Friday, August 13, 2010

Nobody Asked Me, But...

Fall's first chill was still a distant breeze on the horizon, but the morning air held the promise of the inevitable. The summer had been sweltering, the kind of heat and humidity that makes a man in a suit rush to the safety of the air conditioned office. Better to have some objective to focus on and ignore the discomfort than to linger in the oppression of the heating pad that was the atmosphere.
He puffed out his last breath of freedom as he felt the moderated temperature on his neck. The revolving door to his workplace beckoned about as welcomingly as spinning knives in an abbatoir. He cheeks went from relaxed mushes to rictus-infused planes as the pod he stepped into rotated inside: first at seven o'clock, then nine, until his work mask was fully in place as the door panel reached twelve and he stepped into the entrance.
The lobby, cold beige marble with a stone tile floor, was hardly the sort of lobby an architect would design now. It forbade talking, for example, as words echoed to all corners. It radiated cold, a feeling enhanced by the over-conditioned air that was welcome when temperatures were in the 90s at 8 AM just weeks earlier, but now felt almost Nordic with temperatures hovering around 70.
He reached into his pocket and fished for his building ID. A sad fact of the events of the past ten years was that many if not most public buildings had enhanced security, not just buildings that were prime terror targets anyway. Even a crappy old insignificant building as this one, at the end of a backwater street across from a far more intriguing target, felt self-important enough to warrant at least three layers of security.
"I suppose it makes sense that Al Qaeda would attack this shitty old building, since the train station across the street is so much more selective of who they let in," he sarcastically remarked to his boss when the new turnstiles were installed.
He swiped his passcard over the sensor in the turnstile on this Friday. As all workers are wont to do at the end of the week, the turnstile mulled over the imposition on its rest and with a whine, zipped open after a hestitation that made it clear it was doing him a favor by letting him in. 
The man, tall and middle-aged with a bit of a paunch but otherwise in pretty good shape, shambled to the elevator bank, and mashed the "Up" button. And waited. And waited. Holding his passcard in his hand, he continued to wait as he watched the numbers on the dispatch board count backwards to 1. 
The doors parted, and he stepped in. One of the few modern amenities in the building was the information screen, which would flash everything from breaking news to stock market activity to teasers for recipes found on its website. He studied the stories with a jaundiced eye. Nothing came as a surprise to him anymore. Well, rarely...
1) Russia is fueling Iran's nuclear reactor. This is probably good news for John McCain's flagging Presidential campaign of two years ago.
2) Energy costs are rising, despite the fact that fewer people drive cars, and fewer people are taking travel vacations. Speculation over the Gulf spill? An attempt to exploit weakness in the consumer market?
3) There's a new superbug infesting hospitals in Europe and Asia that may be nastier than MRSA. It will have a widespread strike here sooner rather than later (it was reported in North Carolina in 1999, and has been identified in 24 states). Count on it. This one is so powerful that a new drug that's proven very effective against MRSA can't stop it. It seems to have started in India. Oddly enough, a not-insignificant percentage of surgical outsourcing from the US is given to India.
You read that correctly: surgical outsourcing. Insurance companies have found it cheaper in some instances to send a patient to India for surgery than to keep them here in the States.
We can't buy our pharmaceuticals from Canada but a mastectomy in Mumbai is on the table.
4) Yea. "Do No Evil."  Right. 
5) "I'll take the Whopper, and 40 mg of Lipitor, please." 
6) Your "awwwwwwwwww" moment. 
7) Re: The Cordoba Center in lower Manhattan, two hundred yards from the Trade Center site. Mayor Mike says it more eloquently than I ever could. I've had seriously disputes with his position on many things, like cuts in services to the poorest of the poor of the city in a time of lean, but in this I admire his stance. A few observations.
First, this is about as religious a site as any publich hospital that maintains a chapel. It's more like a YMCA or YMHA, both of which NYC contains, neither of which has that overt a religious message, both of which maintain family friendly atmospheres and safe havens for children after school.
Second, it's a privately-owned building being sold to a private organization. Just as the Empire State Building has every right to deny honoring Mother Teresa's birthday, we should keep in mind that these protests serve little in the way of prevention.  
Third, it's defiling "sacred ground" the way the strip clubs that surround the site are, and the way the economically-themed office buildings that are being built there do. Meaning, it ain't!
Fourth, the imam who wants to open the center stood shoulder to shoulder with his fellow Americans after the attacks. He has said some (mildly) controversial things about Hamas and Israel, but nothing that a thinking person hasn't thought on his own time: Hamas is not wholly evil, they feed and shelter Lebanese made homeless in the incessant battles with Israel and the abuses by Syria, and Israel is no saint when it comes to dealing with Muslims, Palestinians in particular.
Finally, the people who live down there, the people this would most impact and the people who were most scarred by the attacks WANT THE FUCKING THING BUILT! So all you red-staters, including you faux Noo Yawkahs who can't see past the color of your skin or the book your pastor preaches from, STFU, mmmmmmmmmmmK?
8) Trying to remember that Calvin & Hobbes strip where the kid did that thing that the stuffed tiger laughed about, but can only remember bits and pieces? There's an app for that. 
9) Apparently, God is without sin and has cast the first stones.
10) Ignert Amuricans give me little hope for brotherhood. Do they even know that Muslims worship Jesus, too, just not, you know, as a Savior?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Maybe This Recession Thing Isn't So Bad, After All

I don't mean to minimize the difficulties of tens of millions of Americans. Unemployment, debt, foreclosure, bankruptcies, homelessness-- these are all terribly and frightening things, and the small solace that most of those Americans, likely even some of my readers, will get through it and put together some sort of life afterwards is near-meaningless in the torrent of collection notices and dwindling bank statements.
Believe me, I've been unemployed, sometimes for years at a clip, thanks to Reagan and Bush. I've lived off credit cards, slept in my car, begged borrowed and stolen to get by.
Paul Krugman writes today about the darkening of America. In an effort to save money, municipalities and states are starting to reduce street lighting, are tearing up paved roads and returning them to asphalt, and making cuts to education, mostly because Congress refuses to return taxes on the wealthy to Clintonian levels.
Anyone who's read me for more than a week knows I'm all about the class warfare. I'm unafraid of that label, anymore than I am unafraid to be called a liberal. All men (and women) ARE created equal, and it's only the dint of luck via the genetic lottery, the state lottery, or the creativity lottery that some are more equal than others. While that needs to be applauded, it also needs to be taxed. Those who take the most out of society ought to be the ones to put the most back in, and clearly, drawing wealth out of the economy should be duly taxed, especially on businesses that incorporate.
Perhaps, though, some of these dire scenarios Krugman points out are blessings in disguise. For instance, take gravel roads. Those might force people who go out and buy a new SUV every two or three years to stop and reconsider that choice. After all, who wants gravel popping up to scratch your new paint job? Too, it might force people to rethink moving to remote areas, and to create communities out of closer in ex-urban areas. You know, where they might work, in an office park, one they can walk or ride a bike to. 
Surely the foreclosure market has forced people to stop building McMansions on postage stamp sized lots and to learn to live with a little less space, maybe combining the den and the living room into one, or skipping the second guest bedroom. Maybe you don't need that wine chiller. A decent rack in the basement and your refrigerator will suffice. 
In short, maybe the conspicuous consumption of the past forty years will finally crater in on itself. Maybe we'll have fewer commercials for Botox, and people will remember the joys of aging gracefully (says the 53 year old man who has managed to avoid wrinkles and laughlines but who has lost most of his hair and what's left is solidly gray). Maybe people will carve out a corner of that backyard and grow some vegetables and remember the taste of real food, not the salmonella-laced bags-o-salad that they pick up three for five dollars at the Piggly Wiggly. 
And a darker night? Maybe that means more people will be able to stand in a park and look up at the sky and watch nature's beauty unfold tonight and tomorrow morning. Maybe they'll go out and buy a modest telescope or pair of binoculars to watch the skies. Maybe they'll start paying more attention to the beauty around them as the cable gets cut, and the TV goes dark. Maybe people will take the hint and instead of lighting up their homes like Times Square, they'll light a candle or two and have an intimate conversation.
You know, talk? 
And maybe, through all this, we'll gain a deeper appreciation for the people around us in our community, in our schools, in our cities and towns, in our states, and in our countries. It's no accident that, when recessions and depressions hit America, we turn more progressive. We're all in this together and the white collar worker who loses his job stands to suffer as much and maybe a bit more than the laborer. After all, he has a lot higher board to dive from. 
And who knows? Maybe once you and I can break bread in a park together and toss crumbs to the pigeons as we hash out the world, we'll both realize that, white or black, left or right, we have more in common with each other than we disagree on? And then, once we see around us the way Congress has mollycoddled those who have and want to keep while we go without, we'll get angry enough to take our country back?
Or, maybe Fox will come up with another mindless TV show that we turn on and swallow the subliminal messages from.  

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Whiny Moonbats

There's a lot of truth in what John Nichols says in The Nation:
In what he admitted was an "inartful" diatribe, the press secretary unleashed on lefties who have objected to Obama's many compromises on economic and social issues and, above all, with regard to the expansion of the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan.
The "professional left," claimed Gibbs, is just a complaint club that will only " be satisfied when we have Canadian healthcare and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon. That’s not reality." (If we are deferring to reality, it is probably worth noting that very few people on the left propose Pentagon "elimination," although many of them agree with Congressmen Barney Frank and Ron Paul on the need to address the abuses and excesses in defense budgets.)
Gibbs hit with the left with what he apparently thought was his best shot: "They wouldn’t be satisfied if Dennis Kucinich was president."
Of course, what Gibbs failed to note, as Nichols points out, is the strong support the fledgling Obama campaign received from the left at critical moments in the campaign. Or we'd be pretty angry at President Hillary right now.
There's a lot of understandable anger from the left. We outlasted the wingnut right and their eight year Presidency and decades-long Congressional hijacking, and we expected more from an incoming Democratic President. Here's the thing: we did not win the election for Obama. At best, we gave him an early, fighting chance to win the Presidential nomination, and that's an old favor that should have been called in long ago.
As the saying goes, if you want a friend in DC, get a dog. We thought Obama might be our puppy, which conveniently ignored the reality those of us who were Hillbots kept hammering at over and over: Obama is essentially a centrist candidate.
He had to be. The dirty fact of American politics is, radicalism does not win elections. It wins nominations, so if you're going to anticipate some sort of quid pro quo, you better be hoping for great seats at the nominating convention, because after that, you're useless. And if you don't believe me, ask any right winger who is still waiting, thirty years on, for Roe v Wade to be overturned.
Indeed, liberals have been more fortunate than our conservative counterparts in enacting legislation that advances our causes, mostly because they are the right things to do and the majority of this country knows it. They know that unfettered capitalism is cannibalistic to the economy and to the American population. They know that a woman's pregnancy should be her decision alone, with some consideration given to the baby the further along its developed. They know that mass ownership of guns is a dangerous thing, and needs to be overseen and regulated at least as well as a car.
They get it. They get that private health insurance-- while better than no insurance-- is not the best we can do, particularly when we look around us and see nations giving healthcare to their populace no questions asked. They get that war has far fewer advantages to a nation than it has disadvantages, particularly an unnecessary war. 
But those same people have been made afraid of these changes by the very frustrated and frightened right. By putting up obstacles, we liberals have become frustrated and feeling a measure of impotence, as well. Advances that we thought were secure, like the Great Society, have been eroded and then successfully scaled back by a party bent on making us all hang separately. 
And doing it in the name of Christian charity.
My study and experiences with the American political landscape have made me an incrementalist. I confess to that. That makes me a wee bit unpopular in some circles, and I'm OK with that. Radical change happened in the Sixties, and we're paying a toll for that now and have been for thirty years as every "reform" has been laid at the feet of "dirty fucking hippies". 
And yet, there's a part of me that's also anarchistic. I see that companies can patent my genome, and imagine the worst scenario that if I contract cancer, I'll be charged a royalty. I see corporations flat out buy elections for candidates, and wonder how my voice can ever be heard again. I see politicians cynically claim to be for something, then in a miraculous change of heart, come out against the very thing they proposed. 
And I wonder if incrementalism is a viable option anymore. The worst part about that sentiment is, I may never know. Change in America happens in fits and starts, and can be either evolutionary or revolutionary. It may happen in the next ten years that steps to fight global warming will finally be taken as the Midwest and the Farm Belt choke on another Dust Bowl. And who knows, those steps might even work. 
Or it may happen not in my child's lifetime, but in my grandchild's lifetime and be woefully too little, way too late, and evolution will leave us in the dust.   


Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Unusual Suspects

The Federal Reserve is in a quandry. They've pretty much adjusted interest rates as low as possible (at the last meeting, nine banks requested an extension of the current near-zero percent rate, while three wanted it increased to one percent). They've loosened reserve requirements a little, but looser reserves are part of what got us into this mess in the first place.
And yet, the economy is stagnant. Sure, companies are showing stellar earnings growth, but revenues are lagging, sales are below expectations and most of the earnings gains have come from increased productivity, as firms have made more out of less, but that horse is being beaten to death.
Normally, we'd go declare war on someone, but the dirty little secret is this economic collapse happened despite two majors incursions in South Asia, in large part because of a bonehead President who lowered taxes during a period of war, thus soaking up any available surplus that could have been invested in economic stimulus now.
Indeed, part of why President Obama has been recalcitrant in bringing troops home is what he'd do with them. He'd be adding tens of thousands of people to the already bloated unemployed population. At least in Asia, they're doing some busy work under the political cover of two wars that Congress authorized, so therefore can't easily criticize.
The possible solution?
Normally, this is considered a way to kick off inflation, if not hyperinflation. The supply and demand of money works not a whole lot differently than the supply and demand for any commodity: the bigger the supply, the less "value" it has on the demand side. That means it will cost more to buy stuff. 
Here's the thing: right now, the economy is in dire danger of falling into deflation. You'd think that would be a good thing, and if there was full employment it might be. Deflation will lower earnings further, which will discourage companies from hiring more people. 
Probably. See, no one knows for certain because it's been such a long time since we've faced a truly deflationary economy. In an era where tax increases boosted the economy (see the Clinton tax increases of 1993), who's to say deflation is a negative for employment. 
This is what makes the Republican anti-tax mantra so ludicrous. Sure, no one likes paying more taxes but right now, lowering taxes on the wealthiest would be a little like adding sugar frosting to the glaze on a honey-dipped donut. It doesn't add anything but empty calories to the snack. The rich won't do much with this cash except stuff it in a mattress. 
Or worse, in China and other emerging markets. 
The Fed will gamble, and issue more money in the hopes that a little forced inflation now will mean a little more "real" inflation later. But not too much.   

Monday, August 09, 2010

But There's No Global Warming, Comrade!

Still, the clown car brigade refuses to face up to reality. Seven hundred people dying of heat daily. An iceberg four times the size of Manhattan island breaks off from Greenland's main glacier after sliding down a few hundred yards of meltwater, but hey, global warming is just a myth. Or it can't be responsible for this destruction.
There's your new meme from the asshats of Alaska et al. "Nobody could have forseen..." will now become extended from Condi Rice's mumbled excuse for the 9/11 attacks to encapsulate the single most reported upon, most documented, environmental disaster ever.
No one could have foreseen only if no one took their heads out of their asses.
Oh, the Moscow thing? Well, first off, Muscovites have never really needed air conditioning. Average summer highs are around 75. Temperatures this summer have regularly hit 100. This, coupled with weeks without the usual rainfall, has triggered massive wildfires in dry brush. Those have created a thick blanket of smog, and no wind to carry it off.
But no one could have foreseen this. Fourteen thousand Frenchmen can't be right.
The shortsightedness of the right wing has reached crippling lows. They're wrong about global warming, they're wrong about drilling for oil, they're wrong about budget deficits and healthcare and any number of issues that confront us and that must be tended to now.
They're just plain wrong.