December 2014
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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace


When I was sixteen I hoped to cut sugar cane in Cuba with the Venceremos Brigade,but knew I could never expect parental permission. Just recently, forty-four years later, I had a chance to go to Havana with a National Lawyers' Guild contingent, but I am not nearly so bold a traveler as I once was. Cuba is struggling with corruption and poverty, a situation in which we kept it preserved in the amber of our hatred and the embargo.

The unanswerable statement that a few pundits and politicians have made (including Rand Paul): We are friends with Vietnam, so why the hell not Cuba? Like Vietnam, Cuba represses some dissent and has some political prisoners, but doesn't actually, say, murder bishops and nuns like some American allies.

So I think the President's initiative was the right one. I also support his attempts to have a legacy despite the furious efforts of the other party to deny him. I hope he is being careful about how much he can do via executive order, and where the lines are drawn.

Single Payer

Years ago in the business world I believed the gospel of consultants such as Tom Peters who preached the circumstances under which less is more, where you can do business faster, cheaper and more effectively with less infrastructure. I believed in CEO's sitting in cubicles and walking around the office visiting employees in other cubicles rather than maintaining four levels of middle management.

Single payer is this kind of idea to me. We can either have a two thousand page health insurance law complicatedly trying to make all the insurance companies and the states and medical providers sail together, or have a system that (nothwithstanding Cato and Limbaugh bullshit) has worked pretty well in Canada, in which the bill goes to the government. Expensive? I would pay more taxes for full-scale cradle to grave health insurance. But I would also expect two other things: the government to control some costs effectively, and make some other cuts in, say, surveillance programs and drone acquisitions, to support paying for health care. The odds I will get cancer or have a heart attack are much greater than my dying in a terrorist attack. If government is concerned about my safety, it worrying about my health seems very natural and in fact a whole lot more important.

So I was a bit heart-broken that Vermont abandoned its single payer program after discovering it would be very expensive. I was daydreaming about moving there, loving the place anyway (we would be there like a shot if the state had North Carolina's climate). But its probably the case that it was too small a pool with too little leverage over costs, and that single payer has to be accomplished at the national level.

Kansas and Tennessee

"Everything you think you know is wrong". For years, the right never really had to take responsibility for the consequences of its policies; there was always an opposition effective enough to stop the most extreme parts of the program, and which could then be conveniently blamed for the entire program's failure. (The most splendid example of this kind of thinking I ever saw was a Libertarian essay,which I don't think was a spoof, claiming Somalia wouldn't be violent if it didn't have vestiges of a government.) Now that some states are overwhelmingly red and there is no opposition, however, places like Kansas and Tennessee are beginning to see that the result of cutting taxes is terrible deficit spending, and the result of cutting programs is increasing costs for emergency interventions and care. So Kansas is rethinking that whole cuts equal growth thing, and Tennessee is shamefacedly opting for the Medicaid expansion.

Dodd Frank

I was surprised and delighted to hear Robert Kennedy Jr. on television calling our country a kleptocracy. That is what it is, but I didn't think a Kennedy would ever dare or deign to say so. I became focused on the kleptocratic elements when circa 2009, the banks were permitted to thrust an entire black middle class, whom we had so belatedly invited in, back into poverty by selling them adjustable rate mortgages they were never going to be able to afford.

If you need more proof, think about the history of Glass Steagal and its successor, Dodd Frank. In 1933 banks went out of business because they had bet their customer's deposits on stocks which tanked. Glass Steagal required them to hold deposits with more care. In 1999, the Republican majority passed, and Bill Clinton signed with much fanfare, a Glass Steagal repeal, on the grounds that Things are Different Now (somehow) and We Don't Need This Any More. The mortgage crisis which began its slow burn immediately afterwards proved the opposite: banks bet their customer's money on dicey mortgage-backed securities and had to be bailed out under TARP. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. OK, so the Democratic majority passed Dodd Frank, which reinstituted some of the Glass Steagal protections, and now the Republicans are trying to repeal it, and partly did in a rider to last week's government financing bill. What's so bad about Dodd-Frank? It slows down the kleptocrats and they don't like it.

Dick Cheney

He is a disgrace. I can't even fathom the internal thought process of a man who would justify, downplay and even laugh about torture. Through-out history, ex-presidents and their vices have mainly cultivated their own legacies and let their successors concentrate on the hard business of trying to run the country. It is a new kind of cheap, vicious thing to jawbone your successor and try to make sure he can't.

Israeli end game

You don't have to be against Israel to agree, at least privately, with the following proposition: Israeli policy on a purely pragmatic level, is a massive self-inflicted wound. In other words, even Machiavelli would not approve. The latest, a bill to (at last) identify Israel as a Jewish state, and take an official step towards confirming second class status for Arabs, will lead nowhere stable or safe. Even if you are a fervent supporter of Israel and can't wait to make aliyah, ask yourself the following: can you imagine Israel sustaining the current state of affairs for a thousand years? Twenty?

Ferguson and Garner

I haven't written anything about the death of Michael Brown or the massive nationwide Ferguson protests, which also picked up the Eric Garner case when a Staten Island grand jury failed to indict. The Brown case got murked up by a plethora of contradictory testimony, so I will hold off addressing that one, but jeez: on video, no ambiguity whatever, a New York city cop used an illegal chokehold on a man accused of selling untaxed cigarettes, brought him to the ground, ignored repeated statements that "I can't breathe", and killed him. It couldn't be simpler or more obvious or more homicidal. There is no wiggle room.

NYPD sees itself as a conquering and occupying force, the Staten Island shopping mall where it all went down standing in for Falluja or some damn place. I am glad people are out in the streets chanting "No justice no peace". It feels like its still 1964; power pays lip service to equality but the "thin blue line" continues to include racist cowboys with guns.