Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The best of the story

I just posted a review on Goodreads of a wonderful book by Betty N. Smith: Jane Hicks Gentry: A Singer Among Singers (University of Kentucky, 1998). Briefly--it is a biography of the native mountain balladeer and Jack-tale-teller of Hot Springs, NC, whose memory in the early years of the 20th century supplied folk culture collectors like Cecil Sharp with much of their material; the book is also--marvelously--a compendium of her Jack Tales and her songs.

Again briefly--there is so much richness in this book, particularly the portions that describe the mountain life as remembered by Hicks Gentry's children and as passed down in family stories. I would have to transcribe whole chapters to give an adequate flavor so will let one passage suffice.
The Gentrys were hard workers. Everybody said so. They raised almost everything they ate, raised their own sheep, and Jane spun, wove, dyed, knitted, and sewed their clothes and household linens. Their children learned to work and always had chores. Sometimes Jane and [husband] Newt hoed corn after the children had been put to bed, and they were seen repairing the barn roof by moonlight. But in spite of the hard work and long hours, her children said their mother sang all the time and they always knew where she was for they could hear her singing. In the evening the family would gather around the fire for stories and songs, little hands busy, each with a shoe full of fleece out of which he or she must pick the briars and sticks. The child's own shoe was used because the amount the shoe held reflected the size of the child and the amount of fleece each could be expected to pick. [p. 5]
 So, if you want to read this book, do what I did: go to Gentry Hardware on the Appalachian Trail in downtown Hot Springs, NC, and buy it. It is on display up at the checkout in the back of the store, which is owned by a descendant of Jane Hicks Gentry.

I bought it on my second visit to Hot Springs. My first visit I had seen an Appalachian Trail-side marker about Cecil Sharp's song-collecting activities in the town--

 the "here" of the sign being this capacious house--

but while I recognized Sharp's name from my musical studies, I overlooked the name of Jane Gentry until I came back a second time and happened upon it while shopping with my wife in Gentry Hardware.

Another thing that makes the find of this book so fortuitous: in the hardware store, having picked up the book to examine it, I noticed right away the name of the author, Betty N. Smith. Years ago I had gotten  a beautiful walnut dulcimer from a Bill Smith in Marietta, GA, whose wife Betty was a ballad singer. It had to be the same person, and sure enough it was. Connections like that are to me not unlike divine visitations.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Math and aftermath

Just off the top of my head, I thought "aftermath" probably had something to do with figures and reckoning. I mean, "math," right? I turns out that "math" (or "mowth") is also an obsolete English word for "the mowing," and the "aftermath" is the second crop of grass that grows after the first one has been cut.

I like the idea of returning to the root of words as a way of extracting incisive metaphorical meanings. So-called "common sense" people who don't care about this pooh-pooh the power of metaphor. To them I say look no further than the presidency of the US as the controlling metaphor of the nation.

Lest we think this is a development connected with the money-and-media-driven extension of the campaign into a 3-year enterprise, think back to the very first election, that of George Washington. How was this new nation to work? There was a Constitution, but no government. All of that had yet to be developed, by trial and error as much as by plan. Who could be entrusted to accomplish this? No one but the man by whose steadfastness and leadership the nation had been willed into existence. Washington was the US.

Think back to the Civil War, when the mere election of Lincoln triggered the secession of the lower South. The truth of who the US was--at that very point--became Lincoln himself to such an extent that the slaveocracy refused to countenance the slow, tedious process of defending their peculiar institution; refused to stand upon the layer upon layer of law and institution that are the actual bedrock of the nation; and instead decided to cut and run. Simply because of the election of a single person to a single office.

There are those today whose moans betoken a similar outlook on the election of Donald Trump: the US has committed "electoral suicide." Whatever electoral suicide is or might be, Donald Trump has become who America is. Put this bluntly and baldly it sounds a little silly. But that does not belie the essential truth of the metaphor.

So if the 2016 presidential campaign is in some sense an aftermath--the first crop has been cut, and we are, er, shooting anew--what does that mean? The first crop, as I have written, was all the presidents and presidential candidates up to 2016, every one of whom (with a single, arguable exception) had public or military experience. The 2016 presidential aftermath certainly does not smell like public spirit. But aftermaths are--as the derivative secondary meaning has it--generally regarded as second best, at best, because in its original sense, as Robert Southey put it, "No aftermath has the fragrance and sweetness of the first crop."

To me the math (in the sense of arithmetic) of the aftermath is straightforward. Forget bitching about the Electoral College. It's here to stay. If you can only muster a bare majority in the popular vote, you're not going to come close to changing the Constitution.

Swing voters in swing states are privileged beings in the US, electorally speaking. Strong minority turnout in true-blue states like California and New York don't mean anything if they're trumped (haha) by swing voters in swing states. Where party stalwarts and ideological voters cancel each other out, swing voters in swing states make all the difference.

Swing-state, swing-voter motivation for Trump was stronger for two simple reasons: he was the ultimate political outsider, and his horns were shorter.
  • Ultimate political outsider: Remember that before Trump beat Clinton, he beat an entire field of well-established and well-funded Republican candidates. Then, during the general election, he benefited from the Democrats' own outsider issues, most notably from continuing and strong disaffection among Bernie Sanders supporters. Swing voters disaffected with the present gridlocked Federal government, regardless of who's really to blame--hey, it ain't working, and btw wtf is neoliberalism?--flocked to Trump as a vote of no-confidence. Did it matter that establishment Republicans and most of the mainstream newspapers--even conservative ones--did not endorse him? No; it might even have helped.
  • Shorter horns: How is it even remotely possible that an unprincipled, dishonest confidence man flouting so many rules of decency in private and in public could command the undying loyalty not only of the "throw-mud-at-the-tree-and-see-what-sticks" crowd, but also the values-voting evangelicals? As near as I can tell, it's some kind of corollary to the halo effect. There is, in fact, also a "horns effect" that's the opposite of the halo effect, but this isn't that. It goes more along the lines of "they've both got horns, and even though he's done some bad things--in many ways worse than she has--she represents what we don't like (see 'ultimate political outsider') and so we'll give him a break." It's as if the halo effect were added as a factor to the horns effect and thus subtracts from it (see, I told you there was math involved).
My favorite remark about the election came in a comment from a female Facebook friend: in voting for Trump "we did the unthinkable" to keep Clinton out of the White House. That's pretty strong. Imagine putting that on a bumper sticker. The sentiment is reflected in the fact that, in my neighborhood, some people removed their Trump yard-signs after Pussygate; but I feel sure they also voted for him.

And now, in the aftermath, people are protesting, and other people are protesting that there shouldn't be protests about presidential elections. Protests are in the American DNA. The US began as a protest movement. Among other things, protests influenced the political climate leading to, and are at least partially responsible for the Constitution (Shays's Rebellion), the 19th Amendment (woman's suffrage), improved working conditions and workers' compensation, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Protests are accepted, viable ways to influence the levers of political power.

Trump owes his office to a protest vote and thus is the first protest President of the US. I would go so far as to see he is in fact the first anti-President. His stated positions were not positions at all, as we will see. They were simply an opportunist's ways of stoking the protest vote in his favor and will for the most part dissolve in the legislative soup. Now that he occupies the White House, it will be interesting to see whether the established GOP (i.e. Paul Ryan) will be able to manipulate the protest candidate to accomplish partisan purposes. If we remember that Trump's real power comes from outside--not inside (i.e. Paul Ryan)--Washington, much remains to be seen as to how much he is influenced when insider party politics come up against popular expressions (i.e. protests) out in the heartland when it tries to mess with such things as Medicare.

Thus does the math seed the aftermath.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Brian Cook, continuing cousin

My cousin Brian Cook timed it well. He died earlier in the week and received a full-military-honors funeral yesterday, Nov. 10, in the National Cemetery in Chattanooga, TN.

The cemetery is always an inspiring place, to me anyway: facing out from the large American flag on the commanding central prominence is row upon row upon row of gleaming white grave markers, all of uniform shape, a solemn phalanx giving mute testimony of duty and faith.

But Brian timed it so that his service would happen when the cemetery was decked out for Veterans' Day, the next day (today): American flags placed at close intervals along the roadways that wind through the cemetery. What a welcome, and what a farewell! 

In the picture below--taken in the National Cemetery on the occasion of my father's funeral in 2009--Brian is the tall white-haired gent on the back row over to the right of the photo. He stands between my older brother (holding the flag) and me. Brian's hand is on my shoulder.

You might say it will always be there. On Wednesday night the family held a visitation at the home that lasted until 8. To get there I had a drive that usually takes 3.5 hours. For one reason or another I could only get away with very little time to spare to make it by 8. So what did I do? Brian liked to drive fast. Speed limits were to him only suggestions, and not very good ones at that. So I put Brian riding shotgun with me, and I set out.

If the speedometer needled dipped below 80, I would hear Brian yell out with exasperation (he had a great yell when he was exasperated), "What are you doing?!?" This way Brian was able to keep me up to speed, as it were, all the way past Morristown, Knoxville, Loudoun, and Athens.

Until Cleveland. Traffic slowed to a crawl. No merging happening, so it couldn't be construction. 20, 25, 30, 35, 40 minutes and still just a snail's pace. Where was Brian? C'mon, Brian, don't be letting this happen! Brian had disappeared.

Finally, after 45 minutes, as the roadway crosses White Oak Mtn., traffic merged over to the left lane. There was a glow up ahead, and smoke, and finally I was driving past a full-on forest fire burning right next to I-75!

And there was Brian again, throwing his head back and laughing his big laugh and then yelling, "What are you doing?!? Get a move on!"

I made it in time. My cousin Brian timed it well. 

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Hey you up in the rigging, here comes the con!

What's the use of a vocabulary if you don't use it? And why are there so many words? Shades of meaning. I wrote about this back in August in connection with the word "rigging": it is revelatory to go back to the root meaning of the word in order to understand its application to politics. It is not a stand-in for "fraud" or for "dirty tricks" or for "political shenanigans." The rigging happens in naitonal and state capitols and is carried out by elected officials in the form of gerrymandering and voter ID laws; it happens when political parties establish their rules. Anybody who thinks that words matter will appreciate this distinction.

(As for vote fraud, can a corps of volunteer "observers" do anything to counter voting-machine tampering, which is where actual fraud is most likely to swing an election? Planet 3799 Novgorod is laughing at you, America.)

The best word to consider in connection with this campaign, however, is "con." It is another word that has taken on a generic sense that careful users of language will want to root out. A "con" is synonymous with "swindle," and the "con" man carrying it out is just a bad, thieving person.

What this leaves out, however, is to me the fascinating detail that the root word of "con" provides. I wonder how many people not knowing the root might guess that--given the generic "bad guy" flavor of "con man"--the root word is "connive" or "contemptible"? Those seem in some ways closer to the heart of a con than anything you find in the actual root, which is of course "confidence."

Confidence. To take someone into confidence, to have confidence in someone, because they inspire confidence: such positive attributes at the root!

Donald Trump has from the very beginning of his campaign a confidence man. He is without political experience or public service of any kind, yet he is asking the electorate to have confidence in him as the leader of the world's most powerful nation. There is not much more to his campaign than his slogan: give me your confidence (your vote) and I will make America great again. How? Don't ask. Hey, he builds golf courses.

That's the beauty of the confidence man. The devil, as they say, is in the details.

The devil? In fact the devil of the Bible was the first recorded confidence "man" in that nothing in the way of convincing Eve or tempting Jesus could even have begun unless he first established confidence.

(Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is the consummate political operative appealing to policy rather than personality. We know everything about her political and public service because it is, well, public and subject to the Freedom of Information Act, which Wikileaks used to expose the State Dept. emails that continue to bedevil her despite their lack of personally culpable information. Is there some inverse relationship between how much we know about someone's political life and how much confidence we have in them? There appears to be something of that dynamic at work in this election.)

And here, by chance, is the word in a campaign-related story by Ben Fountain in The Guardian: The Big Con: what is really at stake on election day. When I say "by chance," I don't mean only that I've been mulling the meaning of "confidence man" ever since Trump started his campaign, but I've also been reading Kenneth S. Davis's book FDR: The New Deal Years, 1933-1937, glorying in the totally forgotten history of this critical time with which much of Fountain's article concerns itself, mostly by saying, well, it's been totally forgotten.

What is the Big Con to which Fountain refers? It is anti-government ideology, faith in the miracle of unimpeded markets:
40 years of well-funded, highly organized laissez-faire proselytizing and government-bashing have done a number on the American mind. The country got conned by a profound ideological shift, starting in the early 1970s as hardcore free-market, anti-government advocates launched a concerted effort to change the political landscape. 
"Got conned." To be fair--in the way that my argumentation has gone--these free-market, anti-government advocates were not con men in the empty-minded way that Donald Trump is. They were and are, after all, advocates who believe in something. Why they believe that, and why history shows the belief to be ill-founded, are other questions that Fountain addresses very well in his article--which seems to be essentially a book review of American Amnesia by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson. The book's subtitle pretty much sums things up: "How the war on government led us to forget what made America prosper."

Or, shall we say, "great"? The "conning" really comes into play when Everyman/woman, increasingly stressed by macroeconomic changes over which he/she has no control, turns in desperation to an empty suit like Donald Trump for an answer.  He is himself--with his celebrity status and his self-proclaimed great temperament--the answer, despite his absolute lack of public experience compounded by total ignorance of history and current affairs.

Such free-market advocates as Paul Ryan distrust him, as well they should, but at the same time they expect to be able to manage him. If he is elected, and if he is managed, here is how Fountain describes a continuing decline from a national prosperity established in part with a vigorous Federal government:
The New Deal goal of broadly shared prosperity has taken a beating the past 40 years, and the damage shows. By virtually every measure relative to other rich nations, the US has lost ground since the 1970s. We’re shorter (height is an excellent indicator of social conditions), we don’t live as long, more of our babies die before their first birthdays, wages and educational achievement have stagnated, and inequalities of wealth and opportunity are higher than at any time since the late 19th century. Mortality rates for middle-aged white Americans have actually risen the past 15 years, especially for non-college-educated whites. Maternal mortality rose 27% nationwide between 2000 and 2014. In Texas, the maternal mortality rate doubled between 2010 and 2014.
The very rich, of course, can buy what they need – healthcare, clean water, political clout. They have their walled compounds and private islands to retreat to. As for the rest of us – for instance, all the good citizens out there in rural Texas, Tea Party Texas, the hard country that was transformed by the New Deal – one tries to imagine how it might look in 70 or 80 years if current trends continue. Crumbling roads, jerry-rigged bridges, worn-out farms. A grudging, “market-based” energy grid. Clean water a rarity, and healthcare that’s hit and miss. Perineal tears, perhaps, are once again commonplace. A far-fetched scenario, surely, but no harder for us to imagine in 2016 than the lived reality of rural Texas 80 years ago.
What was it The Who sang? Won't get fooled again? Maybe not, but with Trump you're just getting conned. And what'll you do? Probably blame it on Eve.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Let Me Go: the holographic score/lyric sheet

If you ever wonder what musicians have on their stands, here's the working score of Let Me Go (Aus meines Herzens Grunde). As near as I can tell, this dates from sometime in the late 1980's or early 1990's.

The first verse is at 3:00 (though the chorale that starts the track begins at 5:00; presumably, since the first strain of the chorale is played twice--before v. 1 and v. 2--this was done to economize on space), but the instructions in the upper left hand corner clearly say "CIRCULAR - START ANYWHERE." The hand-written music covers a mustachioed person in a blue dress and high heels.

The chorale is a J.S. Bach harmonization of Johannes Mathesius hymn. 

Here are the lyrics: 

Fronds of balsam riming
Shrouds of whispered ice
Cabin fire
Take me out of the stable
Let me go, let me run
Let the smell of the spirit guide me
In the wake of the sun

Redbud hillsides spatter
Springtime's holy blood
Leafy lace
Earth embrace
Take me into the wedding
Let me go, let me run
Let the trumpet of yearning call me
Into the house of the sun

Deep green pools awaken
The nightly dance of love
Moonlight cries
Take me out to the water
Let me go, let me run
Let the waves of freedom wash me
Onto the sands of the sun

Burning pasts of autumn
Old trees blazing red
Blue sky
Opens wide
Take me back to the pasture
Let me go, let me run
Let the ghosts of mourning ride me
Let me sleep in the sun

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Green Old Party

Recently a Green Party supporter well-known to me dismissed my "lesser of two evils" argument relative to Trump and Clinton by saying that from 150 years out they both look the same.

One wonders: how do we get to 150 years from now? Do none of the intervening years make a difference? Is there such a thing as incremental change that will get us closer, a step at a time? Even more importantly, from a "green" perspective, if quick change is necessary to prevent some kind of drastic global meltdown, how will we get it without some connection to the levers of central government, which the Green Party will only ever have in an ice-age wet dream?

Here's a little mental exercise, just to take one issue presumably at the core of the Green agenda: how much closer would we be to a national program of alternative, non-carbon energy if Al Gore had been elected in 2000? Remember Al Gore, who wrote Earth in the Balance in 1992 but who still was somehow not Green enough for the Greens in 2000, who ran Nader and secured a GOP victory?

If you're a Green and say Nader didn't cause Gore to lose, it wasn't so much Florida (although it was there, really), it was New Hampshire. Here's Allen Clifton from Forward Progressives:
While most people focus on Florida, it was actually New Hampshire that gave Bush his victory. Here are the vote totals from New Hampshire in 2000: Bush: 273,559 Gore: 266,348 Nader: 22,198 Gore lost by 7,211 votes.
Now, being that the state of New Hampshire has gone to the Democratic candidate every single presidential election since 1992 — except in 2000 (1992, 1996, 2004, 2008, 2012) — are you really trying to argue that it was just a coincidence that Gore was the one Democrat to lose the state in the last 24 years and Nader’s 22,198 votes had nothing to do with it? If Gore had won New Hampshire, it wouldn’t have mattered what happened in Florida — he’d have been elected president either way.
Jill Stein says Gore--despite his highly publicized commitment to environmental issues--wasn't Green enough because ... Bill Clinton! Thus performing the amazing feat of equalizing the roles, influence, authority, and power of President and Vice-President. I'd guess that anyone who's ever been VP with ambitions to become POTUS (in other words, not Joe Biden) could steer her straight on that matter.

Back to that 150 year vision: There is no question but that the US would be much closer to a lower-carbon future had Gore been elected in 2000. Sixteen whole years down the drain thanks to the self-composting ideological sanctimonies and political imbecility of the Green Party!

Can we start again? Hillary Clinton is certainly no Al Gore on environmental issues, but the Democratic platform does mention encouragement of non-carbon energy sources. The GOP platform is pretty much drill, baby, drill.

0.198 steps forward? Or another sixteen steps back? Why does this feel so familiar?

And that was just one issue. Take many, many more, e.g. just one more: health insurance for those who couldn't afford it before Obama. It's going to be Trump-trashed, so be ready, Mr. Green, to get copies of my daughter's medical bills sent to you in your treehouse where you oh-so-loftily don't care about the real-life impact of politics.

Oh, now I get it: that 150-year vision thing means 150 years ago! Back to 1866! Well, okay, in that case the Green Party is doing exactly what it needs to do by guaranteeing a succession of Republican victories. I can only hope that the Republicans who get elected will take another stab at Reconstruction.

Damn the politics! Full speed backwards!

Friday, September 23, 2016

How the real 2nd Amendment holds the key to solving today's police violence (it's not what you think)

Today's Folly is brought to you by Bathrobes Pierre.

I have to say real 2nd Amendment, because the widely-accepted NRA view is uninformed by the context provided by the amendment's opening clause, "A well-regulated militia ..."

The result of this misinterpretation is an anarchic situation that is quite the opposite of a well-regulated militia. In this landscape of firearms and fear, the police have responded--out of necessary self-preservation, some say--with increasingly violent and militarized tactics that serve only to add to the fear and uncertainty, particularly when they skew along racial lines.

I write as a student of history, not as a legal scholar. But this has particular value when it comes to the 2nd Amendment. As I have written in numerous places, the militia of the Founders was a required civic duty, mandated and regulated by state law. It was not very popular duty, and better-motivated volunteer units gradually rendered the civic militia moribund, so that it was pretty much dead by the time of the Civil War.

What in the world does that have to do with police violence? The 2nd Amendment was inspired by a distrust of professional standing armies, which our militarized police forces in effect have become. They represent the complete alienation of the police function from the body of the citizenry.

That was not the case when there was a civic militia. These often participated as auxiliaries assisting in police functions, most notoriously in slave patrols in the South. There wasn't much money, and professional police forces were small. Citizen participation was essential.

Today we are awash in money, but it is being wasted at the expense of civic virtue. The belief of the Founders in the value of obligatory civic participation and the dangers of an over-reliance on a professional, militarized police are being borne out today. We need a revived civic militia to be part of a law enforcement function that returns some of the burden and responsibility to the citizenry at large.

Simply put, the states would require militia duty the way they require jury duty. Police would no longer carry weapons, but would always be accompanied by a small patrol of citizens, residing in the area being patrolled, among whom would be the only people authorized--with appropriate training--to carry weapons abroad (outside of hunting). There would be no more open carry or concealed carry except in this regulated militia context. Voila--a well-regulated militia doing work it was designed to do.

I believe that one result of the use of bands of local citizens in a required (not volunteer), regulated law enforcement function--by bringing more eyes on the street and more hands on deck--would be less reliance on firearms and a much-reduced incidence of police violence.

Reviving the civic militia in this way would have a huge, positive effect on law enforcement and on patterns of citizen involvement. Simple, yes; easy, hahaha!

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Watch Planet 3799 Novgorod Destroy America

Haha! You fell for the clickbait, America! Now I have hijacked not just your computer, but you!!! It was almost as easy as hacking a Diebold voting machine!

Planet 3799 Novgorod is in control. America, land of the dream, is about to wake up. Brittle, hollow America. My attack is primed and ready. I am about to make America crumble like a chocolate Father Frost at New Years.

Home of the brave? But you are so afraid! It is because you have lost your core. Or did you ever have one? Life, liberty, pursuit of happiness? Slaver hypocrisy then and irredeemable racism now. Crumbling like a hollow chocolate figure.

America, so willing to let mercenaries do your fighting and dying! Freedom isn't free? What is the cost of freedom to the average American? There is no cost! Only the cost of shopping for new shoes! America, so proud of your past, so ignorant of it, and so proud of your ignorance!

America, so deluded that you think firearms in the hands of the unorganized mass of people will protect you from tyranny! You will be the terrain of tyrannical anarchic mobsters when I am done with you.

America, so sure that freedom of speech will advance the truth, and so allergic to advancing the truth! Prodigal Son of the Enlightenment, you have blinded yourself to the need to render unto Caesar. You have no journalists anymore, just hyper-partisan dabblers in clickbait, toying with untruths for the entertainment of the gullible mass.

Your great faith in democracy boils down to one thing--belief in voting and then being left alone. No belief in governing. No belief in participation. No belief in shared sacrifice. Certainly no belief in paying your fair share of taxes. When I am done with you, you will make Greece look like Denmark.

You want the benefits of the government without wanting anything to do with it. Congratulations, your democracy has achieved rottenness! Ordinarily a country is like a house; everyone must work to keep the house in good shape. But you are all great pretenders that a government means nothing, so the house is falling down.

So now you stand to elect as president someone who completely represents you: an ignorant moocher who is totally fine with other people doing all the work for freedom. Someone with zero experience or respect for the work of government. Someone who "loves the vets" even while he did everything in his power to keep from becoming one himself. Someone who polls his audiences to find out what he should believe. A confidence man with no principle. "He speaks his mind," his admirers say. He has no mind. It's all hot air. "Putin is not in Ukraine. Oh, Crimea is in Ukraine. Well, if I'd been there blah blah blah." A hog caller of ignorance. Who, fortunately for us, plays right into our hands. He is our guy. He believes NATO is a liability. We will be glad to help him clear it off the books.

You deserve him, America. I want you to have him, so that you will finally lose in the world. You will learn how it feels to lose. You will be the clown of the world. You will forsake your allies for the gutter of idiotic nipple-gazing and History will sweep your hollow bones out to sea.

So how do I do this? I remove the last shred of rice from the dolmata covering the privates of your alabaster democracy god! Here are just a few tactics (and we have legions): hacked voting machines, character assassination, revealing the inner workings of your sausage factory. Simple. Your shallow, sanctimonious faith will crumble like rotten marble. Or like shards of white chocolate, which I prefer.

No one will know. Over here we are very clever, smart, and well-trained. And loyal. Loyal to the motherland. The motherland is coming back. Knowing that your so-called democracy has finally reached its rotten end, the rotten end of too many hyenas feeding on the same corpse so now they turn on each other. America, where there is no patriotism, only partisanship.

I almost feel sorry for Mrs. Clinton. Almost. To her it's like a bazaar. Can she lead? If not now, when? Why is she not out there confronting the exaggerated stories of her dishonesty? Why is she not on the barricades saying that all those things people are saying about the emails and the Clinton foundation are inconsequential, teeth-rotting candies of politics. You want real life, don't you? There is real substance to be had! There is the economy (stupid)! There is the future of the infrastructure! There is the future of the future! There is to be figured out how to keep people working in a world of robots! There is drama in the mighty salvation of a deluded people!

But no. A bang and a whimper. I almost feel sorry for pitiful Mrs. Clinton.

America, the motherland wins either way. That is the only way to play:
  1. If Clinton wins, it will look like she stole votes and won by fraud. But she will not have done it. We will have done it. We will have done it knowing Americans don't practice what they preach. It is not so hard over here in the motherland to practice what we preach because there is no pretending of life to be otherwise. America! Land of the dream! You are about to wake up. Presumption of innocence? That is such a joke! If Clinton benefits, it will be her fault! Twitter and Facebook will cook Clinton's goose! And then all the monads with guns will come out in their disorganized glory and then Obama will declare martial law and then oh boy.
  2. If Trump wins, it will be shown that he cannot have done it without our help, although of course Mr. Election Is Rigged--who will foment armed revolution if he loses--will put one shoe on the other foot and the other in his mouth in his efforts to pooh-pooh any such findings. But the absolute best part will be his frothing followers congratulating and thanking the motherland for beating Clinton! Think what this means, America: Russia has not only penetrated the vaunted American democratic armor and shattered it from the inside, it has also transformed super-patriots into traitors. It doesn't get any better, not even if the Cubs win the Series.
America! Land of the dream. You are about to wake up. The day after election day I will be eating your chocolate marble parts like it was the best New Years Day ever.

You can have your computer back now, America. But you are still too late. We have you. Planet 3799 Novgorod is in control. Happy chocolate Father Frost on your rotten alabaster penis.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Fair Share America #2: Skin in the Game

If you're an American citizen reading this, think for a moment of your civic obligations to the nation. By that I mean the specific actions that Uncle Sam requires of all Americans.  Not the so-called "civic duty" things you can do if you want to, like voting. I mean things you have to do or Uncle Sam will put you in jail.

While you're thinking, consider this quote from a future history of an alternative past:
After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the USA was emotionally united as it had not been since World War II. But emotions being the fragile and fickle things they are, there was no guarantee that the feeling would produce long-standing unity. Seizing the opportunity, President George W. Bush, together with leaders of both parties, used as a model the citizen militia of revolutionary days and prepared legislation that established a Homeland Service Department in which all American citizens were obligated to serve.  "All of us are American citizens," Bush told his countrymen and women, "and all of us, as American citizens, must do our part to protect our country and our way of life." Overwhelmingly approved by both houses of Congress, the result was a program--carried out, as was the old militia, in cooperation with the states--that dwarfed any civil defense or public works program ever before attempted in the United States. Everyone between the ages of 16 and 75 worked one week a year doing jobs such as screening airport baggage, patrolling harbors, rebuilding infrastructure, and assisting in daycares, schools, hospitals, and nursing homes. It took a while to work out the kinks, but by the beginning of 2004 the program settled into the same kind of routinized regularity that characterizes Social Security. Among the many positive ripple effects of the program were a sharp rise in voting to the regular 96-97% participation rate seen today (2046), a return to the citizen militia administered by the states within Federal guidelines, a consequent downsizing of the professional military, universal healthcare, a guaranteed income for all, and a decrease in the size of the Federal spending to the point that the national debt was retired in 2037.
The road not taken. We don't even imagine that such a road exists, even though it is not such a far-fetched extrapolation from the thinking and the experience of the Founding Fathers.

Why can't we think along these lines? As the nation has gotten wealthier, the more it has liquidated (meaning monetized) civic participation--the more professionalized civil service has become. Once upon a time the national defense was the responsibility primarily of a citizen militia, which, when there were no Indian wars to fight, built roads, put out fires, and performed police services. Those days are long gone. The army became a standing, professional one, and the work of the public became the job of professionals.

Not that this is necessarily or always a bad thing (says the former civil servant), but it has meant the complete alienation of civil work from the body of the citizenry to the point that we have forgotten that it's possible and sometimes desirable to do things another way.

The answer to the opening question of this blog? Pay your taxes (or at least file). That is all Uncle Sam demands from everyone in the way of service. Uncle Sam is a money machine.

Why would we want to revive this idea of civic obligation? Jon Stewart has come out in favor of a civil service year (and here is an organization promoting the idea). He says "we've lost something." Presumably he means universal service through a military draft. Well, actually, since the draft only applied to young men, we never had it in the first place.

His point (if he thought it through :-)) is more "we need something." The something we need is for Uncle Sam to require something of us other than money. If Uncle Sam is only about money, then inevitably those with more money are of more civic value to our dear Uncle.

If Uncle Sam is also about service, and if the service comes from all of us, then civic value attaches to us personally. There will be an end to monetized alienation, and the return of the prodigal will be cause for celebration.

Let the Follies commence!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Fair Share America #1: Taxes

Here's the meme that set me off:

Math checks out? What math? There is no math here. There is a mean-spirited gripe from
  1. someone ("we") who has a problem with democracy (never mind the fact that the 47% only comprise a little over 1/3 of the people who bother to vote);
  2. someone who seems not to know that, in our democratic republic, the people who do the actual voting for such legislation as federal tax rates are elected representatives in Congress, where the majority of members are millionaires;
  3. someone who conveniently leaves out the fact that the 47% who are employed pay a federal payroll tax on all of their wages (unlike very wealthy people);
  4. someone who conveniently forgets that retired people living on fixed incomes (Social Security, savings, and pensions) are among the 47%; and
  5. someone who can't be bothered actually to get the facts or do the math about progressive taxation in the US.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., famously said that taxation is the cost of civilization. Nobody likes paying taxes, but there it is. Of the two great ineluctables, I'll take taxes any day over death. If we have to pay taxes, it seems only ethical that the tax burden should be shared equitably.

In considering the nature of that burden, we can't determine fair levels of taxation without looking at the total picture of income. The total picture of income starts with gross income and then takes out all taxes: state, local, federal.

Here is a useful breakdown from the Center for Tax Justice. It's a little old (2011) but still useful for the sake of this discussion. The "after-tax" and "% paid in tax" columns are mine and show the results of simple calculations.

                  AVG. INCOME ($)  TAXES ($)    AFTER-TAX $     % PD. IN TAX
Lowest 20%       13,000                 2,262               10,738                       17.4
21-40                  26,100                 5,533               20,567                       21.2
41-60                  42,000               10,584               31,416                       25.2
61-80                  68,700               19,442               49,258                       28.3
81-90                105,000              30,975                74,025                       29.5
91-95                147,000              44,541              102,459                       30.3
96-99                254,000              77,216              176,784                       30.4   
top 1%           1,371,000            397,590              973,410                       29

Notice the percentage column. They are perhaps a little on the low side in 2016 numbers: reported a national average of 31.5% in July, 2015. However, for the sake of this discussion, it is safe to say what TaxFoundation said: that the average American pays "nearly one-third of their income in taxes."

But wait! What about poor people! They pay way less, as a percentage, than the upper income brackets! Is that fair?

Realistically, in the case of taxing lower incomes, it's more a "blood from a turnip" situation.

Take a look at the after-tax column. This is the disposable income available to pay to live. The average national cost of living is $3,258 per month or almost 40 thou a year. The bottom 60% don't make that much. There's simply no sense in asking them to pay more in taxes. The money's not there.

Where's the money? It's obvious where the money is. The money is at the top. And if you look at the disposable income for the top brackets, it's more than generous. Subtract the average cost of living from the disposable amount in the top 10%. Then go ahead and subtract something for college tuition. Then whatever you're left with, try factoring back in compound interest for some investments. The money gap gets wider and wider, not even taking into account how favorable the economy has been in the last 30 years to those in the top 10%.

So the question about fairness becomes one about capability: Who can best afford to give Uncle Sam the money he needs? To anyone claiming "Socialism!" or "Income redistribution!" there is a simple, conservative answer going all the way back to the Founding Fathers: civic obligation.

Unless they want to live in a broken-down nation of paupers, those with the lion's share of the money have a duty to pay the lion's share of the costs of government. As we have seen, they are in fact doing so, and it is right that they do so. So why complain about the 47% all the way to the bank, to their child's Ivy League university graduation, or to the country club?

Wealthy people feel taken advantage of. "Look at this, all my hard-earned money being used to pay for too much government, and all those poor people not paying a damn thing and living off my money in the form of welfare."

(In fact, redistributing income through something like a basic income plan would be the quickest way to reduce the size of government and eliminate welfare. But there's not much of that kind of thinking going on. A pity: Democracy would allow for it.)

The gripe is worth listening too, untrue and mean-spirited though it may be, because it points to something that really should be an area of concern: the distribution not so much of who pays taxes, but of who performs works of civic obligation. Which will be the topic of Fair Share America #2.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Yes, Donald Trump, the system is rigged. But not in the way you think.

If Trump has a mantra, it is "the system is rigged." I think he's been saying this longer than he's been saying "crooked Hillary."

Recently he said, "I'm afraid the system is gonna be rigged," presumably in November. Soon afterwards he said there is nothing to stop people from voting 10 times, which of course means "it's rigged."

Trump is following the advice of shadow paranoid mastermind Roger Stone, who publicly advised him to fight voter fraud by talking about it immediately. He needs to start saying, look, I'm ahead in Florida now, so if I lose Florida in November and Hillary is elected, it will be proof of voter fraud. And then, says Stone, look out: the election will be illegitimate, there will be widespread civil disobedience, and the government will be shut down.

And this: "When I mean civil disobedience, not violence, but it will be a bloodbath."

That's a weird clarification. If there is a distinction in there somewhere, I'd bet it's lost on Trump.

Because Trump's not real good on making distinctions. Let's look at this issue as an example. If we're going to have a bloodbath because of voting in Florida, we need to be accurate as to why.

"The system is rigged"--which Trump says over and over and over--is not the same as "there will be voter fraud."

All "systems" are, by definition, "rigged." This is a neutral statement. The word "rigging" comes from the system of ropes and pulleys that enable sailing vessels to function. When it is applied negatively, it still has to mean a system that has been set up, in advance, to produce a certain result. Loaded dice, marked cards, and a magnetized roulette wheel are rigged systems that the croupier Trump might be familiar with: they are systems that, by design, are "rigged" to produce certain results favorable to the player who knows the rigging apparatus in advance.

The electoral college system is a neutrally-rigged system. Sure, there are unintended consequences (the total popular vote decision might not match the electoral college decision), but it is rigged to work the way it does.

A good example of an unfairly rigged, loaded-dice/marked-card electoral system is the one widely in place in the Southern states during the Jim Crow era. That was a system rigged in advance to enable manipulation by local registrars in order to keep African-Americans from voting.

Or--even better because of the mechanical way it tries to "design" the electoral system for partisan advantage--is the classic, still-robust rigging that is the gerrymander.

Over and over and over, however, Trump's complaints have nothing to do with this kind of rigging. For example, the 2016 Louisiana GOP primary came in for "the system is rigged" condemnation--meaning it was rigged in advance to keep him from picking up delegates--when in fact it was the system working the way it was designed, according to rules that were in place well before the race began. The same thing is true of the Democratic primary: Trump's siren call to disaffected Sanders voters was the same old "system is rigged" mantra, when in fact the superdelegate system so problematic for Sanders supporters was neutral, as outsider Barack Obama demonstrated in 2008. Nor did the Wikileak DNC brouhaha expose a rigged system. It exposed operators within the system expressing personal opinions and suggesting how voters might be influenced, but no rules were changed, midstream, to prejudice the outcome.

Contrary to Trump's claims, the primaries were not systems rigged nefariously to deny votes, in advance, to any particular person.

Is the general election system rigged to deny Trump votes? Take Roger Stone's example, Florida. Its state administration is Republican and Trump-leaning. If anyone should have cause for worry, it would be Hillary Clinton.

Voter fraud? Sure, it's possible, but all studies that I've seen say that it is rare and not of a scale to influence the outcome of a presidential contest. Elections are closely watched. Any suspicious activity would be immediately reported. If a presidential contest were compromised, Roger Stone's bloodletting would not be necessary. The rigged system would crank out a decision, as it did in 2000, when law-abiding citizen and good loser Gore conceded.

Trump's claim that nothing prevents people from voting 10 times is one more example of how little he knows about civic reality. What's more likely is that states with ID requirement designed to prevent multiple voting will be punked by people with driver licenses and residences in multiple states. I'm guessing Trump will poll well among people with multiple residences.

This kind of potential fraud is an unintended consequence of the Constitution's conferring voting control to the states. We have a patchwork system for enabling voting, when we should have a national one. We are American citizens, after all.

The system is rigged.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Thomas Frank's "simple liberal mind" (or: What's the matter with Pennsylvania?)

If the so-called "progressive" left that rallied around and then abandoned Bernie Sanders has a mantra, it is this: the Democratic Party is ideologically bankrupt.

In a nutshell (just a little bigger than a mantra), the accusation is that the Democratic party has gone "neoliberal" and left the working man behind by encouraging free trade, globalization, and meritocratic advancement through education. Along comes Donald Trump to snap up the straggling working man with empty, substance-free "promises."

The argument is an application to the Democrats of Thomas Frank's "what's the matter with Kansas" critique. (Here he is applying it himself.) What frustrated Frank about Kansas Republicans was their penchant to vote "right to life" instead of economic self-interest.

To Frank and his progressive confreres "economic self-interest" can be defined as the needs of a 55-year-old laid-off white male factory worker in Pennsylvania (or Kansas, maybe). Those are the voters that Trump's idiosyncratic, non-Republican sales pitch is snapping up. Frank credits Trump with appealing to them by single-handedly "dynamiting" the bipartisan regime of globalization and trade agreements.

So, let me see here: the voters who according to Frank were not voting in their economic self-interest in Kansas are now, in Pennsylvania, voting in their economic self-interest? Is it not possible that Trump is attracting people for other reasons? Racial fear? Islamophobia? THE WALL?

In fact, economic self-interest turns out to be more complex than Frank, with his self-avowed "simple liberal mind," will admit. The laid-off factory worker might talk about PTT, but my bet is that he will more likely talk about immigration. If he is a "Reagan Democrat" (probable), he will also have caught the virulent, anti-government-at-all-levels Tea Party bug: Throw out the bums; the system is rigged. Knee-jerk, amorphously politicized emotional responses to economic stress might be producing that inner, economic self-interest voice that whispers, "Hey, let's blow up the system. It can't be worse than the one we have, right?" Donald Trump is the perfect candidate for these people.

But Frank's simple liberal mind can't tease these things out. With either side, apparently.

If it could, it'd be possible to see how there might be a lot of Democrats out there voting for Hillary because their economic best interests include elements that seem not to penetrate the simple liberal mind.

That white male factory worker? Well, he's male. But what about females? Could it be that there's an economic issue unrelated to globalization or outsourcing that interests them? You don't say: equal pay for equal work! See, it turns out that economic disparity cuts a lot of ways in the USA, and the gender cut may be the unkindest one of all to a certain, um, "class" of voter to whom--I can't imagine why--Hillary appeals.

That white male factory worker? Being white, he probably turns a blind eye to economic issues having to do with race. But what about the African-Americans supporting Clinton? What kind of economic issues might interest them? How about a place at the !@#$%%^&* table? Clinton is certainly far from ideal, but she has a history at least of working with the black community, as do the Democrats. The last time the GOP did anything for black voters was, what, 1872?

I've already said that the white male factory worker probably feels economically threatened by immigrants and is therefore unlikely to favor immigrant-friendly policies. OK, because the disaffected white male in Pennsylvania feels this way, does the simple liberal mind jettison the economic self-interest of Hispanics and Latinos? Apparently, yes, because its very simplicity is unable to handle complex issues like immigration, especially when they combine economics and justice.

Simple liberal mind: welcome to the complex political world of the 21st century. "Economic self-interest" is no longer just a construct of the middle-aged white male factory worker.

Who, by the way, would be much better off with someone who at least nods in the direction of unionization rather than someone who shakes his head furiously and adamantly, "Unions? No! Never!"

And what about health care? Is health care not an economic self-interest issue? What under- or unemployed person under the age of 65 was not positively affected by Obamacare? Unfortunately, however, Tea Party disease produces well-known symptoms that cause some people not to recognize their own economic self-interest.

So, political diagnosis being what it is, at least we know what's the matter with Pennsylvania.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

When a good myth goes bad

"When a good myth goes bad." What does that mean?

It doesn't mean "bad" as in "evil." It means "bad" as in the bread in the back of your cupboard that you forgot about and that's been there for 6 months and that if it weren't for the packaging you wouldn't even know what it was. It means "bad" as in the refrigerated, once-used jar of spaghetti sauce with the lovely whitish-green efflorescence growing on the inside. That kind of "bad."

And by "myth" I mean "story that purveys a commonly understood, accepted guiding principle or ideology." Which is by the way, the true meaning of the word. But like so many ideas in this world, the true meaning has gone almost completely "bad." Maybe with this one we can skim off the mold and retrieve it, just this one time. You ok with that?

So (as every explanation in this age must begin) back in 1787 when the USA was codified, there was a good myth. The good myth was that a free people must defend its own freedom; standing armies of professional soldiers--such as the one maintained by the British--were dangerous to liberty. A free people could not outsource the responsibility of the common defense to professionals. To do so would vitiate the virtue of the people. A free people must vote, a free people must serve on juries, and a free people must provide for the common defense. It was not a matter of choice. It was a matter of duty.

So strong was this belief at the time that every state had a statute requiring--requiring--compulsory militia service of all adult citizens. Not only was this a hedge against a standing army, but it was prima facie the ideal for a free people: "A well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defence of a free State."

These words were composed for the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776 by George Mason, who also went on to lead the fight for an amended U.S. Constitution. He was of the opinion that the draft being considered for approval by the people was soft on standing armies. At his insistence, by way of James Madison's leadership in the first Congress, the new Constitution included as its 2nd Amendment verbiage designed to keep the nation ever-reliant on a citizen militia serving as a matter of compulsory duty.

It didn't work out that way. The loaf got stuck way back in the cupboard. Militia service as a matter of duty was just too hard and too unpopular. You had to fine people that didn't turn out for the annual muster. Legislatures allowed an end-around by which people with money could furnish a paid substitute. Plus, there always seemed to be a few gung-ho individuals who were willing to volunteer to do the job. So naturally--eh, naturally--voluntarism replaced duty.

Thus it was by the 1830's, when Tocqueville was taking a deep look at democracy in America, militia service as a matter of duty was already moribund. No, worse than that: it had already rotted away to the point that Tocqueville got the facts wrong, saying that voluntary service was the only kind there had ever been, and that compulsory service was antithetical to the democratic ideal. Whew! Something stinks in here! And don't blame Tocqueville's French cheese!

Simply put, the spirit of '76 militia ideal says that all citizens, as a matter of duty, serve as trained, drilled citizen-soldiers in order to prevent the formation of a standing army. That is what the 2nd Amendment was meant to guarantee. By the 1830's the ideal had already gone bad. The 2nd Amendment was defunct. The institution it was designed to support had been allowed to disappear.

Today? Poor George Mason is doing the tilt-a-whirl in the grave. The USA worships its huge standing army. People have this idea that the 2nd Amendment has to do with personal, individual self-protection rather than about obligatory civic duty. And forget about "well-regulated." Professional policemen charged with civic defense are killing citizens with alarming regularity, while "concealed carry" licenses can be obtained without ever firing a weapon.

What to do when a good myth goes bad?

At least, in the first place, we can understand that it has, so that we can stop following the guidance of people who would stuff moldy loaf into our faces.

We can also stop to think that, if we want to live free in an ordered democracy, we're not supposed to have a choice with some things, like voting and jury service and, yes, militia duty. Those things are supposed to be a citizen's obligations.

Beyond that, I don't know, except to say that Jesus is coming soon. Or was.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Regeneration in three songs

A time of babies: grand-daughters, the first children of my children.

First there is Mirabel. I can hold her while she sleeps. The music from my head is by Thomas Tallis--If ye love me--one of those motets that puts your mind's ear in a cathedral empty but for you, the supplicant hiding behind a massive column, and, way up in front, a choir hiding behind a rood screen. It is late spring in the Shenandoah Valley where the flowers breathe history.


Then there is Edith. I am an ambulatory cradle in the hospital room, wocking (walk/rocking) her to the whispered tune-beat of Wabash Cannonball. It would be embarrassing for anyone to hear besides her. But she is fine with it and sleeps with the understanding that the lonesome one calling is not a hobo but an oboe. It is early summer in Knoxville 101 years after the one that Agee passed through Barber, but the magnolias are the same even if assaulted on all sides by construction as if it were Longstreet.


In between Mirabel and Edith is the final departure of my wife's mother. She has been on the decline for a while, and her death is not unexpected. But a mother's death puts a hole in your heart that never heals.

I hear from my son recently that he is singing Gaelic songs to Mirabel. I learn this with Brahms in my head. He is there often; my mother introduced him. I still have her book of 70 songs by him, for low voice and piano, with page dog-eared by her (who schooled me in this heresy) to the lied that most often piques my consciousness.

I could swear it has fragrance--not the page, but the very thought of the melody. Of course this is just my imagination. But isn't that all we have anyway? The sun-fueled yearning--the Brahmsian Sehnsucht--to follow the senses into and beyond whatever eternal quality the womb imparts?

Hearing Mama Singing

Thursday, May 5, 2016

First Time Ever! You Won't Believe What You're Seeing! (Trump and the Great Public Service Meltdown of 2016)

Take a moment. It won't take long. Go to the Wikipedia page on US presidential elections and look through the table showing the candidates for the major parties. The salient fact, for my purpose here, is that all of the candidates (with a single, arguable exception) from all of the major parties have in every election had some experience in public service.

By public service I mean they had been elected, or they had served as a high-ranking officer in the military, in the judiciary, or in the cabinet. The point is--they had experience working for the people and being paid by the people.

The sole exception was Wendell Wilkie, who ran against FDR in 1940. Wilkie was a lawyer best known for representing electric utilities. So even this one exception is heavily hedged about by the fact of utilities being a market highly regulated by public bodies for broad public benefit.

Which brings us to today and Donald Trump, the presumptive candidate of the GOP in 2016.

Zero public service. For the first time in American history.

I feel like* the climate change is manmade and can be traced back to a gaseous emission: Ronald Reagan's "nine most terrifying words in the English language"--I'm from the government, and I'm here to help. As a result of the buildup of this anti-public-service sentiment in the political atmosphere, the GOP now believes that government is terrifying at every level, for every reason, without exception.

Trump's 2016 candidacy shows that it is time to erase "public service" from the Republican lexicon of American values.

*Sorry, Molly Worthen, but you're wrong.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Myth-busting: "The government does not create jobs"

In an Atlantic article from May, 2015, that just popped up yesterday on my Facebook feed (due to the same algorithmic wrinkle that cause old celebrity death notices, e.g. Percy Sledge, to pop up whenever a fresh one, e.g. Prince, passes on), Delaware governor Jack Markell outlines some approaches to getting more jobs for Americans.

Economically, Markell appears to be a centrist, Clinton-style Democrat: he says we must accept globalization and its challenges. Trade deals like NAFTA and PTT are good. We must enable private enterprise to find and explore the new, post-global, high-tech avenues to employment, because ...  "governments don't create jobs." Governments only "create a nurturing environment where business leaders and entrepreneurs want to locate and expand."

"Governments don't create jobs."

Hmm. I know this is gospel among Republicans, but Democrats? Maybe, when it comes to jobs, the word "create"--for Republicans and for Markell--is code and has a meaning other than the one it actually has.

Do public employees not have jobs? I had a career in taxpayer-funded public libraries; my wife is a public school teacher. Are those not jobs? Created by the government?

More importantly, though, how much does the private sector depend on the government? Markell would do well to read a recent NYT interview with Barack Obama, in which the president "weighs his economic legacy." Part of it recounts just how it was that the US recovered from the worst economic slump since the Great Depression, and in quite a short time, considering the depth of the trough. Bailing out the financial sector, saving the auto industry, using Federal funds for infrastructure improvement, keeping interest rates at historically low levels: all of these involved the government. All of these "created" jobs by enabling corporations to hire (or continue to hire) people. Without that government activity, the slough might have become a bottomless sinkhole.

This is just one example, and it might not even be the best one. Did the Tennessee Valley Authority create jobs? Count the marinas at all those lakes and the big-box retail outfitters supplying all those bass fishermen. Did the interstate highway system create jobs? Trucking companies don't seem to be hurting. How about the internet? Jobs, jobs, jobs (including Steve).

It is a false distinction to call all those things simply a "nurturing environment." Not only did every one of them happen as the result of people working in publicly-funded jobs, but those achievements all have become foundational: an essential part of job creation. They point to the economic benefits of a vigorous and creative government such as seem impossible in today's USA because of the spread of Ronald Reagan's anti-government ideology.

Obama addresses this in the Times interview: a "mythology has been built up around the Reagan revolution" that Obama would like to "puncture." The myth is that Reagan "slashed government and slashed the deficit and that the recovery was because of all these massive tax cuts" when in fact it was due to "a shift in interest-rate policy." And of course the consequence for Obama has been the straitjacket of a legislative branch in thrall to the myth.

What about the future? Markell and Obama both note that the profits of the recovery have fueled widening income disparity. Markell basically shrugs his shoulders and does little more than tout education--a tired nostrum if there ever was one.

Obama at least has a clue. The interview finds him at a plant in Florida that was--ahem--created by his Recovery Act. According to the article, if the plant had been built decades ago, it would've employed thousands. Instead, because of advances in robotics and computerization, it employs 300. Job loss is as much due to technology as to globalization. Even if sales remains flat, if a company can reduce overhead by replacing people with robots or automation, it's money in the bank.

This is hardly a revelation. But for some reason the prevailing notion in the US today seems to be that, at a time of historic, disruptive economic change on the same scale as--if not greater than--the Industrial Revolution, the government should just move to the back seat.

I'm in the middle of reading Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton was an astoundingly creative force in the formation of the new United States. Not only was he the principal voice of the effort to ratify the Constitution, he was also the person who--as the first head of the Treasury department--breathed economic life into the new central government. His handling of war debt, formation of a customs regime, and foundation of a national bank all showed how a central government might operate "to promote the general welfare."

In this he was bitterly opposed by Jefferson and Madison, who formed a party--the first such in American history--in order to stymie Hamilton's programs. The party was called Republican. It was not the same as today's party, which traces its lineage to Lincoln, but its small-government ideology was very much like the small-government ideology of today's post-Reagan Republican party.

That such an ideology is pro-business or good for jobs is belied by the fact that Alexander Hamilton, that ally of traders and friend of bankers, believed in the value of a strong, active, and creative central government. But he seems not to have thought of it as "governmental" activity in the same way we do. He referred to it as work on behalf of the public.

We in the US face economic changes that will be (already are) as far-reaching and deep as any in history. And we seem to want to do this without the kind of public-spirited activity that has been linked to American prosperity since the very beginning. I call folly.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

What should be the official book of Tennessee?

As is being reported nationwide in the US, the Tennessee legislature has declared the Bible to be the state's official book.

Come on, Tennessee. You can do better than that. An official state book should at least mention the state. The Bible fails miserably in this regard, unless "Babylon" is code for "Nashville." Or Gehenna, the trash heap model for Hell? It sorta sounds like Tennessee.

It's obvious to anyone that this is an act of politically correct posturing. Morristown's Sen. Southerland is a stripper on a pole. He just wants you to throw him your vote, or even better, your Jacksons.

This is not a criticism of the Bible per se: it is an admirable collection of books (important point! Pick one book, Sen. Southerland! Let me guess: Leviticus?) written by people seeking the key to eternity, divining the intent of the divine. In this regard, Tennessee doesn't come out too well, at least when it comes to helping refugees and the poor, an important theme in many of the books in the Bible, including--heads up, Sen. Southerland--Leviticus: e.g. Lev. 25:35, which says "if thy brother be waxen poor, and fallen in decay with thee; then thou shalt relieve him: yea, though he be a stranger, or a sojourner; that he may live with thee."

(That's King James-speak. I won't even get started on the issue of which translation to use.)

No, the Bible will not do as an official book for Tennessee. If there's going to be an official state book, don't just follow the unreflective path of political correctness. Instead, set some criteria for selection and have a reasoned debate. Isn't that what legislatures are supposed to do?As a native and--except for 3 years in Babylon--lifelong Tennessean, and a career librarian besides, may I suggest the following:
  • It should be set in Tennessee, not "Tennessee" (meaning Babylon or Gehenna).
  • It should be readable by as many as possible, at least from young adult up. 
  • It should be fiction, like the parables of Jesus. 
  • It should be primarily about children and/or animals. New York has Make Way for Ducklings as its state book, which is hilarious considering the driving behavior of NYC cabbies. Lucky Minnesota has Little House on the Prairie. What would fit the bill would be an amalgam of Huckleberry Finn, Harry Potter, and Winnie the Pooh, set on the banks of the Tennessee River.
That's it! So, what's out there that might be considered? Well, in fact there is just such a book : The Signal Mountain Spelling Book of JuliUn Tod. Written by me.

So maybe the TN legislature will take up this proposal and do the right thing. And maybe the title of this blog is Follies O'Barry. And maybe I too am just a stripper on a pole: throw me your Jacksons ... though the paperback is just $13.27 or $11.94 and the pdf e-book? Free.