Archive for July, 2012

A few more novels…

I’ve restored two old books to the novels page, so I should say something about their re-inclusion on the site.

About Horatio by the Fire, I will just say that I’d never had so much fun writing a book (until writing for my kids, that is) so I had to put it back up.

And Juggernaut has too much sentimental value to leave offline (mostly because of Roberto and Carolina).

Whether I will be restoring any of the even-older texts remains to be seen…

Gentrification

Sink into it
a pillow-top mattress of moss
of fungus
of parasitic tendrils
on top of you–
a growing mass
that will someday be coal
to power another generation’s hopeful follies

And knowing that you are rotting
that something not-you
is consuming you
is not enough to make it stop

It’s equal now
to the magnitude of your own failures
with whispers coming from the vines
the little arms of the thing eating you
swaying and vibrating
until they reach sentience
and make words
with trembling green membranes
saying

You are not a victim of the things you’ve done
or the things undone

And the end is when you finally know it to be true

6:04

causality

At first he felt a kind of confusion.

He looked down at his shoes as if to make sure that the plank of cement he was standing on was, in fact, his driveway.

Then he looked up again at the empty space where his car should have been.

 

After calls to the office postponing a meeting and shifting a proposal revision to an underling, Robert waited impatiently on the same slab of concrete for the police while his wife stood beside him apologizing.

“If I hadn’t filled the garage with those fabric samples then this wouldn’t have happened,” she said, clinging to the edge of her robe and shaking her head.

“It’s alright,” he answered without looking at her, glad that she had offered it up before his resolve wore thin and he said it himself.

When the police arrived, he gave them all the relevant information about the car, casting more and more frequent glances at his watch while he became more concerned about what he was missing at the office than the missing car.

“Was that an ‘ES’ you said?” one of the officers asked.

“No, ‘LS.’”

“Hmm,” she mumbled back.

“Why, what’s wrong?”

“You said you had your keys, sir?  You couldn’t have left them in the vehicle?”

“No, no, they’re right here.”  He showed them the keyring.  “Why?  I don’t understand.”

“It’s just those cars are pretty hard to steal,” the other officer explained while eying the garage door.  “Do you know where your spare keys are?”

“My wife has them in her purse.”

“Are you sure?”

“We can check when she gets back from dropping off the kids at school, but I’m pretty sure.  Couldn’t they have just hot-wired it or something?”

“Actually, no.”

“No?”

“Nope.  The security features on your automobile are excellent, sir.  Can’t be started without the key–or a dealer’s key.”

“We’ll canvas the dealers and see if one’s gone missing or if there are other reports of thefts.”

“Oh, I see.”

“Meantime, have you contacted them yourself?  That vehicle has a standard GPS.  They should be able to lock it down.”

“Um, yes, I called.  They said they couldn’t locate it.”

“Really?”

“Yes, that’s what they said.”

“See, that’s weird, too.”

“It would take a real professional to hack the car and do all that.”

“Was there anything else special about the car, sir?  Any special features that would make it worth all that?”

“Engine of solid gold, maybe?” one asked with a smirk.

“Not that I know of.”

Deb pulled back in from dropping off the kids and he made his excuses to the officers so that she could drive him to the train station.

“We’ll let you know if we find anything out, sir.  Have a good day.”

“As good as possible with this kind of start,” the other suggested.

 

In the car ride, he didn’t talk to his wife, but instead spent the time navigating the touch-tone menus of the insurance company, cursing at each new list of possible buttons to push and eventually shouting into the phone, “Just give me a damned human being.”

Deb rolled to a stop at the station, “Sorry again, honey.”

He shook his head at her as if to say it was nothing serious and climbed out.  He offered a half-wave over his shoulder while he trotted toward the train, cursing at the computerized voice coming off a computer server in San Antonio.

He bumped into Davis in the elevator and ran through several scenarios for the portfolio they were putting together for their clients in Tokyo on the ride up, then the two men split paths at the ding of the elevator and Robert headed for his office.

At the desk out front, his assistant Sophie stared blankly at the window thirty feet away and didn’t register his approach.

He called her name and she started, shaking her head twice.  It looked like the kind of affected gesture a bit player on a sitcom uses when, as some kind of punchline, someone else enters the room covered in honey and feathers or dressed like a hooker clown or whatever.

“You with me, Sophie?”

“Yes, sir, sorry.  Just really tired this morning.”

He imagined derisively what might have kept her up so late on a Sunday, maybe an all-night bender with the girls from the outer office or more likely a drugged-up orgy arranged by the SoHo-wannabe boyfriend he imagined she must have.

“You remember what kind of morning I’ve had, right?” he said, looking down at the seam of brown roots showing through the center of her supposedly blonde, shoulder-length bob.

“Oh, yes, sir.  Did they find your car?”

“No, afraid not.  Get me Suzanne Myers on the phone, will you?  Then I’ll take whatever other notes you have for me.”

It felt impossible to catch up.  He didn’t even have time to take a lunch, instead spending the whole day on the phone, pouring through spreadsheets, or popping between one office or another shoring up planks in their presentation for the following week.  When Sophie returned ten minutes late from her lunch break, he buzzed her and asked her to stay a little after five to help him catch up, figuring that saying nothing about her tardiness would leverage the extra time.  He kept her going through past tax filings all afternoon.

The outer office started to clear as long shadows fell over Broadway, eventually bringing on a long, grey eclipse.

Eventually, Sophie came in with several folders and set them on the edge of the desk as he paced behind his chair, staring into the gray chasm outside and laughing through the cell phone connection at something ridiculous Williams upstairs had just said.

When he hung up and turned, Sophie started explaining her progress in a rapid staccato.

“And this folder has everything from ’09,” she said, laying open one of them and flipping past the first few pages.

“Let me see.”

Robert stepped in, but Sophie didn’t seem to sense him coming and in reaching for the folder, his hand brushed over the length of silk covering her right breast.

The girl jumped back soundlessly.

He grabbed the paperwork without looking at her.  He refused to indulge her penchant for melodrama.  A few months before she had had to be coaxed teary-eyed from a bathroom stall over some imagined insult.  He didn’t have the time and patience for it now.  He felt her jostled, nervous little bones stiffening and her eyes going doe-wide behind him, but he simply refused to be drawn into some awkward exchange with her.

In fact, suddenly, he didn’t want to put up with any of it.

“That’s great,” he told her.  “Just put it all back in order for me and we’ll go from there tomorrow.”  He picked up his phone off the desk where he’d set it down and turned.  “It’s been a long day, I think we’re good now.  I’m going to head home early.”

She said nothing else as he walked past her and out of the office.

 

He called Deb and told her that he’d be early–in time for dinner on a weeknight for once.

The boys were elated.  Taylor and Dillon prattled on endlessly about their days at school.  Taylor, in particular, had been captivated on a lesson about Impressionism where they got to plop big dollops of paint on coarse paper.  Robert smiled and nodded, wondering what kind of curriculum taught first graders about Monet.

The kind you’re paying twenty-two hundred a month for, he answered himself.

After dinner, the boys cleared their plates and headed upstairs for baths.  Robert stayed at the table, letting Deb pour him a glass of wine–some Shiraz she swore by.  He listened to her talk about her contract for Yale’s alumni association with the same feigned interest he’d allotted to Dillon’s summary of his alphabetical studies.

Then came the knock on the door.

He shot up quickly and waved Debra down when she offered to get it.  He also shouted into the kitchen so their live-in wouldn’t bother either.  Through the chiseled glass of the front door he saw two unfamiliar figures.  Out of habit, he rested one hand on the alarm console’s panic button while he pulled open the door with the other.

The two men introduced themselves as Detectives Bransford and Mentelle and, “Would you please come with us, Mr. Blancstone?”

“Did you find my car?”

“No, sir, you are under arrest,” and then, quite absurdly, they followed the whole script from the TV shows.  He had half a mind to press the panic button and summon the real police, but he thought the whole thing might be some sort of harmless joke.

He told them as much.

“It’s a serious charge of sexual assault, sir.  Are we going to have to physically restrain you, sir?” Mentelle asked, with a beckoning motion of his hand.  Robert noticed for the first time that Bransford’s hand was resting on his holster and that cuffs were already clasped in his other hand.

“No, but…I need to…” he said weakly, turning behind him.  Naturally, he thought of Sophie, but he clamped his mouth shut before saying anything.

“You need to come with us, sir.”

By now Debra had come to the foyer with curious eyes that quickly transformed when she saw the look on his face.

“Robert–”

“Deb, call Martin.  Have him meet me–hey, where are you taking me?”

That answer turned out to be complicated.  There were apparently some logistical dilemmas in play since he was being arrested in one jurisdiction, but the alleged crime took place in the city.  Four different officers explained this conundrum to him as he was ferried about, waiting three hours total for his interrogation to finally begin.

By then, though, Martin was there.

His lawyer–or rather, the company’s lawyer–sat beside him as a new pair of officers explained the accusations.  After the parade of law enforcement personnel he’d been treated to, he didn’t bother to catch these latest names.

Robert was told that, after her shift was over, he had ordered his secretary to remain behind and then instructed her to join him in his office alone.  Then, without warning, he had pushed her forward over his desk and violated her.

This seemed beyond the reach of Sophie’s histrionics.  He found himself running through the possibilities.  Had someone else come into the office just after him?  “This has got to be some kind of mistake,” he said, shaking his head.

“I think the mistake was taking advantage of your secretary,” the taller of the two said.

“Administrative assistant,” Robert corrected.  “We have to call them administrative assistants now.”

The officer opened his mouth with an extension of his jaw that suggested he was about to play through his best “bad cop” routine, but Martin leaned forward and interjected.

“Officer Rice,” he said calmly.  “Let’s go over this moment by moment.  You allege that this attack took place at approximately 6:15 in the evening.”

“Correct.”

Martin produced a computer tablet from his brief case.  “This is a security image from our lobby’s cameras.  You will see that this is clearly my client, Robert Blancstone, and that the time stamp indicates that Mr. Blancstone was in the lobby at 6:07 PM today.”

“We–” the other officer tried to say.

“We will of course make the original files available to you and the district attorney,” Martin continued.  “Granted, your witness’s recollection could be off by several minutes, but Mr. Blancstone’s wife’s call record also indicates that he initiated a phone conversation with her at 6:03.”

“Maybe–”

“It I could continue,” he said, and did so without waiting for any further remark from the police.  “Likewise, I have confirmed that the call log from one of Mr. Blancstone’s associates, Kelley Williams, confirms that Mr. Blancstone hung up with him at only 5:52.  Now, that leaves a narrow eleven minute window for the alleged crime.”

“A rape like this doesn’t require a lot–”

“I’m aware of that, but you need to also be aware of our office culture.  Mr. Blancstone is in high finance, gentlemen.  They do not generally leave work early.  Mr. Blancstone did today because he had a particularly trying morning, but generally, these men and women can be found in their offices until eight, nine, later.”

“What’s your point?”

“There are two offices adjacent to Mr. Blancstone’s.  Both were occupied until well after seven o’clock today.  I’ve spoken to both parties and both have assured me that they are willing to give depositions to the effect that they heard no unusual disturbances in Mr. Mountblanc’s office during the time period in question.”

“How did you get all this information so quickly–”

“It was not difficult, but I’ll invite you to confirm all of this after we leave.”

“Leave?” one of them said in alarm.  “Your client is being charged with a felony.  He’s not leaving any time soon,” he said.

The other officer, though, laid his palm on his partner’s back and gestured for Martin to continue.

“Additionally, as to Mr. Blancstone’s whereabouts and behavior, I spoke with a member of our maintenance staff who was in the outer office this evening between 5:45 and 6:27.  He specifically recalls both seeing Mr. Blancstone leave his office and that the door was open prior to his departure.”

Both officers’ eyes seemed to withdraw, as if being pulled back by coils into their sockets.

“Finally, these are personal documents for Ms. DeClara,” he said, passing over two faxed pages.  “You’ll see that she has twice filed sexual harassment complaints that were never substantiated.  The second case was investigated by the NYPD and your colleagues could not find any evidence to support her complaint.”  Martin closed his case.  “Now, you gentlemen can make the mistake of pushing for arraignment, but I would not recommend it.  You can confirm all this independently, but Mr. Blancstone is in the midst of very important business for our firm that is time sensitive.  If Mr. Blancstone is kept here overnight, then you will be endangering millions of dollars in revenue for the company.  If that were to happen, we would be compelled to seek restitution in civil court for wrongful arrest.”

The officers rubbed their foreheads a few times and then excused themselves.  Martin patted Robert on the shoulder and assured him that the whole affair was almost over.

Robert didn’t even have time to finish saying, “This is a night–” before the officers returned and he was given an apology for his lost time.

After regaining his possessions, Martin met him on the steps outside.  “I’ve had someone from security contact Ms. DeClara at the hospital.  She’s being told that she is not to reenter the building.  She’ll be given a generous severance package and her personal belongings will be mailed to her.”

“Jesus,” Robert gasped, pulling up his home number on the screen of his phone.  “I just don’t know why she would do this.”

“Who can say,” Martin said.  “Come on now, we’ll get you home.”

Robert called home to tell Debra to go to sleep, he’d be home soon, but she was jittery and wanted more explanation.  “It’s just like Martin told you,” Robert explained.  “All just a big mistake.  It’s all cleared up now.”  His explanations didn’t satisfy her, but he was too weary to talk further so he urged her again to go to sleep and hung up.

 

Against Deb’s protests, Robert rolled out of the driveway the next morning in a rented car he’d arranged in the city.  “There’s just too much to do,” he told her, bleary-eyed.

He spent most of the drive on the phone, explaining the details of his ordeal to three different senior partners in the firm, all of whom concluded the calls with something to the effect of, “Unbelievable.  Thank God Martin was able to clear it up for you right away… now you just focus on Tokyo.”

He did.  He found the folders Sophie had organized lying on his desk and a moment later was greeted by his new assistant, an eager woman of thirty-five or so whose wide smile didn’t alter even as she spoke.  He did his best to bring her up to speed to make use of her and then sent her out to Sophie’s old desk, which had been cleared by security before he’d arrived.

He ate lunch with a half-dozen other members of the team.  It was a rich, languorous meal, full of bluster and confidence.  They dreamed in short phrases and long words about sixty million dollars hanging in the near future like a shimmering pleasure dome.

After returning to the office, they worked through the afternoon and evening in committee until one of the senior partners appeared and, waving his hand like a magnanimous bishop, gave them his blessing to call it a night.

When Robert brought the rental into the driveway, there was already a car there and two figures talking with his wife beside the front door.

As he climbed out, she looked to him in the dim light with a curious blend of despair and horror.

The detectives turned–they were new, not people he’d met the night before–and greeted him.

“We located your car, Mr. Blancstone.”

“Really?  That’s great.  Did you find who stole it?”

“No.  It didn’t really appear to be stolen at all.  It has some superficial damage to one fender, but that appears to be a paint scrape from another vehicle.”

“What?”

“It’s been parked in Queens for the last forty-eight hours, but it is securely locked.”

“In Queens?”

“Were you in the city Sunday night, sir?”

“Me?  No.”

“Can we ask where you were that night?”

“Here, at home,” he made a feeble gesture toward his wife, but she said nothing.

“Your wife says she and the children went to bed by nine o’clock.  What did you do after your family went to sleep, Mr. Blancstone?”

“Are you–”

“There are some empty liquor bottles visible inside the cabin of the automobile, sir.  Could it be that you don’t remember because you were drinking too heavily?”

“That’s absurd.”

“Can you account for–”

“I’ve had about enough of this.  My time was spent reviewing projections and interest reports all night.  I don’t have time to go on some drunken rampage, thank you very much!  I’m going to have words with your superior.  My car is stolen and you come here with recriminations against me!”

He continued shouting until the two officers sheepishly apologized.  Debra wilted by the door, saying nothing.

He demanded the address where he could find his car, which they provided, and then opened the door.

Startled, Debra shuffled inside.  He followed her and slammed the door without saying anything more to the officers.

“Jesus,” he gasped once inside.

“What is going on, Robert?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean you’ve been accused of two crimes in a week.  And rape?”

“Debra, you’re acting like I did something wrong.”

“Keep your voice down,” she hissed.  “Were you having an affair with that woman?”

“What?  She’s crazy.  She’s got some sort of personal problems.  Didn’t Martin explain all that to you on the phone?”

“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, Robert.”

“What?  How the hell can you say that?”

“Were you having an affair with her?”

“I never touched her.  How can you ask me that?”

“I’m just confused by all this.  I just want you to tell me that you aren’t getting mixed up in anything that’s going to endanger our family,” she said, dropping her head and rubbing her brow.  “Can you tell me that?”

“Of course I’m not,” he said, storming past her.  “Jesus,” he said again.

 

She went to sleep early after bathing the boys.  He made do with what food he could scavenge in the kitchen and ate it alone at the breakfast table with the TV rumbling barely audible in the corner of the room.

He thought about Deb’s eyes–her recriminating, doubtful eyes–staring at him as though he had done something wrong, as if he was responsible.

He’d seldom felt so angry at her and he sat very still at the table, staring at the TV screen without understanding what was happening on it before the anger subsided enough for him to think about going to bed.

When he finally felt ready, he took a bottle of Scotch from the bar and poured himself a drink, then another to steady his nerves.

After another hour of sitting in silence, he climbed the stairs to the bedroom.  Deb was a pulsing mound in bed, the sheet rising in a steady, tidal beat with her breath.

He brushed his teeth, went to the toilet, and then dropped his clothes in a pile on the bathroom floor.  He slipped into bed wearing only his boxer shorts and fell almost immediately into a deep sleep.

He woke groggily without the alarm having rung.  The clock read 6:04.

Deb was already up, though he heard no stirrings through the open bedroom door.

He called out to her as he stretched his arms going through the jamb.

She didn’t call back.

The bathroom between the boys’ rooms was open.

“Boys?”

He stepped closer to it and saw that the light through the window was catching something slick and wet on the tiles.

One more step and he saw the ends of five little toes at the edge of the slick, red spot.

“Taylor!  Dillon!”

Both were there, face down on the tile.

Deep gashes had gone black on their backs.

They were absolutely still.

“Deb!”

He launched, without thinking of calling the authorities with the phone beside the bed, to the stairs and sprinted through the open spaces downstairs.

He found her in the kitchen.

The cuts were more severe.  Whole parts of her were hanging to the body by only sinewy lines of tissue and gossamer sheets of skin.

The house was still and calm all around him.

He stumbled backward through the kitchen door and when his back met the wall, he stopped, slid to the ground where dawn entered the house through the crystal in the door and rested there, just in sight of the pool of blood around Deb’s body.

His hands shook.  For a long time that was all that happened, all that he felt.  The shaking of his hands beside his knees.

Then another feeling.

The slow, steady sensation of pressure, of one being submerged, not in water, but in something thicker, deeper.

He was then sure that he had done it.  Though when he looked in the steady yellow glow of sunlight he saw his hands were clean, immaculate even.

Still he knew that it had to be him.  Finally.  Who else could it have been?

 

Factors of Production

PearceSpeaking of the global financial meltdown that began in 2008, Jim Cramer once said that, “the only guy who really called this right was Karl Marx.”  He was not the only person to bandy about language questioning the solvency of our current brand of Capitalism in the wake of the Great Recession, and not the only one to invoke the name of the founder of Communism.

Americans, particularly the Republican Party and their Tea Partiers, generally regard Communism as a bona fide plot from Satan.  Even its milder cousin, Socialism, is something nasty and indecent that only Europeans would do in public.  This rhetoric, though, belies the prescience of Marx’s insights into Capitalism.  The 2008 implosion is precisely the kind of thing that a Marxist lens predicts.  His vision of a global communist revolution may not have panned out, and those nations that attempted to realize his vision may have succumb to corruption, violence, and decline, but the core insight that ignited Marx’s entire paradigm that unfettered capitalism would lead to rampant inequality remains vindicated by a century and a half of history.

That’s an inconvenient truth for many people today, but then we have arrived in a period of history largely characterized by the triumph of ideology over fact, so overlooking inconvenient truths is par for the course.  Today’s right wing has made a habit of rejecting logic in favor of dogma.  Prominent Republican and Tea Party figures reject evolution by natural selection and cling instead to an unreasoning Biblical literalism that would make Saint Augustine blush.  With equal fervor, many conservatives noisily talk down the threat of climate change, so noisily in fact that the number of Americans who were concerned about global warming actually declined between 2000 and 2004–and those levels of concern have never returned to their peak despite growing scientific consensus on the seriousness of the dangers of climate change and increasingly erratic weather events.

Perhaps even more importantly, a virulent strain of free market dogmatism has come to hold enormous sway over the global economy.  The roots of this overarching economic ideology go back to the 1960s when economist Milton Friedman launched his campaign against Keynesian economics.  Though a generation of high school economics classes would give ten to twenty points on their final exams for knowing that John Maynard Keynes’ theories were validated by events during the Great Depression and World War II when government spending offset reduced demand in the marketplace, Friedman’s Chicago School of economics would argue against most activist spending by governments as “naive.”

In the 1970s, the expanding global economy encountered a crisis stemming from what Sociologist David Harvey has termed “excessive power of labor,” and he notes that Capitalism “never solves its crisis problems, it moves them around geographically.”  So the reaction against “greedy unions” led directly to another, arguably greater, imbalance favoring finance capital.  The dominant theory of global Capitalism became one plank from the ideology of Friedman and his Chicago School economics.  In fact, President Reagan literally came into the White House with Friedman’s text under his arm.  Perhaps it is this simple fact that leads the Tea Party to apotheosize Reagan, since in almost every other regard he fails to live up to their standards–again, the facts of Reagan’s actual actions while in office are unimportant compared to his mythological importance as founding father for this new breed of conservatism.

Now, poor John Maynard Keynes who was so demonstrably right about government’s potential to offset the wild fluctuations of the business cycle is worse than ignored, he is demonized.  A conservative think tank assembled by the magazine Human Events included Keynes’ landmark text General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money on their list of the most dangerous books of the past two-hundred years, along with Marx’s greatest hits (one suspects the time range was specifically chosen to ensure Marx would make the cut).

The outcomes of this shift to privileging finance capital have been dramatic.  In the last forty years, global GDP has grown more than seven fold.  That rate of GDP growth accelerated in the first decade of the twenty-first century, accounting for half of the astronomical increase since 1980.  It is this fact that purveyors of this supply-side thinking point to as evidence of the righteousness of their faith in unfettered free markets.  The numbers cannot lie, they cry to the heavens.

And so they cannot.  In that same period of time, real wages in the developed world have been stagnant.  Even in countries like China, the share of overall national wealth paid out as wages has fallen.  As Keynes and Marx could have warned us, this progression is unsustainable.  We have paid for the astronomical growth in GDP–and the commiserate growth in the portfolios of the world’s billionaires, now some twelve hundred or so–by generating fictional capital through debt.  Consumers and governments have become addicted to debt, and Big Capital has hovered over the whole affair like a dealer nursing along a crop of junkies.

Now the very people who celebrate this growth as the proper paying out of rewards for the deserving decry the endless cycle of debt as weakness and entitlement without realizing that the two are sides of the same coin.

In 2008, the whole system almost came unhinged, but bandaids were slapped on, a few of the most dangerous new financial animals euthanized, and the world has pressed on with the exact same agenda of achieving growth.

This time, Capitalism didn’t even bother to geographically relocate its problem.  It just shifted the rug over the hole in the floor and went on with business as usual.

The rug is fraying now.  Austerity measures in the Eurozone are having the exact effects that Keynes would have predicted–all the wrong ones–while only America’s checks and balances have spared the nation a recovery-ending legislative spree from the newly elected Tea Party ideologues (God bless you, James Madison!).  Under a parliamentary system, the Tea Party would have controlled the government, but thankfully Obama remained president through the attempted national self-destruct in 2010 and even more mercifully, the Senate remains (largely) a bulwark against the House’s hysteria.

Very soon, though, the United States and the world will have to face facts.  The most important of those facts is that this form of Capitalism that privileges finance as the dominant engine of economic growth is untenable.  Not only is its meteoric growth doomed to result in a collapse, but it has completely failed to distribute the benefits of that growth to the population as a whole, reserving the gains instead for a select few positioned to profit.

Of course, to the free market dogmatists of today’s conservatism, that fact is irrelevant.  Imagining capitalism to be some kind of natural order to the universe, they reckon that winners in the market are those most worthy of the spoils (ironic for a group of people who are known for rejecting Darwinism).  This they call freedom.  The flaw in their thinking, though, is that there is nothing natural about Capitalism.  Its engines are all artificial.  Corporations.  Property Rights.  Even markets.  They are all constructs, tools we use to govern society.  We have created them.

The foundation of our understanding of markets, of course, comes from Adam Smith.  Far from a free market dogmatist, Smith understood how the “invisible hand” could jeopardize the bindings of society and noted the distinction between common goods and those which should be subjected to market forces.  Smith understood the importance of balancing the different interests society has in its economic choices, but despite his insights, he could not foresee the world we live in today.  He did not pass through the crises our society has.  By now it is obvious to many–and it will become obvious to many, many in the near future–that some of the fundamental assumptions of Capitalism must be rethought.

Perhaps one of Smith’s assumptions is a good place to start.

Smith described the “component parts of price,” what they call the factors of production in those high school economics classes, as including land, capital stock, and labor.  The crisis of labor in the 1970s that led indirectly to today’s crisis was one arising from privileging labor over the other factors of production.  The solution that society pursued involved quashing labor’s power through offshoring and other neo-liberal policies (under Reagan and Thatcher in particular).

After decades of stagnant real income, incredible growth in income inequality, and deepening consumer and national debt, that solution is obviously flawed.

I propose an alternate solution that might still be implemented to redirect the flow of power through our economic system:  Let’s take labor off the table.

If we cease to think of labor as a factor of production, then we have to completely reimagine how individuals in our society come together to accomplish economic means.  If all employment required a contract and all employment contracts were closer to limited partnerships, then we could radically transform the relationship between capital and labor in a way that preserves the dignity of workers while making them real stakeholders in economic success.  Some might argue that a radical shift like this would remove too much incentive from entrepreneurship, but that logic is patently absurd, the same as the thinking that presupposes raising taxes on the rich will somehow cause them to opt out instead of continuing to earn as much as they can after taxes.

If we adjusted the rules of hiring and working, bright, creative individuals would still strive to succeed and still generate the ideas that drive our economy.  Start-ups are already the source of most new job creation.  It’s not really that sector of the economy that is the problem.  It’s mega-capitalist entities that drive the imbalance in question, but they can be reimagined as well.  In 2011, hundreds of thousands of Americans abandoned corporate banks for credit unions.  If so much of our political culture weren’t being driven by big money, more changes in the legal landscape could further trends like that.  If we privileged cooperatives in our laws half as much as we do corporations, then we might see more entities like Spain’s Mondragon, which has weathered the recession much more favorably than Spain as a whole.

We need a new model.  To be sure, market forces should remain an important part of how we manage our economy.  Otherwise, we might end up with something as deeply flawed as the old Soviet economy, but we must also balance the interests of promoting opportunity for everyone or we will end up with a system as imbalanced and corrupt as the current kleptocracy in Russia, a world of mobster billionaires run amok.

The Souls of Presidents

Jim Young

On November 4th, 2008, John McCain took the stage in Phoenix to mark the end of his bid to be president.  It would, presumably, be his last such campaign.  As he graciously conceded to then Senator Barrack Obama, the assembled crowd booed at the mention of his adversary’s name.  Twice.  McCain, showing what may have been restrained disgust, offered his palms to the audience and asked for them to stop.

No one else can know what moved through John McCain’s mind that night, but I like to believe that that instant was one of anagnorisis.

In Aristotle’s analysis of the theater of Ancient Greece, anagnorisis was the moment of realization that must come to the tragic hero before he can accept his downfall.  To be sure, McCain did not suffer a horrendous reversal like Oedipus or Agamemnon, but it is equally certain that the candidate who had secured the Republican nomination for the 2008 presidential race was not the John McCain who had sought the Republican party’s nomination in 2000.

McCain, long heralded as the “Maverick of the Senate,” was vehemently opposed by powerful voices in the Republican party during the 2000 primaries.  He was too moderate, too liberal, some said, to be the Republican nominee.  After a vicious campaign which included racist attempts to malign the parentage of McCain’s daughter, George W. Bush secured the Republican nomination.  Eight years later, an aging McCain had one last opportunity to fight for the presidency.  He charged into it with aplomb.

What exactly happened is open for interpretation.  Had his views changed with age or with the shifts in American politics in the post-9/11 world?  Or did he cynically shift his positions to the right in order to quell the concerns of those within his party that he simply wasn’t Republican enough?  Who can say?  The facts, though, demand some sort of explanation.

McCain, who once argued that banning abortion would lead to unsafe, illegal procedures that would threaten women’s lives, suddenly called for the overturn of Roe v. Wade.  During the campaign, he spoke at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, despite having called its founder an “[agent] of intolerance” during his 2000 run.  He even turned against legislation he himself sponsored, saying that he would vote against his own 2006 proposal for immigration reform because in 2008 “the people” wanted the border secured.

Wanton hypocrisy?  I’m not sure.  Perhaps I am just eager to defend the man I wanted so badly to vote for in 2000 (though I would’ve cut off my hand before voting for him in 2008).  He didn’t, after all, reverse course on every issue.  He remained committed to addressing climate change, a priority shared by few Republicans.  He refused to employ the dirty, underhanded race baiting that had been used against him in South Carolina in 2000.

In Ancient Greek tragedy, the hero’s fault or error–called hamartia–lies unknown to himself until the moment of anagnorisis.  Is it possible that McCain unknowingly allowed himself to be swayed by advisors and others?  Could his single-minded pursuit of the office have slowly eroded his famous integrity?

Maybe he really didn’t see it until that November night, until he had to look out at the booing crowd and realize those were the people he had forsaken his honor to please–the reactionary right wingers that Heilemann and Halperin called “furies” in their 2010 post-mortem on the election, Game Change.  McCain had sold his soul to get that nomination and kept on selling it to try to win, but I don’t think he’d really realized it until that night in Phoenix.

One might argue that it’s a fool’s errand to probe the soul of any man through newspaper clippings and cable news sound bites, but sometimes it’s actually quite an easy task.

It’s hard to imagine that President Clinton had any illusions about whether or not he was doing wrong during his tawdry dalliance with Monica Lewinsky.  Though his actions have inspired novels, plays, and films, Aristotle would have seen nothing cathartic in this uncomplicated drama of an empowered, entitled man gratifying himself and lying to an entire nation.

No hamartia.  Bill Clinton undoubtedly knew himself to be a horndog, as we all know him to be.  No anagnorisis.  His scripted apology to the nation offered words only, no public penance, no gouging of his own eyes as with Oedipus when he discovered his sin.  Nothing but more slick Willy.

But again, perhaps I am too harsh, too quick to cast judgment because of a sense of personal betrayal.  He was the first president I’d voted for and he looked out from the TV and pointed right out at America (right at me, I tell you!), assuring us that he, “did not have sex with that woman.”

Then came Bush.  If Clinton had been morally wrong, Bush was wrong in almost every other way.  Wrong about weapons of mass destruction.  Wrong about the dangers of climate change.  Wrong about torture.  Wrong, I still believe, about waging a “War on Terror” that would claim as its first casualty our own sacred civil liberties.

But was he, like Clinton, knowingly wrong?  Did Bush ever recline in that chair in the Oval Office with the smug satisfaction of a shoplifter with a fresh take–as Clinton must have done, post-fellatio?

Bush’s tragedy may still be unfolding, his hamartia waiting for the man to look back and see, in a blinding epiphany, that nation building for profit is morally wrong or that economic policies that favor only the flow of capital weaken the bedrock of the middle class.  Who knows, but for all the ways that George Bush weakened this country, I cannot level at him the kind of contempt I feel for his predecessor.

For all his faults–and even his supporters must at least admit that he failed to achieve his policies in Afghanistan and that his economic policies contributed to the 2008 financial collapse–it seems, from this distance, that George W. Bush did what he believed was right.  Galling as it is to liberals and moderates, I think he did believe that what was good for business must be good for the country as a whole and that violating people’s rights–here or abroad–to keep them safe really was the right thing to do in the face of the evil of terrorism.

What, then, of his successor?

There are no small number of disaffected liberals who simmer with rage for Barrack Obama.  Despite the fact that the Republican party and its radical Tea Party fringe have decried the Affordable Health Care Bill as socialism, it is actually so business-friendly and so conservative a reform package that almost every single component of the law was at one time or another proposed by a Republican (most hilariously of all, the individual mandate that is such anathema to today’s right wing was passed in Massachusetts by Mitt Romney).  Obama’s most liberal supporters were irritated that he surrendered the fight for a public option, which would have moved the United States much closer to the kind of universal healthcare provided by nearly every other industrialized democracy.

That, though, is only one example of the disappointments liberals feel when reviewing Obama’s four years as president.  Though President Obama has halted the use of “enhanced interrogation” made famous by leaked photos from Abu Ghraib, he has reneged his promise to shut down Guantanamo Bay.  What’s more, he has continued fighting Bush’s “War on Terror” with a vengeance.  A robotic death-from-above vengeance.  Eric Holder’s legal gymnastics to justify the drone-strike assassination of an American citizen now rival the logical loop-de-loops of Alberto Gonzales.

Progressives have been further infuriated by Obama policies that validate the Republican’s supply-side economics, all while the President has failed, until recently, to move on important liberal cause célèbre like gay rights and immigration.  Policy reform on other crucial issues–education reform and action on climate change–remains largely on the shelf.

The question is: Has Obama sold his soul?

And does he know it?

Now, as the election cycle for 2012 goes into full swing, President Obama urges us “forward.”  Indeed, anyone with even a basic understanding of the history of recessions in the country must favor him over the bizarre logic of Mitt Romney who argues that because what we need is jobs, then we should cut federal spending (When, Governor Romney, has cutting government spending EVER resulted in more jobs?).  But while liberals and progressives know they want Obama to defeat his vulture capitalist opponent, it is another question as to whether he can actually persuade them to vote for him again.

As November approaches, I think back to the moment when Barrack Obama really appeared on my own radar.  It wasn’t long after his Senate win and his coming out party at the Democratic National Convention.  I read about and from him in Time, and I was impressed.  His views and words were nuanced, careful, and reasonable.  In Time’s excerpt from The Audacity of Hope, he related his struggles to find middle ground between progressivism and faith, including with anti-abortion protestors who occasionally visited his campaign stops.  What I took away from that first impression was that Obama was a man deeply committed to compromise, to meeting halfway.  I had no idea that two short years later he would be America’s first African-American president.

As it turns out, compromise has been the name of the game throughout the Obama presidency.  To slip past filibusters, Obama has had to offer concessions to the Republicans at every turn.  The public option, an early plank of the health care bill, was abandoned to appease them and get the bill passed.  He bought an extension of unemployment benefits with an extension of the sacred-cow Bush tax cuts.

Responding to criticism of Obama’s many compromises, Fareed Zakaria said in 2011, that the president was “a centrist and a pragmatist who understands that in a country divided over core issues, you cannot make the best the enemy of the good” and that his failure to live up to expectations was really an acknowledgment of the complexities of the current political reality.  To be sure, that will be the view taken by many an Obama apologist in the weeks to come.

This might be a more favorable picture of the president than that of the weak-kneed reed that bends to every right-wing breeze, but it is none-too-inspiring when placed up against the “Yes, We Can” and “Change” enthusiasm of 2008.

If we want to probe Obama’s integrity, though, we might look to his recent gesture of support for gay marriage.  Obama began his political life as an opponent of gay marriage, but added, “when you start playing around with constitutions, just to prohibit somebody who cares about another person, it just seems to me that’s not what America’s about.”  In keeping with that position, he opposed the Defense of Marriage Act.  In fact, he admitted in his book that, “It is my obligation…to remain open to the possibility that my unwillingness to support gay marriage is misguided…and that in years hence I may be seen as someone who was on the wrong side of history.”  Now, he has declared that, in fact, he believes he was wrong.

It would be easy enough to read all of this arc as a series of calculated moves.  Obama in 2004 read the handwriting on the wall and decided to keep evangelical voters satisfied by opposing gay marriage.  Now, in 2012, he has reversed positions in an effort to shore up his liberal supporters.

This narrative, though, neglects the simple fact that this reversal is unlikely to win him any significant number of votes, just as his previous soft stance was unlikely to really lose him much support from the left.  The gay and lesbian community is, ultimately, a small proportion of the population, and not many of them were ever likely to vote Romney.  At best, this move gets a few people off the sidelines, but demographically they probably live in urban centers in already blue states.

It could be that Obama really did make the move for the reason he claimed, because it was “the right thing to do.”

In that case, Obama may be skirting the boundaries of a different kind of drama, one in which he has compromised politically without compromising his integrity.  Or it could be that his willingness to be pragmatic is his hamartia, laying in wait for the final episode in his tragedy.

Departure

out

On the first day, the sky went out.

Davis had trouble remembering what they’d been doing when the noise started.  Whatever it had been, they had carried on unperturbed.

When the lights, television, and air conditioning gave out with the power, though, they all rose and looked about.  Hannah pried open the blinds with two fingertips coated in orange acrylic and said, “I can’t see anything.”

They could hear it, though.  Without all the background noise of whirring motors and vibrating speakers, the rumbling sound of the wind seemed overpowering.

Davis went to the front door and pulled it open.  He was struck by how suddenly the world simply was not there, the cracked cement walkway leading down to the street and the usual band of blue with wispy whitish accents replaced by a featureless brown howling.

“Some storm,” he said, forcing the door shut against the pressure of the wind.  A fine dust had coated the entryway in the few seconds he’d left it open.

“Guess there’s no Olive Garden for lunch,” Marcy said.

“Why not?” Hannah whined.

“We’re not going out in that,” her mother told her.  “Besides, their lights might have gone out, too.”

“I was looking forward to those breadsticks,” Davis said.  “I’ll call them, see if they’re open.”

But there was no signal on the phone either.

“Huh,” he grunted.  “The cell phone towers are out, too.”  Hannah exhaled a noisy puff of disgust and went to her room.  “Some storm,” he repeated.

For dinner, they ate cereal by candlelight, muttering their hopes that the power would come back soon so the rest of the milk wouldn’t spoil.  With nothing but the wind and dark to occupy their senses, they turned in early.  Marcy and Davis made love quietly and then lay still for two hours hoping to hear the hum of electricity returning to the house.

Hannah played games on her cell phone until the battery died.

 

In the morning, the brown haze had been replaced by gray.  When Davis opened the door again, the wind snapped at him and soaked his shirt almost immediately.  He still couldn’t see anything beyond the basic outline of their front porch as he pushed the door closed again.

Marcy brought him a towel.

He sat down in the living room, watching the sheets of water wash over the slits of window showing through the blinds.

At breakfast they went through the fridge, now nearing luke warmth, and used up as many perishables as possible.  They laughed about the combinations.  Ketchup and eggs and cheese and yogurt and a glass of orange juice and milk for each of them.  The sodas they left alone, but Davis joked that they had to use up the horse radish.

“At least we’ve still got the gas,” Marcy remarked while scrambling the eggs over the top burners.

For dinner Davis would figure out how to light the oven without the digital controls and they would use up a frozen store-bought lasagna that was still unspoiled in the freezer.  Throughout the day, the three of them sat around in the living room telling stories.  Hannah reenacted everything she could remember from their vacation to Costa Rica when she was eleven.  Though they remembered it as clearly as she did, her parents just smiled and nodded and laughed at all the right places.

Next, Davis told the story of setting up a picnic for Marcy just outside the university computer lab as a surprise for her while she’d been working late on her master’s thesis.

Marcy, though, got Hannah in stitches telling her about Davis’s brush with the swine flu–which turned out to be low-level food poisoning.  “He said, ‘Honey, if I don’t make it, don’t remarry until Hannah’s in high school, okay?’” Marcy chortled.  Davis bobbed his head good-naturedly.

The next morning, nothing had cleared up.  There was still no world outside.

“Should we try to drive to work?”

“We can’t see three feet,” Davis said, shaking his head.

“But we can’t call in either.”

“They’ll know.  Half the city must be stranded.”

“I told you we should have kept a land-line.  It would’ve still worked even without the power.”

“For thirty bucks a month?  How often is something like this going to happen?”

She shook her head as he closed the blinds.

Davis dug out some books he’d had boxed up in the garage and pushed the couch closer to the window to get enough light to read.  He looked up twenty pages later and caught Hannah sweeping the floor.

“What’re you doing?”

“I don’t know,” she answered.  “I’m bored.”  She kept sweeping.

The leaks started that night.  Every few minutes, one or all of them would leap up and chase the sound of a drip in the dark, damming it with tupperware and dirty towels.

By morning, most of the bulwarks had held, but Hannah was eager to mop up the areas where buckets had overflowed or towels had given up under the weight of super saturation.  They kept rotating and dumping most of the day.

That night, Davis and Marcy curled together in bed.  They told each other the storm would have to break.  It couldn’t go on much longer.  These whispers soothed them as they drifted off to sleep, only to wake at three in the morning (Davis checked the one wrist watch in the house) when they heard a crashing noise outside.  After the sudden explosion of metal ripping into metal, a car alarm roared above the trembling sound of the wind beating against the side of the house.

Davis went downstairs, shirtless in flannel pants and opened the front door.  He could hear the alarm more clearly and as the wind buffeted him with wet fists he thought he could make out a pulse of orange light behind the wall of gray outside the door.  He shone his flashlight into the mist.  No shapes emerged.  He reached his foot to step beyond the threshold, but suddenly, as if in warning, the wind gusted and forced him back.

He closed the door on the sound of the car.

By morning the noise was gone.

They tended again to the intruding water, let the rotation of pots and pans structure their day.  When the light gave out, they had a meal by candlelight.  Hannah complained about the offerings: cans of corn and beans and some Ritz crackers.

The next morning they noticed that the water coming out of the faucets was growing more and more brown.  By late afternoon, it was almost sludge.  Davis cut the water to the toilets and they began using the rainwater to fill the bowls.

“We’ve got water,” he told them.

“You want us to drink what’s coming through the roof?”

“We’ve got water,” he said again.

That night, Hannah did not complain: more cans of corn and beans.  The Ritz were gone, but they had a dessert of four Chips Ahoy cookies.

He misplaced the watch.  The three of them looked around, overturning sopping towels and shuffling around picture frames and knick knacks to move their shadows.  With the house so dark and the batteries on the flashlights failing, they abandoned the search.

He read to them the mornings after that.  He picked a yellowed copy of Ender’s Game to begin.

“I loved this book when I was a kid,” he told them.

He was amazed when, sometime in what must have been the next afternoon, he closed the book on the last chapter.

“I don’t think I’ve ever read a whole book in two days before in my life.”

“And out loud, too,” Marcy said warmly.

“Can I go next?” Hannah asked.

They began sleeping in the living room, Marcy and Davis bundled together on the couch, Hannah’s feet dangling off the edge of the love seat.  They tended to the water invading the house, following an unofficial but increasingly efficient routine, and they read and talked together in the den.

As the light began to fail after Marcy had gotten forty pages into Little Women, Davis took one of the remaining candles into the kitchen and swept its orange glow back and forth across the open cabinet doors.  He sighed to himself and rejoined the others in the living room.

Once he heard Hannah’s breathing slip into long, steady sighs, he whispered to Marcy, “We’ll have to do something.  There’s no food left.”

“We’ll ration what’s left.”

“We’ve been doing that,” he told her, gripping her upper arm firmly.  “There’s nothing left.”

“There’s some.”

“Better now, before we’re weak with hunger.”

She wrapped her fingers around his and said nothing more.

In the morning, before Hannah stirred, he quietly fished out his winter coat from the hall closet and found his racquetball goggles in his duffle bag.  Still wrapped in blankets on the couch, Marcy shook her head at him.  He shrugged in reply and turned.

He walked to the front door and placed his hand on the knob.

It felt cold, colder than he’d expected.

The door came open easily, blown inward by the unrelenting wind.  He pulled the goggles over his eyes and wiped the rain off his lips.  He took two moon-landing steps into the gray outside and squinted, still unable to see anything.

He reached back and grasped the doorknob from the other side.

With a heave, he pulled it shut behind him.