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Entries in economics (28)

Friday
Aug062004

Capital-ist Punishment

Today I was asked by one of the many people who force me to be a leftist (by showing their rather idiotic devotion to the right) what I thought of capital punishment.

Capital punishment? Well, I haven't formed an opinion yet. As far as I am concerned there are more important things to worry about, like what the hell makes us such a crime ridden nation. My response to this dude's question was this:

Capital punishment? Hell, I'm all for capital-IST punishment!

I think that dudes like Ken Lay should be burned at the stake and stoned simultaneously. Okay, maybe not, but a couple weeks of aversion therapy at Abu Ghraib might help. Okay, I don't know what really should become the fate of these modern day men of biblical scale evil. Make that MORE than biblical scale evil. Murder sucks, but so does stealing the livelihoods from hundreds or thousands of people at a time, which may indeed lead to some crime down the road. But such is our way of dealing with things in this fine land. Wait till too late, then pay more for a substandard "solution."

There is talk I have heard about the costs of helping people learn to read, get jobs, develop self-esteem, etc. One would think, one would HOPE that maybe that cost would be justified in the results that are bound to come back. Some people need more help than others, and if it took $10,000 to get a person through any of a number of courses that would improve their lot in life, allowing them to become valuable citizens, I think it would be a good thing to do at a good price.

But no, how do we handle this stuff? We get some crazy politicians in who got elected because they promised smaller government, and with that promise, so went the various social services that actually help people. Yes, the government is out of the business of providing care and nurturing services to citizens. I have heard that, in California now, the state's leading mental health care provider is the PRISON system. The prisons house more mentally ill than hospitals or other treatment centers. Now is it just me, or is that a little fishy?

Michael Moore has done a few movies now that sort of trace the paths of the modern American worker. Roughly speaking, the path goes from small corporation that needs all the dedicated employees it can get, then a long boom period for the whole company, leading everyone to think it will be a utopia, then the plant closes down because the company "needs to stay competitive," and this leads to depression, uncertainty, financial woes, family breakdown, and some to a life of survival crime, and worse. Some simultaneously become mentally ill AND criminal at once. What is going on here that crime is so rampant? My feeling is that these people feel it is the only way to survive in a world that has chewed them up and spit them out. And, with the social services pared back, there is more untreated mental illness, less literacy, less sense of purpose in life. There are so many things that can fail when people are let to fall through the cracks. Drug use and crime are mostly the result of some other series of events and decisions. Locking people up has now become the de facto response to these offenses.

But a prison is not a mental ward. You wanna know where the money went once it left the state, county, and community services? It went to build and staff prisons. Prisons are inelegant but effective ways to keep the mentally ill out of society. The prison guard union is one of the most powerful lobbies in Sacramento now. But look at this... the cost to keep a prisoner fed, clothed, and showered is somewhere upwards of $60,000 per year per inmate. And, there is hardly any good evidence that that course of action does ANYTHING to make the prisoner any more prepared to be a functioning citizen on the outside, should that day come. Prison guards are paid rather well—some over $100,000 with overtime rolled in. Hmmm, we have a lot of money to pay guards and keep prisons afloat, but dwindling resources to fight the crime where it matters most: before there is a population of lost and confused citizens. Some might need help from childhood, some might need it from adolescence, and some when they lose their jobs and have to fight for their dignity when their lives are shattered because they can't hold their finances and families together.

The prison guards have no incentive to actually rehabilitate people. Hell, business is good and, instead of there being less and less work to do, there is more and more! There seems to be a symbiotic thing going on here: Companies get to pull all sorts of shenanigans like downsizing workforces, depressing local economies (Wal Mart style), and generally creating instability in the name of making a buck. The unstable atmosphere is one that creates crime, drug use, and other social ills. The notoriety of the crime eclipses the work done to prevent it, and in this stealing of the show, the answer to the question of what to do about crime is to put everyone in jail. There are a lot of petty drug offenses that are just totally uncalled for. I suppose a lot of them are small time users who try to use enough so they can forget what a crappy life they lead at dead end jobs, and the hopelessness of it all. There have got to be thousands upon thousands of dollars tied up in the prosecution of these petty offenses. But no one has prioritized the cheaper solution to fight the trend: give people a life worth living. No, its easier to just lock people up for $60,000 a year than it is to counsel them, teach them to read, help get them jobs, etc. at a far lower cost, as a preemptive measure against the crimes that would happen, and DO happen as a result of the ABSENCE of these services.

For some criminals, life is better on the inside than on the outside—at least basic needs are met more consistently than on the outside. But realize this one thing: if we are all on the inside one day, we will not have that freedom stuff we say we like so well. And what a shame, that we chose to pinch pennies where they are needed most. Or what a shame that we wanted Wal Mart here so we could save a few bucks on Chinese crap, only to find many employees can't survive on the wages, and a number of other locally owned shops were put out of business. Either way, it is a great problem for the community. Sometimes being out of work altogether is easier to reason with than working 40 or 60 hours a week and not being able to make ends meet, unless you go peddle some meth on the side.

It's greed at work, I tell you. Greed (otherwise known as capitalism) is what is sending our society down the shitter. Capital punishment is just a band aid on a chest wound. In some cases, we are killing the worst criminals for being victims themselves of a criminal class that is celebrated as the foundation of our way of life. The real problem is what happens when the bottom line comes first and foremost before the well being of the citizenry. This is a dangerous trend. Corporations give no reason why they should be trusted. They steal, they pillage, they abuse people and the environment and yet they are more powerful than politicians! If government lets go of the reigns with regard to social services AND prisons, we will literally be up shit creek without a paddle. The government, criticized by many conservatives to be too big and bloated, actually serves a purpose: to keep people working. What bailed the nation out in the New Deal era? The government putting people to work, to build their communities and the nation. The government, as an employer, has a role to fulfill, and that is to keep the nation on track when times get hard. But a corporation looks the other way; when times get hard, they put people OUT of work (and sometimes times don't even need to be bad for this to happen), which leads to even more hard times because people can't afford to live the way they did. Now that Bush has let all his corporate buddies run free, and record numbers of people are out of work, the government is a lame duck. They got elected on the strength of letting free enterprise be free, but is now stuck holding the bag of unemployment thanks to the companies deciding to offshore, lay off, close plants, etc. I think if the government can afford a war, it can afford to put some people to use in rebuilding our failed cities and towns, and restoring some dignity to citizens.

Capital-IST punishment. It will attack the heart of the problem.

Friday
Jul302004

Prosperity?

I think we have more profound issues in our modern lives that are a problem of prosperity than of poverty.

The whole American Way of Life™ is a nebulous thing. The American Dream, as I understand it, amounts to living enough of a prosperous life that starvation, the elements, and ignorance, is all kept at bay, and the principle ways we define that sort of success (in material terms) is having food on the table, ownership of a house, and a college education. It may not be a lot to hope for to have a house, and in modern America, a car or three, and an education, but it is way more than many people in the world ever come to expect, or even think of. But we hope for and seem to expect it simply because it is attainable with some effort.

I don't have the stats in front of me, but something leads me to believe that in the grand scheme of things, even with things as they are, America has to have one of the widest ranges of educated people. Higher education is an option to all who can afford it or who are very determined to find a way. But I find an issue with the race to get on the higher education path, and the ultimate goal—to make more money in a profession.

The way I see it is this: every nation needs to have a variety of workers to fill the range of jobs available that ultimately serve the needs of the nation as a whole. It is a huge range of people who are supremely well educated in specialty fields, all the way to the people who sweep the streets and take the garbage out. There are just all those sorts of tasks that need doing in order for society to operate. Not everyone will be able to do everyone else's job, so by default, there is diversity and interdependency among everyone. Everyone has their role to play. Not all are going to be college educated, and not all professions will require it, though most jobs will require some sort of skill or aptitude that gets honed as the worker becomes more experienced. What I see happening here in America is that we have everyone racing to get an education to be some sort of white collar worker doing more and more sophisticated and prestigious jobs making more and more money. That is sort of a nice phenomenon, but it is sort of like everyone racing to one side of the boat and the boat being on the verge of tipping!

I have to state that there are some jobs that have no reason for existing in a society that actually has to work to keep its needs met. There are jobs that are totally superfluous to survival, the ones that will fail their workers when people have no money to spend on things that aren't critical. In an economy of survival, there will be no need for the excessive numbers of MBAs, CPAs, cell phone salesmen, dog groomers, web designers (unless they transfer into other communications), telemarketers, fast food workers, wedding coordinators, oil change specialists (and anything else that caters to the automobile), car detailers, gas station attendants, advertising execs, most employees of shops at a mall, coffee baristas, manicurists, Amway salesmen, promotions directors at media outlets, smoke shop employees, sysadmins, mid level managers, guitar techs, soundmen, Wal Mart greeters.

Most of these jobs exist solely because we are artificially able to indulge ourselves with leisure time, disposable income, and our feeling that we too, on occasion, can be kings for a day, while other people do our work for us. Most of the "professions" above will not be of much use to those who cannot pay for them, a number that will become greater and greater. There will always be the wealthier class that can afford to be more reckless with their money, but now most of these jobs are servicing Joe Q. Public, who himself is among these ranks. So just imagine how it will be when Joe Public can't sell John Everyman the goods and services that Jack Citizen used to make at a defunct or corrupt corporation. A lot of jobs will simply not be supported, because the support system is the general public who works in the same fields, and the general public won't be buying because they can't pay for stuff that isn't purely for survival. Gone are the days when a man could work on a Ford factory line and earn enough money to buy the product he makes. No, now he can’t afford it because he is out of that job, and while the company is now manufacturing offshore, they are making a killing, charging way more than ever back here in the states. Today’s reality is that you work at Taco Bell for $6.50 an hour, but you have to spend that much and more for dinner from Pizza Hut (owned by the same company, thereby putting your hard earned cash back in the hands of your company). Barbara Ehrenreich found that as a full time Wal Mart employee, she could barely afford to buy some clothing that was marked down without putting her budget out of whack.

You know, you and I do a lot of things from day to day that sort of allow us to feel like we are somewhat more sophisticated, because we can afford to get the cell phones, buy the Starbucks, put shiny spinning spoke wheels on our SUVs and so forth. We sort of live this falsely premised affluent life, while still living from check to check. So do the dudes who sell you the cell phones, the Starbucks coffee, and the spinning spoke wheels. They are in it just as much as you or I. Economically, it isn't too far away from what every other economy does, except for one thing: the utter uselessness of this stuff. These things are just fluff. Icing without the cake. Most other economies are premised on everyone having something that someone else needs, and will pay or barter for. But let's just say that, in an agrarian society, the farmers make the crops and then everyone buys them because everyone needs them. The shoemaker gets business from almost everyone, the people who make clothing and real, functional devices are needed and patronized. In the traditional economy, the network of support is strong, but it is based on need, not illusion of need generated by shrewd advertising. There are still those who do a niche job that only a privileged few can afford, but mostly, there is a network of people meeting each others needs. It's sort of old fashioned by today's standards.

But in our economy, the entire boat is tipping to one side because we have either given up or lost our connection to our smaller scale communities and socioeconomic systems. We are selling each other pieces of an imaginary life that is only transitory while we can sell stuff that is made in far away places and brought to us by complex systems of transport and legal mumbo-jumbo. But the fact remains. You won't need that digital camera from Wal Mart or Best Buy when you can't feed your family. What you will need is food. But you are probably dependent on the food that you can buy at a store, or at McDogfood's. And the store or restaurant is dependent on trucking, which is dependent on oil, which is dependent on our government fighting wars do defend or secure new supplies, which is dependent on...

Ignorance. Apathy. Greed.

So we can afford all this shit. Big deal. We can afford it because it is cheap. It is cheap because companies will do any draconian act it takes to make and sell stuff in volume in order to get maximum profit, including offshoring and loss of local jobs, etc., but now that we are out of work, we can’t afford the stuff we used to make! (That is, without the promise of credit, but notice we are going more and more in debt, both as individuals and as a nation because we spend money we don’t have in order to maintain a lifestyle we have convinced ourselves we can’t live without.) Our own prosperity has done us in! When we made or bought only what we needed, we had a good thing going. It all hovered near stasis. But even for all the great things all our college educated people do in business, science, humanities, and politics, somehow they, we, have missed the point. The real ignorance that is not only tolerated but encouraged by corporations is what will do us in. For the sake of a cheap widget or a piece of the good life, we have sold out our communities. As Jim Kunstler said, every few dollars you save at Wal Mart on a hairdryer takes untold amounts of money out of the community. Kunstler says we are sleepwalking through history. We are. Otherwise we could say, no, we don't need that DVD player made in [insert name of unheard of third world country here], we need to patronize the local economy (and that doesn't mean Wal Mart). Okay, maybe there is no DVD maker in your community, but would you suffer without it if it meant you had a respectable job as did everyone in your area?

The market for entertainment is great. But it too is another empty future. There are some that say that the growth of the entertainment market sort of coincides with the trend toward overseas production, service economy, etc. I read a book called The Global Trap for my final English essay last semester. In it there was talk of what is called "tittytainment," which is basically the new opium for the masses. About "tittytainment":

The perspectives, as they were presented, were concentrated on two central concepts: “the 20:80 society” and “tittytainment”. According to this expert knowledge, the two-third society that Europeans have feared since the eighties is no longer an adequate description of the future division of wealth. Because of the technological development, only twenty percent of the able-bodied part of the population will suffice to maintain production and economic growth in the next century. Left is four fifths of the able-bodied without a job. As a way of pacifying these 80 percent, tittytainment has a large support. The expression, introduced by Jimmy Carter’s former security adviser Zbigniew Brezinski, is a combination of entertainment and tits where, instead of sex, is referred to the nutritious milk from a nursing mother. We are talking bread and circus for the masses.

Entertainment as a pacifier? Who would have thought? You put people out of work (or, if you are a Republican you say "big business should be free to 'stay competitive'," even if it means laying off whole workforces), and then you give people something to keep them happy. Entertainment is more fun than education for most people, and if, in the same broad stroke, you make it somewhat harder to get an education, you can keep people where you want them, which won't be a challenge to the powers that be. Boom! Hierarchy where 20% of the WILLING and ABLE (not the sick or disabled, or unmotivated) workforce are able to produce enough to get EVERYONE by, while 80% watch TV, play video games, or just plain do nothing. Keep people entertained, keep them couch potatoes, they won't want to leave the TV because the "reality" shows are too exciting to miss. If you can accomplish that, they won't be able to read philosophy, political science, or learn about art or science. No, they won't learn how to be revolutionaries, nor will they want to. Give these out-of-work people some food, entertainment, and a jail cell for when they go out and commit survival crimes, and you have a fine control over the populous. Wait a minute—isn’t that what Brave New World was about?

Now, you wouldn't let that happen, would you?

So, why do we think doing manual labor is below our dignity? Why have we turned all these critical tasks over to the immigrants who will do it because it is a step up from wherever they came from? Hard work builds character, and this nation, at its greatest, relies on good character, not a bunch of college educated people who are so smart and clever they utterly fall into a trap of their own greed, which plays nicely for those who would profit off the illusion that we are a better society because we have eliminated the need to do our own work. Our immigration problem is due in part to our system of education and capitalism that attracts people way from the rural life, leaving no native born American to do the job, thus making the job free for an illegal immigrant who would work for a fraction of the cost that an American would.

So what if you aren't college educated? For ages and ages, farmers and laborers weren’t college educated, but they held the most critically important profession of all. Craftsmen who made furniture or weavers that made clothes were also key members of society. There is no shame in contributing to society, whatever job it is that you do, but realize some are more critical than others. Kelli likes to remind me that she is set up to go into old-fashioned press printing and book making when the time comes. There is no shame in working for a living, if it means you can actually have a life. Freedom and character weren't won by sitting on the couch watching "reality" TV. And, in the last four years (coincidentally a time when reality TV just shot up in popularity), look at all the freedoms that we have lost, or are setting ourselves up to lose. Turn the TV off, get off the couch, learn a real trade, read a fucking book, and pay attention. The 20/80 society may not be here today, but if we keep on sleepwalking through history, it will arrive.

Tuesday
Jul202004

The Fall

On this day, thirty-five years ago, two Americans landed on the Moon. It was more than a victory for America; it was a victory for humanity. I mean, it was bigger than life. Hell, we were even fighting an unpopular war back then!

But now, here we are, just a shadow of that great nation. Instead of having a space age pursuit of knowledge, innovation, and determination to be the best of the best the whole world over, we are now living like in medieval times. In 1969, we were battling communism which, at the time, was a noble thing. But at the same time, it was so far off our shores we really didn't need to worry about it taking over our way of life. Vietnamese communism never posed a threat to us, but allowing it to advance from nation to nation may have been an issue, so in that regard, we were justified in fighting a war. I'm not sure it had to be the war in Vietnam, but the war against communism was not all that bad a thing.

Today, what are we fighting against? Iraq? Ideologically, Iraq is not that dangerous. The nation had a corrupt and evil leader, no doubt, but we were never in any way going to be ruled by that sort of thing, and after the first Gulf war (with Iraqi troops surrendering in unheard of numbers), the army was pretty impotent. The people don't hate us. Iraq is not my enemy. Like Muhammed Ali said about Vietnam, “I aint got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. Aint no Vietnamese ever called me a nigger!” I have no reason to wage war on Iraq. Bush is more of an enemy of the state. I wish we could get the hell out and stop being the instigator there. But some idiot in power over here (he certainly aint no Lyndon Johnson, and damn, it sucks to say this, but Dubya aint even a fucking NIXON!) has decided his little turf battle/blood feud has to go on at the expense of the taxpayer, in lieu of everything else that would reflect a concern for citizens. Forget having the money to advance humanity by taking us to places we never went before. Forget education being the main force behind American ingenuity and progress. Forget having a nation with some sort of strong economy founded on the key industries that hold a nation together. Forget having a single earner be able to hold a household together, with a little to spare. Forget all that. George DuMbya Bush (sic) wants to revert to the dark ages where the sword serves as judge and jury, ignorance is encouraged because it allows the elite to stay in power, or all our industrial might is emasculated due to global trade and investment outside of our borders. Our "economy" is one where we all serve each other burgers, t-shirts, gasoline, manicures, dog grooming and a bunch of other stuff that just won't cut it when we need to get back to real work. Gone are the days when one man could provide for his family and still take a few weeks off per year.

I talk to people about this stuff all the time. Frankly, I barely have anything else to talk about. Yesterday I had someone scoff at me for being too radical. She wanted to tune me out as much as any right wing bible thumper. She accused me of not trying to see things from another perspective. Nonsense. That is the fucking place I CAME FROM! That is the place I am LEAVING as I find out more by reading book after book, internet article after internet article, and listening to public radio, and ultimately, working in the community, and knowing people who have to put up with all this, but once knew a time when they didn't. So I am too radical? I like to think of it as being "awake." It is sort of Buddhist, don't you think? I don't know what the alternative is for me, but I see it in other people. People who just roll over in the face of greed at their expense, or at the question of who to vote for (this year is really interesting—people like to ask me what John Kerry will do that Bush won't do—but I say, do you really want four more years of Bush doing what he has already proven himself able to do, like FUCKING UP OUR NATION AND THE WORLD?) Right now, jumping off the Kerry cliff would be nice, if only for the fresh air blowing by. I might be awake, but I feel nearly as helpless as anyone who has given up already. But then I think, this is what leads to more of the same. It doesn't matter to me what party is in charge, though right now I believe the last three Republican administrations have really done some serious damage to the nation. That isn't to say that I think the Democrats are golden boys. Au contraire. At this time, the Democrats are the only ones who can get Bush out of here, so I have to vote for them. I don't know of any established party that reflects my views accurately. Michael Moore isn't a party, but he is one of few who can speak truth to power these days, and still have any impact with the public. I'd vote for him. I already sent in my three contributions of $9.25. He is one of the few Americans with his head on straight.

So I am radical because I allowed myself to let my conscience govern my words and deeds? I am radical because I believe our war is morally bankrupt? I am radical because I believe that a single mother should be able to work at Wal-mart and not be a second class citizen forced to choose between paying rent or feeding her kids? I am radical because I believe that the billions spent on the destruction of war could be billions spent on changing the energy infrastructure, or convincing the public to change their habits, both of which cost a lot less in lives? I am radical because I think that America's greatest days are behind her? I am radical because I think people, not corporations, should be the sole determinant of how resources are spread out? I am radical because I think that the founding fathers and the Constitution should be our shining beacons of light in all the decisions we make as a nation? I am radical because I think the government is hypocritical about family life (ban gay people from creating a stable household, while simultaneously making it really fucking hard to hold a hetero family together due to unemployment, uncertainty, low wages)? I am radical because I think there is NO CONCEIVABLE reason why people need to starve on our streets, when we can afford to destroy a country on the other side of the world, and call it our gift to humanity???

So fuck me. I'm a fucking RADICAL.

Just remember one thing, Mister Born Again Bush. Jesus was a dissident. Jesus was a RADICAL. Jesus thought outside the box. Jesus WAS NOT A PATRIOT. Jesus would kick your ass if he knew the shit you are pulling in his name. Jesus believed in dignity for all. Jesus abhorred corruption. Jesus offered compassion. Jesus was colorblind and genderblind. Jesus sought unity among people. Jesus went in and did the job he was here to do. If George Bush is here to talk about how Jesus wants this or that, or how he is born again, let that asshole go fight for his own damned oil, and avenge his old man's bully. Let him get beaten up by a mob of angry black men, or Iraqis, or anyone else he has pissed off. George Bush is not MY president. I didn't vote for him, nor did I vote for his war. I sincerely hope some terrorist guys can read this and give me immunity from any terror. Fuck, I didn't vote this clown into office. I want no part of him. I won't go so far as to say I am pro-terrorist, but I will dare to try to understand that there is something they are fighting for, and they believe they are right as much as any of us do. We are mired in this self-righteousness. So much for understanding and compassion, or even fucking DIPLOMACY.

So instead of aspiring to man's greatest potential, marked by the lunar landing, we are still fighting in the streets (at home and abroad), still tribalistic (on a global scale now), still allowing our basest instincts the opportunity to rule us. Our actions are driven by fear instead of evidence. War is more important than peace, oil is more important than lives, the sword has resumed its historical might over the pen, and democracy in Iraq is more important to our leader than democracy in the United States (I'm glad he is committed to democracy, but it would be nice if he gave it to the people who hired him). Nowadays, the language of the Constitution is again the language of radicals instead of the mantra we all live by, but the hope of an egalitarian future in a new land is gone too. What is there to aspire to now? Should we just go ahead and wage war on everyone who denies us oil and resources? America is half in the dumper. Do we just finish the job, or get off this path? Does anyone care? Is anybody IN THERE? Why can't we have Buddhists in power? At least they are awake.

Tuesday
Jul132004

Support Our Troops

I've had this idea (for less than five minutes, since an H2 Hummer cut me off on the road) that maybe in order to show a true solidarity with our troops in Iraq, that Hummer drivers in the USA should actually put themselves in the shoes of the Marines and Army guys on the ground in Iraq. Of course, this would mean that they would be shot at with guns and howitzers, subject to landmines and tripwires, and possibly assaulted with rocks and molotov cocktails. I have also heard about cables being run across streets from one building to another, at about the right height to decapitate the gunners with their heads peeking just above the top of the cab level.

I mean, think about it: the Hummer is a military vehicle. And think about it: there are some dudes driving the civilian version of it because its supposedly a "safer" vehicle than most of the other cars (usually the case when you are bigger than 80% of them). Then, for godsake, there are those who drive it because it makes them look cool. But then, think about this: a civilian can drive a Hummer by choice and be the safest on the road here, but there are servicemen doing the World's Dirtiest Job driving combat-equipped Hummers, and losing life and limb doing so. So let me get this straight. Civilian model = safest car on the road in a still relatively safe country; military model with a gun and armor = something that might get you killed in the World's Most Dangerous Country.

It just seems unfair to me that people would buy huge ass vehicles that are gas hogs, just so they can show off and be arrogant Americans when, on the other side of the earth, there are dudes that could not possibly afford such a luxury on their salary (or even twice that sum), but have to drive one just the same as a company car, but with the added hazards of getting shot at while they operate for a government that is there to make the place safe for secure oil trade, which in turn makes Americans even more arrogant about their "liberty" of using gasoline like its water. I tell you, I curse and spit at the times I see a Hummer with some sort of idiotic patriotic bullshit bumper sticker or window flag.

Driving a Prius is a patriotic statement. It is even a sign of a person's intelligence and sensitivity to the world. Anything that even attempts to use less gas is something that at least is aimed in the right direction—lessening the need for gas on a big level will decrease our government's drive to fight for it. But you know, that's just a dream. But don't let a far-fetched dream get in the way of conserving, if in fact that is something you want to do.

So if you drive a Hummer because it is a big bold statement of what it is to be a well-off American, just be assured I think you are stupid and egotistical (not to put too fine a point on it). There is no justifiable reason to drive something like that on city roads just so you can go to the grocery or the CPA's office, or to impress clients. It is overindulgent, and, given that the world is already in bad shape for its use of fossil fuels, it is also anachronistic. It is a step backwards. If you drive a Hummer, don't be a hypocrite; go where you will be shot at and ambushed. Then you will get the true Hummer driving experience, and that gesture will show a true solidarity and empathy with the troops. All of a sudden, showing off won't be as cool.

Thursday
Jul082004

Corporate Syllable Soup

A lot has been on my mind lately about the mess we are in. There is a lot of corporation-bashing, and for good cause. A lot of corporations are up to no good, and their outward image is one of success, leadership in their field, integrity, etc. I don't believe it. I have cause to think that most of the brand name corporations have at least a few things they won't tell you about how they actually fit into the grand scheme. Michael Moore called Nike on it—he asked Phil Knight if he would consider setting up a factory in Flint if there were 500 willing workers, and Knight wouldn't, claiming Americans wouldn't want to make shoes, and basically supporting his existing factories in Indonesia, where 14 year old girls work for piss per hour. There are other instances of this. Moore's entire movie The Big One is about this sort of bullshit that companies play on their workers, or on Americans as a whole. Its pretty wretched stuff to see, but see it you must.

You can research that on the news outlets, but here is something not given too much airtime: corporate names and the idea that they actually speak volumes about the company.

There used to be a time when a company was named after the founder/proprieter/industry/product. That period of time, if I have my otherwise unresearched facts straight, was approximately all the way up till maybe the last 30 years or less. But today, you hardly ever see that sort of thing, except at the small business level. If Joe Smith started a business making mechanical widgets in the 20s when he was a young man, he might call it "J. Smith & Co. Widgets." If he continued on like this, and had a son or sons who made himself/themselves a valued part of the business, the company might become "J. Smith & Son(s), Widget Company." Suppose those sons got the business to the late 70s or so, then maybe the name would be whittled down to "Smith Widget." Give it a little more time, then the sons retire or are bought out by the advancing competitor, Jones, and the merger name would be Jones-Smith Widget Technology, and would be franchised. Eventually, a few more years later, that name would probably be inexplicably changed to something like "Hypertech" or "UltraHype" or some other equally absurd name that doesn't even lead you to any understanding of what is made or who makes it (and would be franchised out internationally). Of course, it doesn't matter, because it is something even the original proprieter is hanging his head in shame for, having sold out his name and integrity to a party that utterly changed what he was about.

syllable soup at the strip mall... arco, am/pm, the golden arch M, kfc, a&w.It is this sort of thing that I think speaks of the nature of corporate culture. If you went to Dan Robinson's Auto Repair, and you knew Dan, and your father had known him for 15-30 years before you, you could really trust the man, and he is personally signing his name to all the work that goes out of the shop. He himself, even if he is incorporated, is personally putting his ass on the line because his name is on the marquee, the letter head, the receipts, the invoices. If Dan Robinson screws up, it looks bad for Dan Robinson. Ergo, Dan Robinson tries his hardest not to screw up, or to make amends if he does. Such is the nature of true customer service. It breeds a bond between consumer and business. But now you can go to a place like Jiffy Lube or any of their clones, and you won't know anything but the first name of the guy doing the work, and he might only be a high school dropout. The corporate headquarters is out of town, or out of state, and if they put the wrong stuff in your car, you are hosed! You can appeal to them for reparations, but really are never going to talk to one person who's ass is on the line and will help you because of it.

Think back to the medieval or ancient days—it wasn't like this. Only recently did companies decide to hide behind jibberish names that do nothing to reflect what they do or who is responsible. Suppose Enron was "Kenneth Lay Energy Trading." Do you think Lay would go around fucking people like he did? Would he have sailed that ship into the rocks? Companies need not all be criminals to warrant my attention today; here are some names I think illustrate my point: Iomega, Altria, Intel, Verizon, Amaren, Cingular, Lexmark, KFC (they have taken out the Kentucky, the Fried, and the Chicken—now you just eat the KFC part of it, and the colonel is a cartoon character), Roxio, Luxeon, Intuit, The Wherehouse, Adobe, Nextel, SBC (not the initials for "Samuel Bellwether Cole"), Sempra, Target, Wacom, Verio ("Network Solutions" was too descriptive?), ET CETERA! Some are abbreviations or acronyms of older names, some are real words, but most don't say anything about the business, and some are just goofy syllable soup that is meant to sound modern or progressive or something. These are just the ones that come to mind as I sit here at my desk looking around me and doing free association. I wonder what I would find if I bothered to research.

So what are these companies doing? Some of these have some history, but gave it up so they could have a meaningless name to look "modern." Why is it unfashionable to hang your name on the marquee, or at least to have a sensible name so that people can associate you with your business or trade? There are some companies like the defunct Montgomery Wards kept the personal name thing going (though they bailed on the "Montgomery" shortly before they packed it in). At least Microsoft suggests software; or maybe they make small towels and cushions. Hewlett-Packard sounds like someone's names are worthy of use. "3M" is short for Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing." Sears still has half its founder's names. AT&T is still in the running, except for the "telegraph" part of things. Not all is lost, but the trend is toward absurd names that don't really stand for anything, and at best, sort of make charicatures of their founders or their own past.

Hey, I am glad Wal-Mart is willing to tell me who their founder is. At least I know who to blame for ruining this country's retail world. I shall burn likenesses of Sam Walton & Sons in effigy.

Friday
Jul022004

Happy Happy Joy Joy

I have been rabidly reading about the world, American Imperialism, suburban decay, and lots of other things that I find really seem to dovetail together rather nicely, in a disturbing way. Here is more food for thought:

From The Washington Post's Book World/washingtonpost.com:

After terrorists killed Western oil executives in the heart of Saudi Arabia's oil region over the Memorial Day weekend, the price of oil rose to $42 a barrel, its highest level in history. Headlines warn that Americans may soon be paying $3 a gallon for gasoline. But rising prices at the pump only hint at our true energy dilemma. Imagine what would happen if the world's supply of oil were magically to vanish overnight. Life as we know it would shudder to a halt. Without oil to transport it, food could not get to market—nor could it be grown and processed by our oil-dependent agricultural system. Most Americans could not get to work, take their kids to school or do any other of the countless tasks cars help us perform. Air travel would stop. Hospitals would be crippled as supplies of blood, medications and other vital materials became unattainable. There would be no more plastics, no more videotapes. You wouldn't be reading this newspaper, at least in a print edition, because trucks would be unable to deliver copies to doorsteps and vendors.

Or this one from http://enjoyment.independent.co.uk:

The obvious immediate answer is conservation. It is very easy—more insulation, more efficient cars and light bulbs—and could be mind-blowingly effective. If our energy use were only three per cent a year more efficient, says Paul Roberts, "we could meet world demand in 2100 with around a quarter of the energya we use today." Politically, however, conservation is anathema, especially to free marketeers. They hate its implication that extravagance is somehow blameworthy. The consequences of all this are so cataclysmic that we can't bear to think about them. Since voters dislike bringers of bad news, our politicians do not encourage us to think. Our government recently pressured the Office of National Statistics to omit from its report on the environment figures showing sharp increases in greenhouse gas emissions from air and freight transport. You can see their thinking. What are they supposed to do? Ground the planes, remove the trucks from roads?

It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood!

Friday
Jun112004

On This Day, 13 Years Ago

I graduated from Madison High School in Sandy Eggo. There was a Bush in the White House back then too. Oh, and a war with Iraq just a few months earlier! But at this very time, I was looking forward to traveling to Europe to meet up with my good friend Steve, who had been my buddy that year in school as an exchange student from Germany. Part of my trip was to see his town and stay at his place for a few days. The following year, I went back for six weeks. On this particular year of 2004, I don't particularly think overseas travel is too wise an idea for an American. I have heard mixed stories. I guess most of Europe would be pretty safe overall, but right now, world events are sort of making me shelf the idea. And yet, I realize that isolating is part of the problem. My world view was well improved from traveling, and these days, I think a huge part of the problem is the American world view, or lack thereof. American hubris has been a huge problem lately, and some think the solution is more hubris. Some think the problem is solvable with more attitude, more macho, more guns, a nastier outward look, tougher talk, et cetera. If anyone from a non-American country is reading this, let me separate myself from this idiocy.

Thirteen years ago, I fell for the party line. I had no political affiliation, but from my years as a military aircraft buff, and proximity to a Reagan/Bush republican war vet grandfather, generally speaking, I was not opposed to the Gulf War. I was just stupid, and went along for the ride. I think I would have seen it differently if I were 18, but at this moment, I was 17. I was always enamored with military firepower, but the human cost of that power was not something I appreciated. I still get a hard on when an F-18 flies over, but now I think that as amazing a feat as it is to create such a machine, we still don't have the means or the sense to render them unneeded. There was a lot I was not awake for. I did have a great teacher that year though who did in fact lay down some foundational material for me in the government class, and he did eventually be the cause for me listening to NPR many years later. I never would have thought that years later, the survey course in government and politics would come in handy as I seek to understand and now protest another war in Iraq brought to us by another Bush in the White House. Jeeze, I hope this isn't going to be a trend!

There was this picture of me taken sometime in the Gulf war days, of me standing in front of an American flag in my bedroom, spanning the entire width of my covered-over window, with my drums in the foreground (maybe because of a pose, but likely because the room was small). I see that pic now, and I cringe. But then I think, 'why should I cringe because I once believed in my country?' I was never really a flag waving patriotic dude. Not that I never waved one or put one out, but I just never got passionate about it. Now, too many times, I feel pretty ashamed of being an American. We've fucked up. We really have. I pin the blame on the government AND the people. The people let the government do things, some by neglect, and some by their own greed. Americans don't want to give up the mad consumption of resources to which we have become accustomed. That isn't the government's fault, though the government is doing the same thing, giving a certain validation to civilians. Maybe the government could do something to encourage conservation in its varied forms, but really, this is a capitalistic, opportunistic place. Our economy DEMANDS that we consume, and not just what we consumed yesterday, we need to consume MORE than that. So really, some of our problems now in foreign affairs come from—what else?—consumption. Our nation is largely defined by its productivity and economy. We put our faith in the markets, in profit, in growth. Well, we came to our natural borders of oceans and neighbor countries, and now we take our rapacious demand for resources to consume, to resell, to pillage, all the way to the other side of the world.

This country was founded in the company of trade interests, greed, and the severance from traditional values. The Spanish wanted gold, the Dutch wanted furs. The English wanted to get free of religious persecution. The rest is history. The New World was a place that didn't need to be respected because no one who came here from Europe felt there was anyone or anything to respect, and the ethos of individuality was growing up in tandem with the development of this land. So blatant and exploitative commercial and development interests are really part of the national DNA. In light of today's mess, well, it is easy to see the lineage. Four hundred years ago though, there was almost no way this land could be destroyed so recklessly, and so efficiently. Well, since we are "Christian nation" (cough), we have now established dominion over the earth, what do we do with that dominion? Destroy her and her people. We really got that down to a science. All of a sudden, a little hunting and trapping, and gold pillaging doesn't look so bad, given the crass commercialism we deal with today, and are attempting to export to all corners of the globe.

There was some irony after 9/11. We felt sorry for ourselves. Sorry for what? Sorry for the long-delayed response to our creeping imperialism and colonization? Do we really think our shit doesn't stink? After 9/11, I heard that people didn't want to cash in on the tragedy with T-shirts and hats and other souveniers. Why the hell not? We love to cash in on everyone else's loss and pain. Why the double standard? Isn't it the Great American Way to sell shit no matter what? So why can't people raid the 9/11 rubble and take whatever they can find and go sell it on the corner, or on EBay? Geeze—it would be so American! I mean, you want the government to look the other way so you can do business, right? If the government shouldn't get in your way, why should good taste and compassion? Sell stuff. It's the American way.

But I digress. I was talking about being a patriot. I suppose 13 years ago I was a patriot because I followed a pack. I never voted Republican, so I wasn't that blind, but wasn't clear over to the other side either. It was really more apathy than anything else, and lack of any sense of connection to anything larger than me. Well, people ask me (when I talk like this) if I hate America, or some even ask me why I hate America, as if it were unquestionably true that I do. I don't hate America. But I am not the flag waver, or the dude who goes to political fundraisers, or the one who enlisted for the service, or the one who absorbs hours and hours of media, and buys all the fluff. No, I am the patriotic American who wants to reawaken what is good in this country. Just today, I did something that I am proud of but really wish I didn't have to do. Actually, I did it all week. I think of it as a lesson in civics and civility.

My job as a home delivered meals driver just got a small extension to administering a congregate meal program at one of the company's sites. Just yesterday, some administrative lackey consultant announced to the assembled seniors that if there was food left at the end of the lunch hour, it either had to be served as seconds for the usual fee, or thrown away. The thing is, this entire program operates on a donation basis, and legally, we can't even ask for money, though the "suggested donation" is $3.50. Some pay that much, some pay less, and some pay more. Some don't pay. Our job is to feed people, and providing a reservation is made and there is food, we can't tell a person "no" because they can't pay the suggested donation. But the zenith of absurdity is the idea that if there is food left in the trays, it must be thrown away or sold. No middle ground. And even more absurdly, this is being told to a whole room full of people who lived during the Great Depression! These are people who know and appreciate the value of the food and don't generally waste it. Needless to say, there was unrest in the room after this.

Okay, then back on the driving part of my route, all this week there have been too many meals at the end of the day, from late cancellations and absences. So I have up to five meals left, and that is way too much. I don't like having that happen, but happen it does. Some I give to the harder up clients, but occasionally, I take some home, or give it to the random homeless person. This week, I had to actually seek out some homeless to give this to. This is food that, since it was not paid for by any client, supposedly needs to be thrown away. Is that stupid, or is that stupid? Realize our program is always running a threadbare budget, so it is never really in the black anyway, but to actually throw food out is just the finest in bureaucratic nonsense. Today, after hearing that county consultant urge us to waste food, I had this burning resolve to do the opposite. There was this one homeless guy I passed at a busy intersection, and had to stop by on the return trip. I grabbed a couple of meals and gave them to him while I was stopped at the light. They were nice and hot, and the side items were nice and cold. He was overjoyed, and sat down on the grass with his stuff, and started chowing down, his back to me. All this emotion was welling up in me, partially from cold hard rationale, and some from a growing sense of compassion I have from doing the work I do. I sort of gazed at this guy, feeling really good about what I did, but then realized how wrong it is that I should ever have to do that. I sort of had to choke back a tear as I thought about it all.

This country loves to think of itself as the richest, most compassionate or ethically sound, etc. etc. True, we have great resources, great minds, and maybe even great compassion. But it isn't always on display. Can anyone tell me why I had to give away food that was slated for the garbage can? The guy didn't pay for it. Does that mean he shouldn't eat, or does it mean he can't eat it off a plate with a modicum of dignity, like the rest of us? Should he wait to pick it out of the trash? Is this something to be proud of? Is this America? But wait—we can send food aid off to foreign countries. We can pay farmers to NOT grow crops, or to NOT take them to market. People can become obese from gluttony. Restaurants and grocery stores don't sell everything they buy and stock. We have more corn than we can use, ultimately turning it into a wide range of products from sodas to gas additives to chips. Seriously, we have more food than we know what to do with, but we can't or won't give it to people who can't pay, even within our own borders. But we can promise African nations $15 billion for AIDS prevention, and the absurdity du jour, we can pay for this stupid and morally bankrupt war, with a ticket of well over 100 billion dollars. Sorry folks, that just isn't the hallmark of a compassionate society. How many meals can Dick Grasso buy with that $180 million dollars he got from the NYSE, just for LEAVING? Of course, it is folly to ever think that he could ever part with a few bucks, even though he is richer than sin, and would be at a quarter of that amount.

So am I a patriot, or an America hater? Does the true patriot simply take the party line, with a chaser of soma, and just go on with the blinders? By that definition, I suppose I am not a patriot. Or should I just slap a "United We Stand" or "We Will Never Forget!" sticker on my jacked up F250 or Excursion? I have neither, and would never put one of those absurd stickers on my car. Strike two, I must not be a patriot. Well, sorry, this un-American just wants to feed a few people without fanfare, preferably using the system against itself to the benefit of those who otherwise stand no chance. Sort of a Robin Hood, I guess. Or I just want to tell people to wake the fuck up from this silly fantasy we have about being a great nation because we can kick anyone's ass. That alone, does not a great nation make.

I have one American flag. It was the one my grandfather's casket was covered in on July 10, 1996. I have never unfurled it from that day on. It remains just as the Marine color guard folded it—tight as origami. I don't fly the flag now. But when I did 13 years ago, I was completely missing the point. I hope at least that much has changed in 13 years.

Monday
May102004

The Joy of Essay Writing

Okay, I have a 3500 word essay due in a week and a half. I sat myself down and started doing it in earnest today, but it is hard as hell to do that when the computer is in a state of change (with me taking hours upon hours to configure it, and this isn't even the new one! Nope this is the older one that just got the OS X treatment and a nice complement of my favorite programs. Yup, I still have the new machine to configure. Part of it is just the task of learning some things about OS X, but certainly pillaging Limewire for all it's worth is time consuming!

But I digress. I meant to tell you about my essay.

I sort of already wrote chunks of it in blogs that you will never see because of some errant finger on a mouse button. The topic is one about America not being too ideal a model for globalization/free trade. I have about 30 articles and books sitting here with tales of corporate corruption, labor abuses, short sighted business aims, and dinosaur-like institutions that do just about everything for us except make us happy citizens. Fast food, record companies, big energy, Wal-Mart... it's all bad news. I mean, bad. And I haven't even mentioned the government's part in things, which primarily is to stand back and call it good, but dressing it all in happy language, calling it "free trade" and "open markets" and shit. Yup, right. Wal-mart is free. Free to exploit, free to plunder, free to utterly destroy communities. Yeah, truth, freedom, justice and the fucking American Way.

Oh, then we have a mad cow out there, but no one can find it, because it and 5000 others are all mixed up at the meat plant so we can eat burgers at McDogfoods. Instead of killing one herd, the whole fucking nation and world needs to get in on the hype and hysteria because one cow ate bad food. Now it will be harder to sell beef or a lot of other products to foreign markets. We've abandoned tried and true practices in agriculture, entertainment, commerce, ethics, family life, politics, and the arts. When our fallacy of greatness is dispelled, we will be more fucked than a Siamese whore.

We are great because of oil. One day we will have to fight for it tooth and nail. Not a lot of our tanks and ships will run without the stuff. Our cars don't seem to be able to yet. All our jet fighters won't fly without the old dinosaur juice. We only really have total air superiority over nations. We certainly don't have what it takes to fight some militia fighters in a desert town. I've heard we have less infantrymen in our army than the NYC police department has officers. Now that Dipshit in the White House went and messed stuff up for us beyond belief, no one trusts us. So where are we gonna put our air forces so we can keep fighting our wars for oil? Turkey didn't want us. A lot of Europe is growing impatient, South Korea isn't too hip on having us. If anything, we will need a lot more oil to fight for oil.

I see idiots in big cars. SUVs are a subset of "big cars." I see joyriders, I see people using cars senselessly. Doesn't anyone realize what a foul thing that is? Owning a car and driving it is one thing, but getting absurdly bad mileage, and driving needlessly (like to the corner store) is just stupid. I mean, what other word applies here? My roommate and my neighbor both get into their trucks to go to a liquor store that is only three blocks away. I just don't have the heart to call them idiots.

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