Archive for January, 2014

Peace

I, Tiresias, though blind
have proffered my warnings
have given my piece
spoken that which I have seen
yet they continue

Children
flailing
touching stovetops
learning through scar tissue and searing

So, having been ignored,
I am still content
because everywhere
I feel the rich undercurrents of a world alive
ready to snap, like a ripe pea pod
bursting
forward

Woe is Capitalism

In a heartfelt op-ed to the Wall Street Journal, poor beleaguered and oppressed venture capitalist Tom Perkins lamented the rising “war” on the 1% and astutely likened the backlash against the über-rich to the Kristallnacht during which Nazi street thugs terrorized Jews and destroyed their livelihoods in a grim warning of the coming Holocaust.

Very apt comparison, Mr. Perkins. Really, bravo.

Perkins’ cluelessness is not an isolated phenomenon, though. One need only flip the dial over to the house that Ailes built to hear similar propaganda trying to forestall the country’s growing awareness of the widening income inequality that has quietly characterized the hidden story of capitalism in the West over the last generation.

Ironically, it’s comments like Perkins’ that seem to cry out for some sort of uprising, but of course, to a privileged, entitled member of America’s new feudal class, any sort of protest must be exactly like the final solution. (Again, sir, your logic is unassailable! Thank you for helping us see the light.)

An understanding of history that extends beyond caricaturistic notions of WWII, of course, offers us other analogies with which to view this widening gulf between the rich and poor in this country. I have often quoted the old Chinese saying from The Good Earth in my observations about this issue: “When the rich are too rich… and the poor are too poor, there are ways.” Indeed, during the twilight of the Gilded Age–the last time in American history when the gulf between the wealthy and the rest of us got nearly this wide–there was popular discontent that led to systemic changes, trust busting, and labor movements.

America avoided communist revolution in the twentieth century by righting its course and adjusting legal, fiscal, monetary, and tax policy to restore a healthy balance to the economy.

That’s what need to happen now, too.

Yet so far, surprisingly it hasn’t. Robert Reich, who has become something of a herald of this inevitable social upheaval, remarked on this lack of outcry recently and cited three likely causes. His explanations–student disengagement (partly because of debt to this corrupt and broken system), worker anxiety, and cynicism toward government really don’t do one lick of work to explain why there is no simmering revolution, why the people are not in the streets.

Model billionaire Bill Gates, though, may have accidentally struck on the answer. In recent interviews, Gates has noted that statistically, the world is looking pretty good these days.

Based on the numbers, Gates concludes we have poverty–true, horrible, desperate poverty–on the ropes. He believes we can eradicate it this century.

A bold claim that many might dismiss as rosy-colored foolish optimism, but there are some numbers to back him up. In terms of hunger and meeting basic material needs, most of the world’s poor are doing better than in the past.

Global Capitalism–boogeyman of the Left–has kinda worked.

Kinda.

Gates says he is less concerned with income inequality than with sweeping away destitution and preventing devastating disease. And if all of the 85 people who controlled a third of the world’s wealth were acting like Bill Gates, then I too might not be terribly concerned with inequality. And indeed, this may be why ultimately there is no massive movement taking to the streets:  people aren’t going hungry. They’re in debt up to their eyeballs, but they’re not worried about their kids starving to death. (But go ahead, Tea Party wankers, destroy welfare, social security, medicaid, and all the other parts of the safety net; see how that works out for you.)

But when there are guys like Tom Perkins in the world, then I think we still have a live issue.

Capitalism has brought greater material prosperity to the poor of the world, but it also continues to be an engine of exploitation–both of the natural world and of human capital–that operates at the expense of human empathy and long term sustainability.

Many argue that we should abandon the model, that capitalism itself has failed or will shortly fail completely. And indeed, in its current form that privileges capital above all the other factors of production, I too would say that big-C Capitalism as we see it operating on the global stage today must go.

That kind of Capitalism.

But markets are still pretty effective ideas and they can do a lot for us in crafting a better world. We need a balance between all these guys–the Reichses warning us about the consequences, the Gateses keeping us focused on the essential progress being made, and yes, even the greedy sons of bitches like Perkinses to keep driving markets forward–to promote the sort of economy we need for the rest of the twenty-first century.

 

What Obama Should Say Tuesday

Here’s what I wish Obama would say this week:

We have given the American people a government that responds more to special interest dollars and cares more about drawing battle lines over ideology than it takes up the real challenges of the day or engages in honest debate about, not what each side wants, but about what is truly best–objectively, rationally, empirically–for the American people.

2013 was a year of failure of government. Government–my government, our government–failed to deliver the promise for a smooth transition to a more just and more humane healthcare system. There were glitches. There were inconveniences. There were failed pledges.

2013 was a year that the government was so deeply divided, that for a time, we could not even find enough common ground to continue running the government and without funding, we allowed our government to shutdown.

It was a bleak year for government.

Now, at the beginning of 2014, our Republican friends have come together with the Democratic party to choose a new direction. We have struck a bipartisan budget deal that will prevent any such shutdowns for the next year by continuously funding our government.

But we should not congratulate ourselves too much on this step. No, we should not be patting ourselves on the back and shouting, “See, we can get things done.” Let us remember that this is merely the absolute, bare minimum that our roles as elected representatives of the people require.

The American people did not send us here for just that. We must do more.

The government shutdown and the problems with the rollout of the Affordable Care Act exchanges prove something very important, though.

They prove that government is an important part of our society.

We know that our Republican friends have been very vocal these last few years, voicing their opinion that government is too big, and that smaller is better. And we can agree with them on that basic idea. That government is best which governs least–so long as it gets the job done.

But we need our Republican friends to understand that it is a very large and very complex country we have been sent here to govern. We need them to accept what our Founders discovered after the experiment in minimal government called the Articles of the Confederation–that hardly any government at all will not keep this nation great.

We must find the balance between a lean government and one that serves the interests of the American people.

The American people deserve a government that does not waste their hard earned tax dollars or obstruct their pursuit of happiness.

But they also deserve a government which promotes the common good by promoting a strong economy, by protecting them from skyrocketing healthcare costs, and by investing in the future through education and research.

That is what we are here to do–in this chamber, in this city.

I know that our Republican friends have brought some citizens with them as guests tonight who have not bee fully served by the Affordable Care Act. And I am glad. We designed the law to improve conditions in our healthcare system. We want it to do that for all Americans. If there are citizens poorly served by it, then we should seek ways to fix the law to help them. We want our Republican friends to help us do that. Not to move backwards and sacrifice all the important gains we have made in controlling healthcare costs and in protecting Americans’ rights to coverage. But move forward, together.

To Make Things Better for America!

So let us continue the march forward begun with the bipartisan budget deal and work together to make life better for Americans and for the world. Come together with us and let’s solve the problems America sent us here to solve.

Yes, that’s what I wish he would say in the State of the Union.

The Velocity of Your Intentions

Whether painting the side of the fuel tank tar black
or cutting at his nails with the rusty clippers
they must listen.
He is father, after all.
He must be obeyed.
Past the obsequies,
The boys were promised noisy adulation;

Because the quiet dignity of his vigil over the material
has passed
and what has happened is not worth repeating.

The Prisons of Our Own Making

This week Pulitzer Prize winner Chris Hedges warns that America’s democracy is gasping its last at the same time that others like Uri Friedman lament a twilight settling over the Arab Spring and freedom in the world at large.

Is it the end of an era of expanding liberty? Did 9/11 kill our hopes for a free world in the 21st century? Will the power mongers of tomorrow use intrusive technology to squelch freedom?

To answer these questions well, we would need to have a shared concept of what freedom requires–what are the essential liberties? Hedges’ concern is the government’s power to snoop without limits, to be via computer surveillance as efficient as the East German Stasi was during the Cold War in its suppression, not of terrorism, but of any voice that challenges the status quo.

Despite this tangible fear, Freedom House, which Friedman cites in warning of a decline in freedom worldwide, gives the United States a perfect 1.0 on its 1-7 scale. There is a disconnect in these two metrics. Hedges is alarmed by the erosion of privacy, assuming that it is a necessary component of political freedom. Freedom House, though, rates the country based on its citizenry’s political rights and civil liberties (excluding privacy, apparently).

It seems that one side is assuming the worst possible implications of societal change, while the other is clinging to the best possible interpretation of the laws themselves.

There is one microcosm which we can examine that, quite strangely, can draw in both arguments. How, after all, can a country truly be considered “free” when so many of its citizens patently aren’t free at all? Freedom Watch’s summary of rights in the U.S.–which often seems strangely disconnected from those perfect scores given to the nation–notes that over two million Americans are incarcerated in the United States, the largest body of prisoners in the world. That’s a figure more than half a million higher than China, a nation we criticize for its poor human rights record but which nevertheless fails to match our incarcerated population despite having six times our population. What’s worse is that this prison population is disproportionately comprised of minorities.

In short, the American “justice” system is the greatest proof of our society’s injustice.

Freedom House acknowledges these facts about our system, while failing to recognize that these also constitute a gross negation of civil and political rights. When convicts are denied their right to vote–to cast a ballot against the laws and the legal system that has doled out so much injustice to blacks and hispanics, for example–then they are excluded from their full role in society. Thousands, if not millions, are victims of a racially biased system and yet are blocked from expressing their democratic rights at the most basic level to change that system.

These numbers are staggering and any honest reckoning with them requires that we not only restore the convicted’s right to the ballot, but that we shutter the prison system for all non-violent offenders. Our “justice” system as it stands is a mockery of justice, without any pretense of “reforming” criminals. It is a callous system of punishment–often run now by for-profit companies that exploit human misery while countenancing the horrific injustices within the prisons themselves where gangs and drugs perpetuate a culture of violence and rape, becoming in essence “monster factories.”

Ironically, the very technology that underlies much of Hedges’ fears for our democracy provides a ready way to repair this blight on our social landscape. Given modern technology, we could engage addicts and other petty criminals through counseling and empathy therapy while still protecting society from recidivism through electronic monitoring. A more comprehensive and integrated system of GPS and ankle bracelets could allow surveillance to replace prison sentences for many, freeing up valuable prison resources to deal with the actual violent offenders, perhaps even reforming some of these instead of just warehousing them through their terms. Yes, Hedges’ concerns are extremely important, and they demand that these systems of surveillance be transparent and open to public scrutiny, whether it’s the NSA doing the snooping or a probation officer with an access code. But to cure what ails us, we may need to look at the deepest, most important elements of liberty. Once we recognize that there is already deep rot there, we must press for reforms in the way our legal system deals with the accused and the guilty.

Without such reforms, we are all locked away in a prison of our own making–trapped by a harsh sense of false rectitude that only cloaks a callow and cruel racism within the system.

bugle blows and choral hymns

and when the tide sweeps back
will we know it for what it was

stone-smooth wishes
held in dear little marsupial pouches

mine own Telemachus
reading out the lines carefully

the rueful girl
with hair blown wild in the dirge-like wind

listen close now
for my sonata with the missing bars
and your bow without a fiddle