction author, I have then gone off at right angles, with the result that my life has been largely horizontal. Temperamentally, I function better where I can observe and comment on a broad range of events, and look for analogies or actual linkages. The result has been, as the years go by, that I increasingly find myself tracing quite disparate problems to solitary causes. For example, the environmental, social, political and military problems about which I have written here for seventeen years all appear to spring from a selfishness and self-delusion which itself appears to be a by-product of the phenomenon I recently tagged "billionairism": the selfish and amoral principle that the world should be run by and for the benefit of the extremely wealthy, categorizing the rest of us as wannabes, tools and sheep, respectively.
Capitalism and its discontents
In looking for "backlinks" for last month's article on Class Warfare, I re-discovered a piece I wrote years ago called Compassionate Capitalism. Having since the real estate bubble burst, realized that Wall Street is nothing more than a succession of bubbles and slumps masked by lies, and most recently titled a piece The Failure of Free Markets, I had to remember something I still believe to be true: it isn't necessary, and it was avoidable, for billionaires to see the rest of us as tools and prey. There is a form of commerce in which the businessmen regard us as customers, to be pleased and impressed, or as worker-contributors, to be conserved and cared for so we remain productive. It wasn't pre-determined, fatally required, that the form of commerce we selected in America and the world today, would be the most rapacious and destructive kind, which despoils everything. The philiosophical battles over global warming are evocative: the billionaires have begun the final destruction of the planet much sooner than we imagined, and instead of jamming on the brakes so their children can continue living on it, are spending millions denying there is any connection between their activities and the melting icecap. This also shines a light on the fatal conflict within libertarianism, which is built on the false premise that the billionaires will behave rationally and carefully, and never engage in needless destruction or lies.
A personal history
One of the pleasures of writing the Spectacle has been relating the philosophical background to incidents and accidents in my own life. As I have mentioned, in order to pay my grossly burgeoning health insurance premiums, I took a job in the underworld of document review, in which lawyers who can't find better jobs sit for twelve to fifteen hours a day, often weekends as well, clicking away at terminals, sorting millions of documents into "responsive" and "unresponsive" virtual piles. It is mind-numbing work for a lawyer, has no security or benefits, and doesn't pay well enough for recent graduates to pay off their insane totals of student loans. It is a classic if somewhat gentler example of exploitive capitalism. There is no sense of the lawyers as a natural resource, to be conserved; one recently advertised project required six twelve hour days and a seventh partial day every week for one year. The converse is true, that if you burn out any particular sample of unemployed lawyers, there are thousands more thronging behind them looking for jobs.
Convenience store wars
There is a cursed restaurant space in the mall in Amagansett which has been empty more than ten years. Previously it was a Wylie's Ribs and then, briefly, a Chinese restaurant. In New York City, one becomes accustomed to these haunted storefronts which cannot bless any business, even when the ones next door are thriving. The mall has otherwise been stable, with an IGA chain supermarket, a fish store and a liquor store.
Recently, it was announced that the almost abandoned storefront would become a 7-11. I welcomed this because there has never been anyplace to buy a quart of milk after 8 p.m. in Amagansett (10 in the summer). We live seven miles from the nearest store, and unlike Manhattan, you can't get off the train and buy the makings of your breakfast at midnight. I also happen to like 7-11's, an institution which has become iconic for me because planted at the halfway point of our three hour drive from New York to Amagansett, and because it provided an outpost of cheer late at night during the lonely year and a half we spent on Sanibel Island. I think 7-11 sandwiches are fairly inventive and even relatively healthy (my favorite is the smoked turkey with jack cheese) and the brownie is excellent (I have a ritual of eating a brownie every Saturday).
Amagansett, unlike its neighbor Easthampton of which it forms a part politically, is a graveyard of stores, aside from the trio which have hung on for decades in the one mall. Brands like Coach come and go, barely hanging in for a few years and then withering away. You never see crowds there; everyone goes to the more glamorous town next door for upscale stuff, and into Montauk for bargains. A 7-11 would have brought a little life and activity to Amagansett. But the obscure powers that be didn't want that: First the over-priced IGA built an astonishing fence across the parking lot to make sure nobody who parked in front of the supermarket could walk to the 7-11. Then litigation or the threat thereof shut down the enterprise entirely, and the haunted storefront remains covered in burlap, undoubtedly to sit empty another decade. In the end, it was a battle of the $8 bunch of grapes against the $1.99 cup of grapes, and the former won. No convenience store for blue collar people and the modest middle class will be tolerated in Amagansett.
A box turtle
I saw a stunningly beautiful box turtle on the shoulder of Montauk Highway and pulled my car over. As I learned from several turtle related Yahoo lists, there is an ethical mandate when you rescue a turtle: you carry it across the highway and place it on the side it was trying to reach. You don't drive it to another woods you think is safer, and you certainly don't take it home as a pet. I carried this turtle a little further than that, over the train tracks on the other side, and about 50 yards into the woods. I couldn't bear the thought he might turn around and go back to be smashed by the cars. Early in life I fixed on box turtles as having special magic (if I went on a vision quest, I believe that's what I would see in my dream). I have seen possibly ten wild box turtles in my entire life, so they remain very rare and special. Once, in my favortite woods, on a rutted mud track, I was passed by some laughng boys in a Jeep, and a minute later found the unusually large and old box turtle they had deliberately erased with the tires of their car. I have a pet Carolina box turtle named Berryman who was a birthday gift in 1972, and as long as Berryman is all right, so am I. The strange turtle on the highway shoulder was very calm, and seemed to look me in the eye, as Berryman does but most wild turtles do not: I surmised he had been a pet for a while and was used to humans. But perhaps I anthropomorphized him. I set him down, we had a cheerful moment looking at one another, and then he went his way, deeper into the woods.
The Post Office
I feel like weeping for the United States Post Office, a benighted mixture of myth and hopes, depression and dysfunction. Never has one institution had such opposing cover stories: the centerpiece of community, represented by the two blue-uniformed employees, the smiling portly man pushing the unique wheeled mailbag, and the officious but basically kind and ethical spectacled postmistress behind the counter. The daily ritual across much of America, in which I participated during our years in Amagansett, of anchoring oneself by visiting the post office. In opposition was the image of the post office as the place where smart but strange people who couldn't fit in elsewhere go to work, and which even gave the phrase "going postal" to the language, after a certain number of them picked up guns and killed their co-workers. The epitome of the Post Office as cornerstone of the community, the benign face of government, was expressed in David Brin's cheerfully over the top dystopian novel "The Postman", in which a loner in uniform uses the lie of a restored Post Office as a means to make the false come true. Back in the real world, the dysfunction and depression have come to the fore at the realization that the Post Office is running a horrendous deficit, and that its purpose for existing is seriously in question in the world of email.
I have a friend in France whom I met in 1978. For about fifteen years after that, intriguing blue and white international envelopes would arrive twice a year, with tight scrawled handwriting, bringing news of her and family. Now emails come more often than that. I have another friend met in the seventies, a college professor of mine, who has the distinction of having sent me the most memorable letter I ever received: postmarked New Mexico, it spoke of horseback riding and power loci in the sky, and enclosed a piece of sagebrush. Now she lives in Germany, and we email one another. I can't remember the last time I received a personal letter from anybody, or even a postcard. For years the mail was the means by which I received and paid bills. Now I pay them all on the web and the mail has no purpose but to bring me junk.
Some 600,000 people work for the Post Office, and mail arguably has tied together remote agricultural communities who without it would become completely isolated from the mainstreams of American life. (But television and the Internet inevitably take over that role as well.) In a down economy, we should be thinking about ways to expand government employment, not decrease it--we need a new Roosevelt, a new Works Progress Administration. There is also the question of why any government institution needs to run at a profit--this perception is one more insidious and unchallenged assertion put across by the Tea Party types in their vampiric revenge crusade against government. However, the Post Office is not immune to the adverse hype, and needs an injection of vision and purpose; right now it has something of the aura of a bull which has been hit on the head with the hammer, but has not yet fallen down.
From an op ed about the suffering of models (seriously) in the September 15 Times:
The truth is that modeling epitomizes the kind of precarious job that, since the 1990's, has been spreading from the informal labor market into more traditionally secure workplaces, like the retail and service industries and my own occupational home, the university, where contracted adjunct instructors are replacing tenure-track professor lines.
Its worth quoting because the author phrases it better than I could. The temporary law world where I have been working recently is a prime example of this trend. Lawyers work as hard as temps as they did as young associates at law firms. Back then, the glittering prize was a partnership seven years out. Now, the prize is just to keep working, pay for rent and groceries and not sink out of existence.
I thought yesterday about the contrast between temp work and a "real" job. Tuesday I have an appointment with my cardiologist for a routine bi-annual check up which I will postpone indefinitely because I don't dare take any time off from my current assignment. In a real, relationship-based workplace of the kind I was formerly accustomed to, you would be entitled to a certain amount of sick time; and might, in principle, have a relationship of trust and confidence with your boss which would enable you to explain you needed to take a half day off for a doctor's appointment. Nothing like that exists in the temp world, where you are a commodity which can easily be replaced by other unemployed lawyers if you step out or lose focus for a moment.
The clouds of depression rising off people in the rooms where we sit at terminals, clicking away for ten to sixteen hours a day, is palpable. Some handle it through grim silence, and others through forced jollity, but it is universal. You have to be careful what you say in these rooms: when I told a story about a Long Island acquaintance who had solved his commute problem to Manhattan by staying in a single room occupancy (grim cheap surroundings one step up from a homeless shelter), one of the women in the room confessed to having done the same when she first came to New York. When someone mentioned that another temp lawyer working for our firm buys lottery tickets and sells shares in them to others, I was so taken by the sheer Gabriel Garcia Marquez-ness of this I was about to comment, but the faces of the others deterred me. Every lawyer doing this mind-numbing, endless work with no end in sight must dream of some kind of a windfall, an unexpected inheritance, the invention of an antigravity belt, the love of a wealthy person, the grant of a well-earned but vaguely termed humanitarian award for services you only dream you performed.
He gave a speech at Bob Jones University describing his early travails as an uncertain college student earning C's and D's, and as an Air Force officer finding God in his twenties. This would be a great back-story if it had inspired him to humility or tolerance, but instead he has arrived at the arrogance and meanness which is almost universal in his political class. His bragging about how Texans would treat Fed chairman Ben Bernanke if he visited, or (much more substantively) his ferocious stubbornness obtaining the execution not long ago of an innocent man convicted of arson based on junk science, are two hallmarks of his gross human inadequacy. There is also, and not in Texas alone, a gross mismatch between the bright Republican rhetoric about jobs and growth, and the miserable slipping down of the middle class everywhere which has been going on for decades under mainly Republican rule.
A slipping down life
I can't stress this last often enough. In New York, Governor Cuomo is hesitating about confronting the Republicans in the legislature to start constructing the health insurance exchange mandated for 2014. There was a photo in the Tiumes of some fresh-faced asshole from an upstate district, a Republican legislator quoted as saying that the Supreme Court may cancel "Obamacare" or we might have a new president in 2012, so why put any effort or money into enforcing the health care law? Meanwhile, I can barely hang on to my own health insurance, with premiums of $1300 a month which have sent me back to work as a legal temp, and almost nobody else in my world even has insurance. The exchanges, which are supposed to bring affordable care to the rest of us, are our only hope, there are tens of millions of us nationwide, and what is stunningly absent from the Republican rhetoric is any explanation of how we are to have health coverage (or even why we don't need it). Its as if we didn't exist.
A change in the rhetoric
John Boehner wrote a letter to the President graciously indicating that parts of his jobs plan may be acceptable and concluding that with some language so supremely comic that I must quote it in full:
We don't question the president's sincerity when he says he has crafted the right prescription for economic recovery. We believe good people can have honest disagreements without having their morals or commitment to country being called into question.
This from a leader of the party in which everyone from Rush Limbaugh to John McCain was howling about "socialism" not so many months ago. Which did everything it could to characterize the President as an illegitimate, dangerous outsider attempting to seize the reigns of power (forgetting he won a fair election, rather than being installed by the Supreme Court like his predecessor). In which respected players like Rick Perry bandy accusations of treason against appointed officials they do not like, and threaten them with rough treatment. Where is the admonition from Mr. Boehner to Mr. Perry,that if you want the Republican nomination, you must be more respectful to your adversary? Boehner himself has done everything he can to humiliate the President up until now, including rejecting his proposed date for a speech to the House a few days ago. There are two possible, overlapping explanations for Boehner's pious new rhetoric. One, the Republicans believe they have already won the 2012 elections, so are being nice to the man they have already kneecapped because he is no longer a threat. Two, they are dancing to the tune of the polling data which indicates public exasperation with their stonewalling. In either event, don't expect to see any actual bipartisanship.
What's going on
I am stunned, but should not be at this late date, that the Republicans can prevent any initiative to help suffering Americans, then trumpet about the ineffectiveness of the administration they have interfered with so openly. Its like blocking ambulances from getting to patients, then claiming the system which dispatches them is misconceived. The ultimate irony is that, if Americans hand the Republicans control, it won't be with a Russian-style clarity and passivity that "Only the rogues and bullies can get anything done, so let them." It will be because we bought the bullshit that the Republicans are somehow more knowledgeable and capable and will bring better policies to bear. If I am correct, this indicates the ultimate failure of American democracy to produce and educate a voter who can perceive the gross dishonesty of a big lie. Abraham Lincoln said you can't fool all the people all of the time, but that doesn't seem to be true any more. While on a gut level, given two parties, the kneejerk of throwing out the one in power whenever you don't see any improvement may seem to have some common sense, I would have thought we still had at least a vestigial ability to perceive the metadata, which I ask you to read carefully, as it is the most important thing I have said in the Spectacle these many years:
The present mess, of rising prices, sliding interest rates, Wall Street rapacity leading to economic retraction and wholesale eviction from homes, has occurred entirely as a result of Republican governance, from Ronald Reagan on. The rapid growth of inequality in America, the decline of the middle class, the slipping of millions of Americans into poverty, the loss of health insurance coverage, is the direct result of Republican initiatives such as the defeat of President Clinton's health plan, the repeal of Glass Steagal and other Republican projects to weaken government, destroy unions and free Wall Street from any supervision. In the thirty years we have been slipping down, Republican presidents served five terms in office, two for Reagan, one for Bush Sr., two for Bush Jr., while Democrats have served three (two for Clinton, one for Obama). Those Republicans have been more successful in accomplishing their agendas than the Democrats, who faced first the enraged and devious Gingrich-led Congress which shut down the government and impeached Clinton, and then the present crop who have attacked Mr. Obama's legitimacy and prevented the passage of any significant legislation since the health care reform they are so ferociously attempting to roll back. The Republicans are the active opponents of the American middle class and have been for decades, and they are proposing nothing in their plans which will create jobs, stabilize prices, raise interest rates or give us a better quality of life again. Most of their rhetoric consists of an attack, quite vivid and successful, on the ideology and loyalty of anyone trying to help the middle class, while the only program they propose is to stop taxing billionaires on the theory the latter will then somehow repair all the damage to America they have freely caused without government restraint these thirty years.
So a kneejerk turning the complete reins of power over to them once again--presidency, both houses, and the chance to make permanent and increase a frequent 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court for decades to come-- looks very much like the consent of the middle class to the completion of its own destruction.
Someone suggested that the decline of the middle class has much to do with the transformation of American business in fifty years, from a strong manufacturing base requiring stable (and unionized) workers, to a world of financial instruments and software applications which can be executed with a smaller number of highly compensated, elite intelligent workers who are personally and financially accustomed to some risk and instability. This has created more billionaires and the troops of wannabes around them, accustomed to a brutal up-or-out environment (particularly on Wall Street, I think). Contrast this with the idealized world of the long ago Ford factory, where the the woman who ran the machine which stamped the steering wheels once did so, at a union wage, for thirty-five years, and raised children who worked in the factory as well.
The HPV vaccine
The to-do over the HPV vaccine is the month's consummate ethical spectacle, with all the nuance, irony and tragedy which keeps life interesting. There are twelve year old girls today who will die within twenty years because their parents refused to have them vaccinated. The parents are either afraid of side effects on no evidence, or more likely believe the vaccine will encourage the girls to have sex. At least a minority of the ones who die will wait until marriage and then be infected by their husband; but in fundamentalist world, it doesn't occur to anyone that apparently marriageable young men may be carriers. Anyway, I suppose its all part of God's plan.
Michele Bachmann's repetition of an anecdotal linkage of the vaccine with mental retardation, which she had apparently heard from a female supporter just minutes before, establishes she is completely unfit to be President. The leader of this nation should spend a good deal more time than that examining assertions before repeating them to a national audience. Especially assertions which may cost lives.
Finally, Texas' governor Perry's attempted mandate of HPV vaccination in his state, though substantively a Good Thing, was carried out for the most corrupt, cynical reasons possible, as a favor to an aide who was also a pharmaceutical lobbyist.
There are days I feel I'm not far from staking out a corner at the Port Authority where I can rave all day. This is one of those. Here are a few more rants.
What is the Times thinking, putting out a special "Retirement" section? Of course, we all know the purpose of such special sections is to sell advertising, but still....would the paper print a special "Cold Fusion" insert? What about a special issue on "Creation" science? Retirement for middle class Americans has become as fictional as those. With ridiculous headlines like "Long Term Stock Plans Help to Avoid Impulsive Moves" the paper totally begs the reality of American life. You would need about twelve million dollars put away to retire and live on the interest and dividends. Who has that? I sure don't. Anyway, it is grossly irresponsible to write the same old articles about stocks without even mentioning the proximity of the collapse of the next bubble, which will take another big chunk of your net worth.
Just when you thought shit couldn't get any more fucked up, the mean and dishonest right wing politicians of Israel have made common cause with those of the United States, in an alliance intended to guarantee further Middle East violence and drift.
First, a quick tutorial on the role the rabid American right has played in Israel these last fifty years. There is a strong fundamentalist element, personified today by Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman, which ostensibly believes that a cryptic passage in Revelations literally means that a Jewish nation in Israel must be immolated in order for Christ to return. These people want to make sure that there is a Jewish nation in Israel so that it can be sunk in a lake of fire and Jesus can come back. Shame on every Israeli politician who ever accepted the money or support of these wing nuts. The worst, stupidest, most dishonest Israeli administration since the state was founded is now receiving covering fire from the American right. which encourages it to stonewall the Palestinians even more while building settlements. As if Governor Perry hadn't already proved himself to be impulsive and violent, his statement that the American embassy should immediately be moved to Jerusalem will probably cost American lives, especially if he is elected President. Meanwhile, the Republicans are spreading out across the country, asking Jews like me who are being forced financially underwater by their misrule, to consent to their further depradations against the middle class, in return for their "kindness" to Israel. Which is itself, by the way, in the process of becoming a billionaire-igarchy, like the United States.
The President's Solyndra debacle is embarassing, even ignominious, at a time when he does not need one more embarassment, yet it is hard to tell if the public is paying much attention. The administration rushed a half billion dollar loan to a solar panel company which was apparently already teetering, and filed bankruptcy shortly after receiving the funding. Worse, there was a billionaire contributor who was also an investor in Solyndra, and who made several visits to the Oval Office during the period the loan was under consideration. Naturally, he now claims that Solyndra was never discussed. May I posit a new method of investigating moments of pure fuckology in politics? "Cherchez le billionaire".
As books are starting to appear about the Obama administration, based on accounts by former insiders, two competing and yet overlapping narratives are taking hold, to the point where jorunalists reporting on new developemnts casually mention them: 1. The presdident is inexperienced. 2. He has a passive, above-the-fray peronality.
This reminds me of the wisdom that Senators don't make the best Presidents, and that governors do better. The latter have been executives, have led, pushed, manipulated and gotten out in front, applied the levers of power. Senators remind me more of the swallows I see from my windows every fall in Amaganaestt: they mill around in crowds for days on end, until suddenly they make a collective decision and fly off somewhere.
Tea Party hostages
The hostage-takers are at work again. Around the country, people are living in mud and filth from Hurrican Irene flooding, trying to rebuild their ruined houses, and the Tea Party Republicans are blocking re-funding of the Federa Emergency Management Agency unless they receive some offsetting cuts elsewhere. There is no-one the Teas Party won't fuck up, on the way to their government-less utopia.
There is another New York City software program which is being developed without adult supervision: an updating and integration of the city's human resources system, which was projected to cost $60 million and has now exceeded $360 million. More proof that the mayor has checked out, is just not paying attention: he is tolerating things on his New York City watch that couldn't have happened at Bloomberg Industries. I would say that, as a near-rule of the universe, there is no software that should rightly cost $360 million to develop.
Mortgage relief and incompetence
A HUD program to help people behind on their mortgages is shutting down this weekend with $500 million unspent,having helped only about 15,000 families nationwide. This is a ridiculously poor result on so many levels. The program was so defined as to exclude the vast majority of the people it might have helped; you couldn't owe more than $50,000, which ruled out most New Yorkers in mortgage trouble. It started late and was apparently run very half heartedly. The program has approved only a fraction of the applicants which met its overly strict requirements.
It is stunning that the Obama administration, which seems to include competent and decisive people, can't implement better programs. Before Tea Party types rise up and start yowling that this illustrates government's inability to do anything, let us note that the banks haven't done any better: they don't even know which mortgages they own, have foreclosed on houses which aren't even mortgaged or were by other banks, and their own mortgage assistance and renegotiation projects are constantly losing files and forgetting the deals they just made. What we may be seeing is a generally rising tide of incompetence in the public and private sector, where the hype is all: the perception of activity has become disconnected from any need for actual results.
How can anyone claim, with a straight face, that the Palestinians are not entitled to be recognized as a sovereign state? On what possible grounds? The UN mandate which created Israel in 1948 was intended to create a Palestinian state at the same time. The Palestinians didn't accept it for a lot of reasons, one of which was its apparent unfairness: if you look at a map of the proposed state, it appears to be gerrymandered in favor of the Jews. Many were being asked to give up their homes, in exchange for a replacement to which they had never consented. Even if we regard their refusal to declare a state back then as a gross mistake, it is virtually impossible to engineer a good faith moral argument that they have waived or lost the right. More importantly and poignantly, a population in the West Bank that renounced violence has now waited twenty years in vain for a sign that the Israelis have any real interest in makiing permanent peace: the result has been the continual building of walls and new settlements. And still, the Palestinian Liberation Organization resorts to the peaceful initiative of asking for statehood from the United Nations. At some point, if progress doesn't come from somewhere, they will go back to war. The American-led response, "Don't ask us for statehood, work it out with the Israelis," is dismissive and morally repugnant.
The Wall Street demonstrations
I was astonished to discover that demonstrations have been taking place on Wall Street, for soime weeks or months, without any mention in our media. It took some acts of apparent police brutality, particularly a high-ranking cop spraying some peaceful women with pepper spray, for the press to start paying attention. Even NPR, supposed left wing bastion, didn't think the demos important enough to cover before that happened. Since I am eagerly waiting for an American Spring modeling the Arab, Israeli and Spanish springs of this year, I would like to see Wall Street as the first signs. On CNN, Michael Moore used a word I knew but had forgotten: he said they are deomnstrating against an unpunished and increasingly bold American kleptocracy, a good phrase for what I have been designating "Billionairism".
Customers as things
In this month's essay, I describe the draining away of respect in the world that is at the root of so many of our problems. I want to relate this to what I have written about my horrendous HP Mini, the worst computer I have ever had, and on which I am writing this now, because I can't yet afford to replace it. The Mini hangs for minutes sometimes when I do operations as simple as opening files in OpenOffice or seeking web pages in Firefox; every once in a while, a dialog box informs me that a script has stopped running, almost always in a program I never installed, such as Chrome. A box which just displayed said that a Norton script was not functional. I never bought Norton, the demo version of which came loaded on the computer, but set up the free AVG security software instead. HP has some kind of deal with Norton which has permitted it to act in truly vampiric fashion, stalking me every time I turn on the computer with numerous messages about the danger I will encounter from my decision not to buy the software. Hewlett Packard is not only inept, but highly disrespectful of me as a customer, to permit such antics on the computer I am trying to use for the most serious purposes of my life, writing the Spectacle, seeking jobs, doing pro bono law projects to help friends in trouble.
A closely related issue. If your PC doesn't have the ferocious power of a bank's Unix server, and loads a web site very slowly, entertain yourself by watching the cryptic little messages at the bottom of the browser about the different stuff that is loading as you wait, much of which has URL's unrelated to the one you are trying to view: statcounter is one I see a lot. Then ask yourself, how many of these are there to improve your experience (such as the venerable akamai.net, which helps pages load faster) and how many are there to exploit you in some way without your consent, by grabbing information about you? What led to the philosophy of a World Wide Web in which stuff is constantly launching without your knowledge, cookies, scripts, software, all kinds of applications which study you? When did we lose the idea of products being tailored to meet customer needs? Your car doesn't report to the manufacturer the stores you drove to, or what you said while in it; why should your computer? I launched Task Manager a few moments ago to close an unresponsive Firefox and it reported to me there were ninety processes running, of which it identified only three. How many of the rest were scripts and programs allowed in by Windows and HP, for marketing and surveillance purposes? How many were malware that Windows and HP fail to design against?
Our Italian model
If you want to know what the United States will look like in twenty or thirty years if the Republicans control the three branches of government in the interim, look to Berlusconi's Italy, described in very interesting terms in a Times article of September 21. According to critics:
...the Berlusconi government, although democratically elected, has devolved into sowmthing from a different age: a royal court, in which everyone, from his coalition partners to his attractive young guests, serves at the pleasure of the prince....the contemporary version of a Renaissance court....less a traditional European democracy...than an elaborate spoils system founded on loyalty as much as sovereignty, where laws are molded around the leader's personal needs
Enraged yet? Because I'm just getting started.