Today, I spent my day in front of a computer, in four hours of meetings about meetings, another few writing a script and updating a spreadsheet, and then some more preparing for some planned work that will start in about four hours, so I should sleep. It’s almost like I’m one of the working class.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.”
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?”
Every budget is a document of priorities filled with moral and ethical decisions. Every budget is the result of political wrangling over who and what matters. Who has the power, who keeps the power, who loses, who benefits, and who does not.
For my entire adult life political discussions, at least what passes for those in the media, have concerned various aspects of some imaginary culture war and who is ahead in the Legislative or Judicial or Executive standings. No one cares who’s on first, unless you’re a betting man.
Let’s talk about money again. Let’s talk about the purpose of society. Let’s talk about how we the people want to promote the general welfare. We cannot have either justice, or liberty, or domestic tranquility if we do not.
Let me tell two stories from my time in local government. One involves an easement for a walking trail. One involves a pool.
The Town of Beekman began construction on a walking trail between the town parks, which went speedily enough as long as the trail was within the right-of-way along a town road, but construction stalled once the town needed to seek permission from adjacent property owners and other government entities. The two largest landowners along the proposed route were the Dalton Farm Homeowners Association and the Dutchess County Water and Wastewater Authority. The water authority punted: the town could cross their property, as long as the HOA agreed to an easement to continue the trail along the county road. So the highway department marked the county’s right-of-way, and the trail committee marked a route for the trail, and we walked the proposed route. We then solicited comment from the residents of Dalton Farm along the route. None of the comments were in favor of the trail. They all expressed concerns over strangers using the trail, people from out of town peeking in their back yards, and thieves breaking into homes in the dead of night. The Dalton Farm board tabled the idea of an easement, and the town’s trail still leads nowhere.
Dalton Farm owns a swimming pool and is required by its bylaws to maintain it in satisfactory condition for the use of the residents. Each year we contracted with a pool management company to clean, maintain, and staff the pool. After some years of trouble with late openings and the lifeguards—the pool company hired young women from Eastern European countries who could not always speak English well and so had trouble with the part of the job that involved communication with swimmers—the association board began looking at alternatives. Several alternatives were considered. The two I put forth, neither of which was accepted, were to hire local lifeguards to staff the pool, much as the Town of Beekman does, or to have the pool unguarded and unstaffed. The board decided to hire a security company to check identification—for slightly less expense than the pool management company—in order to prevent the wrong people from using the pool. The wrong people were those from outside of the association, non-residents, or who owed payments to the association. If memory serves, one of the board members suggested that people “from Poughkeepsie” might try to use the pool. Some years and a couple hundred thousand dollars later, the security company’s services were no longer required because it was found that one of the guards had placed video cameras in the rest rooms. The association now hires promising young persons of good character from the neighborhood to check the pool’s pH and guest identification.
“From Poughkeepsie” means “black” and “poor.”
Beekman is 15 miles, 30 minutes from Poughkeepsie.
No one is coming here from there to use any of the amenities we build. And if they did, so what?
The only people not from here who might are our neighbors, whom we see each week at school or the grocery store or church, with whom we play baseball and soccer. The people who use the pool are our children. The people who would use the trail are us: we would walk our dogs there; we would ride our bicycles there.
But we let our fear and prejudice lead us to make the stupidest decisions.
Many years ago, as a young man in my early teens, what convinced me of the falseness of Christianity was the behavior of the Church and people who called themselves Christian. I could not reconcile the teachings of the Bible as I understood it with all the death perpetrated by a Church corrupted by worldly power. I could not reconcile Constantine, the Arian Controversy, the Great Schism, the Crusades, the Inquisition, battles between the Pope in Rome and the Pope in Avignon, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation wars of religion, the splintering of Protestant sects over exactly how poorly to mistreat others. I could not reconcile the obvious contortions the Church went through to excuse slavery and the attendant ills of segregation and apartheid, to inspire pogroms and ignore the Holocaust. I could not reconcile its apparent insistence on seeing others as less than human. I could not reconcile Bob Jones University’s not permitting my father to study math. I could not reconcile Jim and Tammy Faye fleecing devout old ladies of their last penny. I could not reconcile Pat Robertson preaching hate. I could not reconcile Jerry Falwell’s expensive suits and expansive corpulence. I could not reconcile the claim to absolute Truth with the daily practice of lies.
And so I did not join our local church, despite not seeing, personally, any of these problems among its members. And so, skeptically, expressed no opinion on matters of belief. Does God exist? Who knows? Does it matter? And yet kept certain ideals of behavior.
To this day, a knot of rage gnaws at me when the coterie of thieves surrounding Donald Trump includes fawning pastors of Mammon posing as servants of God. The rage is stoked when Trump beats his way through the crowd to stand sternly frowning in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church holding a Bible he hasn’t read and whose teachings are anathema to him. The rage burns hot as those who claim the Bible’s every word is literally true find it in their hearts to joyously exclaim over abuses of power, who give their time and money to help usher in the Second Coming, who welcome the trials and tribulations–of others–even though Jesus says explicitly that no one knows the day or the hour. The rage boils over when those who purport to uphold the tradition of the Church mock those who emphasize mercy–as if love and mercy were not the entire point of the Gospel.
Under the rage is sadness for all those for whom this is the example of the Church.
I’m just a poor preacher’s kid from Virginia and not some fancy-suited televangelist, celebrity priest, or professional theologian. Others are finer Biblical scholars. I don’t have a national pulpit or a famous byline. But it seems to me that if someone can’t get the basic order of instructions right, even in simplified form, perhaps their opinion should carry no weight.
If you can’t not be an asshole, if you can’t not support assholes, try not claiming to follow Christ.
I really don’t understand electoral politics, especially the selection of candidates for office and how they are chosen. It’s not the procedure that I don’t understand—that I do—but why certain candidates appeal to anyone enough to garner votes. Why would anyone vote for Donald Trump, for example. Or why would anyone in the Democratic Party think that Joe Biden was anything but a creep?
Similarly, I have an intellectual appreciation for the fact that people vote for their team, but at the same time I don’t know why they would vote for someone they’d never invite over for dinner or let alone with their children. It’s easier for me to understand voting for someone with whom one has substantial disagreements over policy, than it is voting for a liar, a thief, a cheat, a smarmy snake-oil salesman. How can you expect someone to be responsible with government if you can’t trust him any further than you can spit?
Trust matters. Character counts.
Or at least I hope it does. And if it doesn’t, why not?
Perhaps it does and my understanding of character and my reasons for trusting just differ from other folks. I have to presume that people did and do trust Mr. Trump, though I’ve no idea why. It’s easier, I suppose, to believe that your neighbors are misled or deluded rather than to think that they may agree with malicious or callous behavior. It’s easier, but not easy.
Of course, I am most likely missing the big picture here, whatever it is, but I am very tired of being presented every four years with a choice between two people I don’t much care for. Choosing the least unappealing option is not at all satisfactory, like choosing among hung, drawn, or quartered. One wonders if either would win under different circumstances, such as if we ranked preferences or could choose None of the Above. I suspect we have neither of those systems because both the Republicans and the Democrats are quite happy with the current arrangement, unless tweaking the system means their party wins more frequently.
Those fine folks in Congress have an opportunity to help people weather the economic storm caused by COVID-19 and the responses to it, and so the Senate decided that it was more important by far to spend the last week arguing over pet causes and how much pork they could give to favored beneficiaries. And we are supposed to thank them because once again crumbs have been tossed to the masses. Even then presumably respectable Senators like the honorable Ben Sasse of Nebraska were concerned that the unemployment benefits might be too generous and could disturb “the employer/employee relationship.”
Federal spending is always a decision about values, about what matters, about who matters.
I hope there will be a great coming together of society, as people from all walks of life realize that we are all in this together. We leave the world a better place than we found it.
I fear a few, seeing the opportunity to never let a crisis go to waste, ensure that they profit at the expense of others, that they consolidate their power, turning neighbor against neighbor as the many fight for table scraps dropped by the few.
One might say I’m a pessimist, but I’m afraid that my fears are more likely to come to pass.
Just in from the Well-at-Least-It’s-Not-New-Jersey Dept., New York is redesigning its license plates again. If you are a New York State resident, you have until noon on Monday, September 2nd, to pretend to express your opinion. Or you could send a letter to Governor Cuomo.
You may notice something unusual about the selections above, aside from that they are mostly ugly and look like the work of someone who thinks that just because one can, one should. Or, as a friend-of-a-friend put it, “looks like Cuomo is dividing the Statue of Liberty vote so the bridge he named after his daddy will win.”
Schools are some of my favorite places in the world. Were I to rank the pleasures in my life, they would be there with libraries, forests, and the quiet of an old church. Something of the smell of reheated surplus cheese and frozen foods drags me back to the glory days of my childhood. Even during the horrible high school years, I belonged in a school if not with those particular kids: college was a wonderland. And I still want to teach social studies.
After Sandy Hook, our neighbors clamoured for our district to do something, anything, in response. They did. They instituted exactly the same precautions already in place at Sandy Hook Elementary the day Adam Lanza came to class. Now when I pick up my children from school, or come as the Mystery Reader, I don’t belong there. I’m an outsider unless in a crowd. Best I should leave the way I came.
There’s some talk of additional measures to have the schools resemble even more a fortress, a factory, a psychiatric hospital, a prison. This seems to me counterproductive. The impulse to be wary, to hold potential threats at a distance, is strong, instinctive. But exactly the opposite of what is required.
Another thing these shooters had in common was they did not belong. While not necessarily outcast, they lived on the outskirts of society. It’s easy to lose someone on the edges or in the cracks. It’s also easy to see him as the other and for him* to respond in kind.
Further barriers between us will only enhance the loneliness, will only set us apart from each other, will only add yet another brick in the wall and tear to the fabric of a society already rent by powerlessness and despair. A community is not built by pep rallies and slogans, but painstakingly, one welcoming smile at a time. We know this: we gather round each other for comfort in times of sadness and fear.
We must open our arms, embrace the least of these our brothers, and find strength in belonging together.