Cooking the Books

It is the Constitutional responsibility of the Census Bureau to count. That does NOT mean build a website then mail a letter and a postcard, or otherwise advertise the census. Beyond this delegation of their responsibility to the populace, is the extraordinary gall of assuming that everyone in the United States is on the Internet. So, sorry, that means actually going out and counting people.

That could take a while. It will cost a lot. That’s OK. We have a large country.

It seems, as a casual observer, as if someone were trying to pinch pennies and reduce labor costs, by only physically going to those addresses on record for which no form was returned, even before COVID-19. It also seems, again only as a casual observer, as if an arbitrary internal deadline for completion, such as the first Monday in October, is a useful means of avoiding counting everyone.

This is often the problem with measuring things. Sometimes the numbers aren’t the ones we want.

How Do We Sleep While Our Beds Are Burning?

A hazy morning today, like yesterday, here in New York, on the eastern coast of North America. The smoke from the wildfires along the western coast of North America clouds the air. A hazy evening, the sun a sharp clear circle beyond the dirt. As it reached the horizon, it grew large, red, and covered with horizontal lines like photographs of Jupiter. My camera doesn’t capture the colors my eyes see.

The evening Sun through the haze of smoke and ash in the upper atmosphere from the wildfires in western North America

The stars in the night sky recently, before the fires, have been especially bright, as if dust and dirt had been scraped off my glasses. I still can only see hints of the majesty of the Milky Way from where I am in New York, which leads me to believe the improved visibility was from less particulate matter rather than a reduction in glare from all the artificial, terrestrial lights. Because, one assumes, of the economic effects of COVID-19.

I am not the only one, by a long-shot, who can put two-and-two together and observe that the increase in fires–not only in North America, but also in Asia and Oceania–and the newly visible brightly twinkling stars are due to our behavior. What we do en masse has an effect on our common home. What I don’t understand are those folks who deny the evidence of their senses and reason in order to parrot arguments that our cumulative behavior is so insignificant that we will never consume all that the Earth has to offer. Or, worse, those who argue that a conception of the common good should be at the heart of law and justice–and then promptly sanctify politicians whose main concern is profiting from exploitation.


For the younger generation, who might not yet have encountered the music of the latter part of the 20th Century, the title of this post is from a song by the Australian band Midnight Oil, “Beds are Burning,” off their album Diesel and Dust (1987). Shocking, I know, but our environmental problems are not new; we’ve been ignoring them for longer than I’ve been alive. And while it may be tempting to blame everything on late-stage capitalism or neoliberalism, the Soviet Union and China, the most prominent examples of command economies, have their fair share of hubris and more than their fair share of environmental disasters. What’s interesting, in terms of where do we go from here, is that the concentration of market power in a few hands is effectively identical to a command economy. Very few people simply need to decide to be better people.

Maybe they will, once there’s no more skiing at Davos.

One could argue that this has always been the case, that the actions of a few key players, and not billions of consumers, determine outcomes. The auto manufacturers didn’t have to design internal combustion engines that ran only on petroleum; they just did. They and the oil companies didn’t have to hide the effects of leaded gasoline; they just did. The beverage and bottling companies didn’t have to switch to single-use plastic and aluminum containers; they just did. They don’t have to drain aquifers, bottle the water in plastic, and sell it, but they do. Kellogg’s didn’t have to repackage sugar as fifty-gazillion new flavors of disgusting Pop-Tarts, but they did, even when everyone knows that the only good Pop-Tarts are unfrosted strawberry.

The Wall of Pop-Tarts

What if the large consumer products companies–Proctor & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive, Unilever, Nestlé–simplified their portfolios and cut out plastic? Over the course of my life, soaps of all kinds have shifted in form from powder or bar wrapped in paper to liquid bottled in plastic. I distinctly remember mom not buying SoftSoap. Someone made the decision to make ninety flavors of liquid hand soap. Someone can decide to stop. What if the large beverage companies–Nestlé, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola–did the same? The grocery shelves are full of plastic-wrapped options. What if the grocer, in my case Ahold Delhaize, decided to stop selling them? What if they actually did it, now, instead of just talking about it doing it, in the future?

What would they lose, a small monetary profit? Of course, the counter-argument runs that someone else, Wal-Mart and Amazon perhaps, will make and sell these to meet consumer demand, and the consumer will simply buy from them. They are only, after all, responding to consumer demand. Somewhat. One is expected to forget that demand for these goods is often created by the dulcet tones of advertising. Nothing in our inmost being tells us to go out and buy Tide or All-Temperature Cheer.

Part of the problem, and the reason addressing it is deferred, is that the effects of choices are not always obvious. Or, even if they are, the person making the choice doesn’t bear the cost of his decision. What if the producer absorbed the full cost of a product’s lifecycle? How many sugar cereals would Kellogg’s willingly produce if it had to buy insulin for everyone with Type II diabetes?

The United States didn’t have to allow corporate entities to live forever for any undefined purpose, but we did. We don’t have to consider them people, but we do. Corporations are blind, deaf sociopaths. They never look up at the night sky in wonder. They never wake to birds singing.

But we humans do.

Wake up. Your bed is burning.

A Copy of

Nine Inch Nails is one of the few bands that could write a kick-ass tune about running a business on copies of Excel spreadsheets mailed around with Outlook. A copy of a copy of a copy of a…

How Much Greed is Good?

Paul Graham believes a wealth tax would act as a disincentive.

He’s since revised his post several times to remove some indignation. But I’m surprised Mr. Graham left some arithmetic as an exercise for the reader after calculating the cost of a hypothetical wealth tax. Let’s review the case for a wealth tax by looking at the person who would lose the most money to one.

If this hypothetical tax took 95% of Jeff Bezos’s $205,602,264,589 he would only have $10,280,113,229 left, which is not much more than pocket change—barely enough to live on! One can certainly see how hoarding only $10 billion dollars would be a significant disincentive to attempting to monopolize all retail.

I fail to see the difference in incentive between 10 billion and 205 billion.

A more difficult problem is enforcing a wealth tax, since capital is flighty. The wealthy can live anywhere and have no loyalty to any place.

The thing is, currency issuers don’t need to tax in order to spend. One does not need to address vast disparities in wealth to provide for the needs of the people. Those can be separate projects.

But a user of the currency does. And New York might find it should take a larger piece of the action on Wall Street. What’s that saying about gambling? The house always wins?

Graham Greene on Bullshit Jobs

“It’s a living,” she said.

“It’s not a real living. All this spying. Spying on what? Secret agents discovering what everybody knows already…”

“Or just making it up,” she said. He stopped short, and she went on without a change of voice. “There are lots of other jobs that aren’t real. Designing a new plastic soapbox, making pokerwork jokes for public-houses, writing advertising slogans, being an M. P., talking to UNESCO conferences. But the money’s real. What happens after work is real. I mean, your daughter is real and her seventeenth birthday is real.”

“What do you do after work?”

“Nothing much now, but when I was in love… we went to cinemas and drank coffee in Expresso bars and sat on summer evenings in the Park.”

Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana (1958)

The Days Grow Short

Lily is an old cat now: fifteen years. Her littermate brother gone this past year and a half. She eats little and sleeps much. It seems an uncomfortable sleep, troubled by labored breathing and punctuated by the slightest noise. Yet she purrs.

The kittens are too much. They stalk her tail and move too fast–where can a lady rest? No longer in my lap; I stand too often. Outside, then. Or, when my sons are here, in their cave.

Does she sense the end? I see too many parallels with her brother’s final days. I’m selfish: I want to stay with her, to be there when the time comes–she can’t die if she’s not alone. She came and comforted me when I was left in the depths of despair. She wiped away my tears. She reminded me: I have responsibilities still.

Again tomorrow I will set out food and water, and change the litter box.

Lily, Sleeping

Earplugs Removed

I turned off the air-conditioner and opened the windows letting in the air and sounds from outside. The day grew warmer and the house grew hotter, until at nightfall I went to sleep outside with the insects. It was not cicada which kept me from sleep, but automobiles. They are tucked safely in garages now, put to bed for a day of rest.

This Sunday morning all is quiet and soft. Breezes blow and rain falls upon leaf and roof. In my kitchen, only the hum of the refrigerator now that ham and eggs have fried, but I can barely hear a thing over its roar.

No lawnmowers today: mourning doves, crows, and jays.

When the machinery stops, I feel my sense restored. I wasn’t deaf, exactly, but cut off and dumb, ears and mind too full. Now I am here, all around surrounded with sounds.

The War of All Against All

Across the street from where No. 1 Daughter lives, two dogs sat in a closed car. They barked at her when she left for work. They barked at her when she came home from work. A neighbor boy walking his dog said they’d been there since last night. She didn’t know whose dogs they are, or who lived in that house. What should she do?

An adult friend of someone I used to know was unstable, in the mentally ill bi-polar disorder kind of way, with little understanding of the world he lived in. He was childlike, in the sense that he needed someone to take care of him, and had no understanding or intention to do harm. His friends tried to help, but there was only so much they could do. Someone gave him work, but he was irregular. Someone fed him, but he wouldn’t feed himself. He could not live on his own. State and local government institutions could help–if he’d committed a crime; he hadn’t. He lived far from the community that had raised him, and seemed lost. He’d ostracized himself; he wouldn’t return from shame. I often wonder how he is.

Once, late but well before midnight, on the way home I saw a cat hit on the side of the road. He was injured, alive and hissing. Perhaps it belonged to the house just there, so I went to the door. An angry man answered. No! Not his cat. Slam.

No. 1 Daughter eventually found help, someone who’d go knock on the strange door with her. An angry man answered–what is it with men and answering the door? He bristled at the very idea a hot car was not the best place for his dogs.

What kind of society have we built where we don’t know where to turn for help? Where a neighbor is not only a stranger, but an antagonist?

Knowing One’s Place

My youngest (12) asked, out of the blue, why do some people want a monarchy when they can’t be the king?

I’m not sure. Maybe we should ask the British.

I was boiling water for tea when he started with his “Hey, Dad” question. Usually he asks these, as I did, late at night when I’m settling in for bed. He has a knack for asking questions when I’m tired. I had been up all night for work, and didn’t give the question the attention he deserved, but it has stuck in my head. Why do some people want a monarchy when they can’t be the king?

This is separate from the question of why some people like to beat on others, or why they like to be beaten–that’s the part of organizational hierarchy that doesn’t make any sense to me, even if it’s hard to avoid learning that shit rolls downhill. Unless someone is a political theorist, I suspect a liking for monarchy is less a preference for monarchy than a preference for stability. It has more do with the predictability of well-defined roles and responsibilities: There is comfort in knowing what is expected. There is comfort in routine. There is comfort in not making decisions. And there is delight in helping, of being part of something larger than yourself.

But there is discomfort in being on the shit end of the stick, in being ordered around, in being expected to do all the dirty work, in having demands placed on your time, in being nothing more than a tool. There is injustice in forcing people to do something we would never do ourselves. How do we choose who does what?

And, as always, we’re left with distinguishing good rulers and bad, and the question of what to do with the bad ones.

The Sacred Forests of Ethiopia

Here is a sad and hopeful story of the church forests of Ethiopia.

The land outside the church forest looks like desolation to me. So stark. Where’s the grass? I’m accustomed to the high valleys of Appalachia. I wonder, how did the land become like this? What processes keep it that way? In Highland County, the valleys are, for the most part, pasture for sheep and cattle. They keep saplings from growing, but the land is still green. Is it climate? Was it that the movie was filmed in February? (Yes.) What does the landscape look like with the plague of locusts? Can we ever understand the history and circumstances of another place when we can barely understand our own? A summary is just a start.

Either way, a missing forest saddens me. I’m glad Alemaheyu Wassie Eshete is taking care of what he loves.

“A church without a forest is like a naked person. A disgraced person.”

I like the thought that a church without a forest is somehow incomplete. Growing up around churches, their yards were as much part of the church as the building. My earliest memories are the smell of the sanctuary’s old wood and playing in piles of leaves. And climbing trees. Perhaps that’s why I felt like Sycamore Church in Loveland, Ohio, disappeared when I heard they’d sold their adjacent land.

“These forests are not just good for people,” Alemayehu said, “they are also the last shelter for wild animals. In our tradition, the church is like an ark. A shelter for every kind of creature and plant. If a wildcat or little kudu or vervet monkey leaves the church forest, immediately he will be killed. Here the animals are safe.”

Surrounding the cathedral at Canterbury, in its precincts, are gardens. If it weren’t for this COVID-19, I probably would not have looked far afield for morning and evening prayers, and they would not have been saying them daily outside in the garden where we can hear the gulls and see the cats drink the milk for the Dean’s tea.

“In this world nothing exists alone,” he said. “It’s interconnected. A beautiful tree cannot exist by itself. It needs other creatures. We live in this world by giving and taking. We give CO2 for trees, and they give us oxygen. If we prefer only the creatures we like and destroy others, we lose everything. Bear in mind that the thing you like is connected with so many other things. You should respect that co-existence.”

One of the dispiriting aspects of globalization has been the spread of a monoculture world-wide, particularly since it needn’t be that way: We do not need to voraciously consume everything in our path. Isolated pockets of true alternatives, not the false choice of twenty Pellegrino flavors offered by Nestlé, are useful–even if only to give a glimpse of the full breadth of life.


I forgot to exercise, I caught so caught up in learning about these forests. Maybe I should learn how to build a wall. 🙂

See also, among other places,

It’s Cerys

‪I heard Cerys Matthews first on the audiobook edition of Robert McFarlane’s The Lost Words: A Spell Book (2017) 📚, and needed to hear her voice more, so I’ve been listening to her show on BBC Radio6. Every week she brings forth a wonderful world of discoveries: music, and poetry, and interviews. I love it. It’s hard to pull out highlights from her playlists; they flow.

Apparently she’s famous. Who knew? I just like the way she reads poetry.

Bedeviled

The first was that I was very busy.
The second — I was different from you: whatever happened to you could not happen to me, not like that.
….

Magdalene — The Seven Devils,” Marie Howe (2008)

Today is the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene, Apostle to the Apostles, for it was to her whom Jesus first appeared after rising (John 20:10-18). We meet her today in Luke 8:1-3.

Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.

Luke 8:1-3 (ESV)

In his reflection along with this morning’s prayers, the Very Reverend Dr Robert Willis, Dean of Canterbury Cathedral, observed that women supported Jesus throughout his ministry. Women are ever-present in the gospels, doing what we would today call invisible labor: the necessary work of care. These three rather wealthy, well-connected women, and many others, “provided for them out of their means.”

Because they had been freed of their demons.

The world then was demon-haunted, much as it is today, full of afflicting spirits. Marie Howe in her poem imagines Mary Magdalene’s seven devils.

Some are familiar to me. What relief this cure of the soul must have been!

Thank you, Pádraig Ó Tuama, for drawing my attention to this poem.


What First Principles?

Tonight’s film was Romero (1989).

Earlier this year my eldest and I were talking about a paper due for her international politics class on the Middle East, the U. S. national interest, and grand strategy. She didn’t know where to start. I asked, what are our interests globally? Whose interests are they? How does the Middle East fit in context? What is the objective? How is why we do something different from what we say is why we do something? The professor had opened a can of worms asking about “strategy.”

What if post-war American foreign policy had been less concerned with Communist aggression and commercial imperialism? What would it have looked like? How would the world now differ in that case? Not how would things be better or worse, but how would they be different? Each decision opens some paths, closes others.

It was not necessary, for example, to choose France over the Viet Minh, but we did. It was not necessary to choose the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company over Mohammad Mosaddeq, but we did. Nor United Fruit over Árbenz, Batista over Castro, Pinochet over Allende, and so forth. But we did. Which would seem to indicate some sort of strategery—an excellent neologism, BTW—but perhaps not one in the national interest as much as in the interests of those who’ve held the reins of government.

It’s strange to even imagine how policy might change, much less what policies one might have, to benefit the nation as a whole. Inertia seems inevitable. It’s almost as if one needs some principle of behavior, some concept of what the public good is, that could guide government actors. Perhaps this could be a principle that might suggest what a just government is and what it can and should do. Perhaps this principle could suggest it might not be prudent or just to sell weapons to a country which primarily uses them to kill its own citizens, particularly those citizens who dare ask it to stop killing them.

Such a principle might even inform domestic policy. It might even make it relatively simple to decide the correct course of action when an agent of the state like, oh, I dunno, a police officer, murders someone on camera while several of his fellow officers stand idly by.

If only we knew what the right thing to do was. How will we ever know?

The integralists’ arguments might be more enticing if they themselves weren’t personally cheerleading the abuse of power. To put this another way, they would spit on Dorothy Day because she dared tell Cardinal Spellman he was wrong. Some are old enough that it is not inconceivable they approved of the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Romero, for the same reasons that today they disapprove of protests against police brutality.

Chickens Coming Home to Roost

Not a few of us have said, over the years, that the PATRIOT Act was an over-reaction. Not a few of us have said, over the years, that the Department of Homeland Security was an ominous concentration of power. Not a few of us have said, over the years, that taking off your shoes to go through a full-body scanner before traveling is absurd security theater that does nothing to protect from random acts of violence. Not a few of us have said, over the years, that pervasive surveillance, whether by the NSA or AmazonGoogleFacebook or Equifax, is an attack. Not a few of us have said, over the years, that license-plate scanners are unwarranted search. Not a few of us have said, over the years, that there is no justifiable reason for mass use of facial recognition software, no matter how many teens are skipping school. Not a few of us have said, over the years, that extraordinary rendition is kidnapping and enhanced interrogation techniques are torture. Not a few of us have said, over the years, that service of a no-knock warrant is a home invasion. Not a few of us have said, over the years, that an authorization of the use of force is not a declaration of war. Not a few of us have said, over the years, that the killing of an American citizen by the United States is murder. Not a few of us have said, over the years, that the police are getting away with murder and rape and, well, anything. Not a few of us have said, over the years, that it doesn’t matter which party the President belongs to, Congress needs to restrain the Executive, not join in enthusiastically.

Not a few of us have said, over the years, that over-policing of poor neighborhoods, the war on drugs, and an us-versus-them mindset converts your friendly local police into paramilitary death squads.

Not a few of us have said, over the years, that the Bill of Rights requires constant defense.

If you want the right to remain free and secure in your person and effects, you have to fight for that for everyone, always.

But you would rather clutch your pearls and moan that you need protection from the corner drug dealer or that awfully swarthy terrorist. But you would rather ignore someone’s lack of character and jackboot fetish because we just simply must get the right people on the court in order to stop birth control and gay sex. But you would rather just do what they say as long you get yours. But you would rather voluntarily install microphones and cameras in your homes and neighborhoods. But you would rather excuse their behavior: “Why should I care? I don’t break the law. It won’t affect me.”

One day it will.

Lands Now or Formerly of

Over time I have lived on the lands of Lenape, Mohican, Wappinger, Manahoac, Piscataway, Powhatan, Monacan, Osage, Shawnee, Miami, Adena, Hopewell, and the Chickahominy. I currently live on land once used by the Lenape and the Mohican.

The modern sense of property in land is European. When you claim title to land, and file a map with your claim, because ownership changes over time adjacent properties are marked as “now or formerly” belonging to a given holder. With some diligent work, one can trace the history of an individual parcel back as far as records go. Our home on native land expands our perspective away from what’s on file with the county clerk.

There are layers and layers of history wherever you are, sometimes only surviving in place names, sometimes not even then. The names are remembered by the people who live there, but outsiders can have trouble finding the place. Perhaps the automobile leads us to forget our geography; certainly changes in population and politics do, as the colonists eliminated the indigenous population, and New York absorbed The Bronx and other outer boroughs. The Post Office’s delivery system follows along, as Fordham becomes a ZIP Code within New York, or Hampden-Sydney disappears into Farmville—or Poughquag into Hopewell Junction.

This latter amuses me somewhat as there are post offices in both the hamlet of Poughquag, Town of Beekman, and Hopewell Junction, Town of East Fishkill, while the sorting and distribution facility serving them all is in Arthursburg, on a parcel divided between the Town of East Fishkill and the Town of Lagrange, and associated with the Lagrangeville post office. The Poughquag post office itself isn’t in the hamlet of Poughquag, but it’s certainly closer to homes in the hamlets of Beekmanville and Clove Valley than Hopewell Junction is. Which leads to the silliness of the corner Stop & Shop (owned by Ahold, a Dutch company) posting a sign lauding our local store here in Hopewell Junction.

(Perhaps this explains why adventurers can land on a planet and immediately find the single person they seek: All places are identical.)

Acknowledging that we weren’t the only ones ever here, learning the stories of where we are, and of the people who were here before us, requires a bit of humility to look away from the narcissistic mirror of our solipsism to curiously ask, “Who are you? Where are we?”