Unemployment Jumps in September, Reporting Gap Hits Record 6.52%

Categories: A Day in the Life

For every person listed as officially unemployed in yesterday’s jobs report, there are another 1.28 people who are really unemployed, but are not captured because they have left or never entered the labor force. In total terms, this means that 7,915,000 people are “unemployed” and another 9,140,784 are unemployed, but living in what I call the “Reporting Gap” where they cannot be seen by the official BLS numbers. These folks have either given up looking for work, were ineligible for unemployment because they’ve never had (and thus lost) a regular job, or have restructured their life outside of a legal job because they just don’t think it’s feasible for them. If our numbers were more honest, they’d show that over 17 million Americans are out of work, or 11.62% of the population.

Here are your charts:

Real (red) and reported (blue) unemployment, Jan 2009 - Sep 2015.

Real (red) and reported (blue) unemployment, Jan 2009 – Sep 2015.

Reporting Gap between real and reported unemployment, Jan 2009 - Sep 2015.

Reporting Gap between real and reported unemployment, Jan 2009 – Sep 2015.

Real unemployment is now at its highest rate since December 2014, when it was 11.66%. Unemployment has been above 11% for 77 consecutive months, since May 2009.

The Reporting Gap hit a record high of 6.52%, surpassing a record 6.23% from last month. It has been above 6% for four straight months, and above the reported unemployment rate for 10 straight months, since December 2014. This means that the official unemployment rate has been capturing less than half the unemployed for all of 2015.

I hasten to add that my real unemployment figure includes no one who is working part-time or less than they’d like to be. It includes no one who is working at all. Including people from that popular U-6 figure (currently 10%), would push the overall unemployment rate well above 15%. But I think U-6 unemployment, while capturing some job distress or under-utilization of the employment market, is far less accurate for the phrase unemployment than my figure, since people working even a couple hours a week are employed. Not one of the 17 million people I would call unemployed is working professionally (at least legally) so much as an hour a week.

This is part of a continuing series on the under-reporting of unemployment in the United States of America.

Past posts (months indicate the month being analyzed – the post is in the month following):
July 2015
June 2015
March 2015
February 2015
December 2014 – labor force participation assessment
December 2014
November 2014
October 2014 – age assessment
October 2014
September 2014
August 2014
April 2014
December 2013 – seasonal assessment
December 2013
March 2013*
August 2012*
July 2012* – age assessment
July 2012*

*My initial analyses led to a slight over-reporting of the impact of the reporting gap, so the assessments in these posts are inflated, as explained and corrected in the December 2013 analysis.


Volkswagen and Corporate Impunity

Categories: A Day in the Life, It's the Stupid Economy, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,


“Corporation, n.: an ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.”
-Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, 1911

The only thing shocking about the recent incident involving Volkswagen lying about the emissions of their so-called “clean diesel” vehicles is that people are shocked by it.

Or, perhaps, that people seem to believe that Volkswagen is the only company doing something like this.

The entire structure of the way corporations are built and expected to act in modern America, especially large MNCs, is to incentivize and reward this kind of behavior. And increasingly, the advent of major so-called “free trade” deals is designed to give those corporations supremacy over the laws they already blatantly ignore. Law is merely national, while corporations are forever and supreme. And once the law officially gives primacy to the corporation over the nation-state, there will be nothing left to check the nearly ubiquitous cheating, skimming, corner-cutting, lying, and outright fraud that pervades the corporate reality.

The problem, as many corporate apologists have observed, is that corporations are designed and their leaders feel obliged to uphold only one principle: profit. Which, of course, is the opposite of principle, because it’s merely a count of dollars at the end of the day, however and wherever they were acquired. And the larger problem, of course, is that there is only one way to punish a corporation: by taking away money. But not and never all of the money. Only some of the money. Corporate dissolution is not an option the nation-state has given itself to combat misbehavior, nor, realistically, are any sorts of individual punishment like prosecution for fraud. In a world where not one CEO, banker, or financial engineer has faced prosecution for a financial crisis that defrauded and impoverished millions of actual human beings, how could anyone sitting in a corporate office elsewhere even begin to fear personal disempowerment, impoverishment, or imprisonment for any act they choose?

This system means that literally all incentives and disincentives are calculated financial transactions. That is merely the business of business. Just as profits are expected to outrun expenditures (pushing down wages, prices for goods, health insurance premiums, taxes, and anything else the corporation may have to pay), they are also expected to outrun fines, fees, and other wrist-slaps administered by less profitable organizations. The question of whether to lie, cheat, steal, commit fraud, violate sanctions, or otherwise take an illegal advantage is merely referred to the bean-counters. Will this, on average, make us more money than it costs? If yes, proceed.

I don’t doubt that there is a corporation somewhere, or maybe even a few, that are not operating by this principle. The great problem with economics as a theory of life is that it totally overlooks the human element, mechanistically assigning the exact same set of motivations and priorities to every single individual person without fail, ignoring the multitudinous diversity of actual people and their lives. Of course some corporations are run by people who believe in the rule of law or ethical principles or even (God forbid!) morality. Of course fear of losses is not the only thing driving everyone in all of their decisions on any given day. The scary thing is that, increasingly, these voices of purported reason (or tradition?) are getting drowned out by actual statutes that say a corporation is singularly beholden to its shareholders and that their only priority must be profit. We are on the verge of the concept that corporate leaders have a fiduciary obligation to commit as much fraud, deceit, and trickery as can outrun the punishments for it and pad the bottom line. Otherwise, they will face the wrath of investors who can rightfully point across the street to Volkswagen or down the hall to this or that bank that wantonly fixed currency prices or traded with allegedly isolated Iran and say “see, they’re trying to get every advantage they can! What are you doing for me?”

Like police impunity, like the war crimes committed by US Presidents, the only possible antidote for this ever-escalating race to the bottom is accountability. People have to believe and internalize that there can be consequences for bad behavior to feel it’s not worth it. And right now the scales are so badly tipped in the direction of total impunity that it will actually take several high-profile examples of accountability to even begin to suggest to the corporate bean-counters that punishment (real punishment that’s not just a few million dollars) is a reasonable possibility to be taken into the calculus. We could dissolve Volkswagen, imprison its executives, strip all wealth from said executives, and garnish their wages for life, and most corporations would merely recalibrate to lying a little less than VW did. That said, this level of punishment is many scales of magnitude beyond what even the most hawkish prosecutor is considering or even has as a disposable tool. Volkswagen will live through this, just as BP survived the oil spill and Exxon its own, as Blackwater survived its war crimes and all the tobacco companies have persisted. The worst possible punishment is to have to rebrand, and that’s only the worst because it actually costs more than the fines incurred for wrongdoing.

Anger at Volkswagen misses the point. It has its purpose, since it marginally drives up the chance that this will be the rare time there are moderate levels of accountability instead of zero to none. But all that is mostly Titanic deck-chairs. The lifeboats are questioning the whole system that incentivizes and openly encourages this behavior, that makes monsters of men, that takes most of the smartest and best educated minds in our world and turns them into coal-shovelers on a runaway train of profit for profit’s sake. It doesn’t matter where that train is headed or how much coal costs in human, animal, or planetary terms. More coal! This train must move, ever onward, into oblivion, spewing toxicity in every direction.


Democracy at the Crossroads

Categories: A Day in the Life, It's the Stupid Economy, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,


“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
-Winston Churchill

It is the fundamental human assumption that one lives at the time of terminal understanding of the world, the universe, and human affairs. This, I think, is the direct result of being temporal beings, doomed to live a finite existence making regular steady progress from birth to death on a planet that is always making its own equally steady journey. It is very challenging to see oneself as just at a sad point in the early part of history where not very much progress has been made and not very much is understood, nor will it be in one’s lifetime. This is a depressing and frustrating thought that leads to the apparent meaninglessness of one’s individual existence which is, in a very real sense, each person’s world. It is also, unfortunately, a true thought.

But we have toasters! We have airplanes and cars and iPhones and bombers! Surely this is the time of terminal understanding! Let’s turn to another celebrated British quote-maker on this one…

“For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much — the wheel, New York, wars and so on — whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man — for precisely the same reasons.”
-Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

It’s really tough for us to wrap our minds around democracy being a failed and sort of silly experiment on the long journey toward functional government, or toward a favorable state of affairs for humanity. And yet I think it’s becoming increasingly clear that this is the fate democracy faces, and sooner than later depending on the outcome of the next few elections in the major states subscribing to this theory of government. But there is a last gasp of the democratic spirit asserting itself throughout these nation-states, a last desperate tide to prove that a government alleging to be of, by, and for the people can actually produce results that live up to this claim. It is the sudden popularity of far-left populism. It is the election of Alexis Tsipras in Greece, the appointment just now of Jeremy Corbyn to head the Labour Party in the UK, and the emerging and ongoing surge of Bernie Sanders to the top of the polls in the US.

These people are unlikely heroes, and it is their unlikeliness that drives much of their power and appeal. Corbyn and Sanders buck all the trends of traditional democratic power brokers. They are old, they identify as socialists, they can easily be characterized as disgruntled ranters. They don’t play well with others in their party because they’ve carried decades of conviction that consistently spurn the wishy-washy adjust-to-polls commercialism of the last three decades of so-called leftist politics in their country. While Labour and the Democrats have been out starting wars, chasing corporations, and trading their principles for money, Corbyn and Sanders have been diligently trotting out the real principles of a people-driven left-wing agenda. And until now, getting basically no traction outside a loyal following in their home districts.

So what’s changed? Why is 2015 the year that these aging scions of consistency get popular?

The reality is that politics as a whole in most Western democracies have swung so far to the right, that really no one besides Corbyn and Sanders can even be described as leftists anymore. There are several key causes that can be explained as a general combined force, but have come together to make the right-wing shift radically rightward and the center-left head to the right of where the right-wing used to be. The shifts have been multifarious and subtle enough to not be noticed as a radical pendulum shift, but all the little hops along the way have suddenly led us to a place where the outrageously radical left is the only thing standing to the left of true center.

Some causes:

1. The learning of the military-industrial complex since the Vietnam War.
While the left went out and celebrated finally stopping an utterly insane slaughterhouse in Vietnam, the right went home and tried to learn from their mistakes. They realized that drafts were always going to create problems, so they altered the draft system into the Selective Service and went to work advancing the de facto economic draft. They improved jingoistic propaganda to promote the military, brought militaristic pride into sports and other venues where it would attract low-income soldiers who felt they had few or no other options. And they continued to buy massive amounts of technology to ensure that war would be more devastating for the “enemy” and less costly for US soldiers. They realized that only a few people cared about the dead Vietnamese in that war, but it was all the American body-bags that meant the gravy train of war had to end. So war would have to become more antiseptic, with fewer American casualties, so that more wars could be fought more often. The first Iraq War was the perfect test of the new approach to militarism, and went off without a hitch. By the time of the “War on Terror”, the military-industrial complex had ensconced a perfect system that “didn’t do body counts”, embedded journalists and the media right into the military, made sure everyone was on the same team, and neutralized all opponents as un-American. I could write tens of post on the little insidious ways all this has manifest since 9/11, but the groundwork for it was laid long before. The result is that even a President who most of the country saw as quite leftist and won the Nobel Peace Prize regularly kills named individuals abroad (something that was explicitly against US policy pre-9/11), intervenes with weaponry, advice, and soldiers in most armed conflicts around the world, keeps operating a prison that holds people who have been their for a decade and a half without charges, and is on a rather unscrutinized war footing with several foreign nations or people in their territory. And really no one questions it, outside of people in the radical left.

2. The advancement of debt as a tool of control.
Call this more learning from the Vietnam era. In an age when the most academically inclined and ambitious young people all gathered together to think about the future of their country for an affordable price, these campuses fomented a strong awareness of the problems with that society and how to fix them. These students were being raised as future leaders, they saw themselves that way, and anything was possible. In today’s economic landscape, college students don’t think of the future as a place of possibility, by and large. They think of the present as a brief respite from the real world, an oasis of personal exploration before they have to start paying for it, literally, for the rest of their life. While some are starting to break away from this system quite recently, most still believe that the piece of paper that comes at the end of this spending spree is the only possible ticket for the future they imagine and that the alternatives are too ghastly to contemplate. As a result, they willingly sign away their future economic well-being to have some hope at an even further-flung future of economic well-being. Thus, today’s college students are far more interested in law school, investment banking, corporate consulting, and anything else that greases the wheels of the neo-capitalist machine because it offers the whisper of relief from their enormous indebtedness. It’s all well and good to debate the merits and ethics of a job when one has economic freedom. When facing six figures of crippling debt that one cannot declare bankruptcy from, the choice quickly seems like fealty to the highest corporate bidder or death. Most choose the former. And thus the greatest minds of my generation expend their energy fueling an immoral system that places profit above people unquestioningly. Worse, almost everyone in that system feels they have no choice and no control, thus they don’t feel agency over the people-defeating choices they make. This is an incredibly right-wing system, but people just see it as “the way things are”. The result is massive wealth consolidation at the top and increased desperation at the bottom. And the bottom is increasingly close to 50% or 60% of the population.

3. The unfettered rise of the corporation.
When the corporation is the only thing that can save us from our debt, we increasingly see ourselves as workers first and everything else (family members, Americans, humans) second. Or last. The increasing rise of disaster capitalism, sampled in the dot-com bust and accelerated to a fever pitch in 2008’s financial crisis, have forced the issue time and again of the corporation’s pre-eminence over the nation-state. There have been so many insidious large and small steps in this chain of events that they are almost too difficult to all chronicle, though I have blogged about many of them individually. The endless rhetoric that government is inefficient while corporations are ruthlessly efficient, even though only corporations produce the waste we call “profit”. The meme that lowering taxes creates growth, despite forty years of evidence to the contrary. The definition of everything about the success and health of society in economic terms, which enables us to support things like a bloated, crippling private health industry that routinely bankrupts thousands of people each day because that industry is a huge portion of the economy and the health of “The Economy” is all that matters. Free-trade deals and agreements that offer massive power to corporations at the expense of countries. Corporate personhood. Citizens United and an unending stream of decisions that give corporations the power to buy off the government. Massive deregulation. The investment of everyone’s retirement fund into the stock market. Too big to fail. Bailouts left, right, and center. Unending zero-percent interest, amounting to an endless free loan to corporations direct from the printers of currency themselves. The list goes on and on and on.

4. The rise of the prison-industrial complex.
An unabated series of “tough on crime” local authorities have been able to arm their police forces like our new high-firepower dehumanized military and funnel people into prisons or graves. The dire consequences of this reality have only gotten attention in the last 18 months, somehow, despite years of an administration with an African-American President perfectly positioned to discuss these issues and bring them to the fore. Our police imprison and kill more people than any law-enforcement authority in the world, by far, and they are so sequestered and marginalized and sent away for so long, that no one advocates for them whatsoever. Worse, the increasing rise of private prisons means that conditions are more dehumanizing than ever, in the name of profit and shareholders, our new gods in the increasingly right-wing world. Anyone who disagrees is seen as pro-crime, someone who wants the world to be more dangerous, and disregarded.

5. The destruction of social safety nets.
The Clinton administration, arguably more of a shift to the right than even the Reagan presidency, is largely responsible for this one, though it’s been ongoing for some time. Policies like workfare, putting more pressure on the unemployed, the destruction of school lunches and mental health facilities and everything else that takes care of people at the bottom have combined to make being poor totally unlivable. The fact that government is no longer taking care of people at the bottom increases the pressure on them to put themselves in the dead-end economy, which is why so many single mothers are now working 2-3 jobs and are still completely unable to pay their bills. Mythical memes like “welfare queens” have fueled this crazy rage at the poor that has led to a massive increase in homelessness that would be out of control were so many people not, through #4 above, now housed in prisons instead. Non-profits have emerged and grown to pick up the slack left by government absence, but even these (and I say this as a loyal non-profiteer) are increasingly beholden to corporations and the wealthy to fund their efforts, leading to almost none of them advocating for policy changes. The more that the government is put out of the business of taking care of those at the bottom, the more that those already doing well financially are seen as the saviors of everything in society, creating greater loyalty to their interests, just as investing government pensions in the stock market creates government interest in propping up its value.

These are the big ones, though you can see that each contains a bevy of large and incremental changes that have lulled us into this right-wing fantasy world. And there have been just enough socially leftist changes to distract us from what a massive rightward tilt every other policy has made. The rise of gay marriage and legal marijuana, almost entirely through popular referenda or the courts, have made us think that political progress in the last thirty years is somehow a mixed bag, when actually it’s a giant right-wing stomp. But these also illustrate the ever-widening gap between politicians and the people. When the people get to decide directly, then left-wing policies tend to be enacted. Politicians would never have implemented gay marriage, as seen by how many establishment politicians took forever to endorse the policy. It’s only the courts, who remain relatively loyal to a set of principles, and the people, who fundamentally don’t seem to want all this reactionary policy (but feel powerless to stop it) who can implement anything to the left of center.

But that may be starting to change as the real leftists make an unlikely last gasp to save our democracy from itself. The burdens of austerity and corporate control have been so massive, the shifts in our priorities so rapid and fundamental, that socialists are the only ones left to speak of alternatives. It’s not stunning that veterans of the sixties are often the only ones left to speak for this possibility, since so many Millennials and Xers are too resigned to the status quo to believe that corporate control can be curbed. The old are an unlikely voice for radicalism, but that has not dampened how compelling these voices have been.

Taking control of the traditional left-wing party is, of course, only the beginning. The mechanisms that modern democracies have put in place to thwart a left-wing resurgence are multifarious. Corbyn now heads the Labour Party, but can he win a national election? Surely he seems to be the person who can bring SNP voters that fled Labour last time back into the fold as the possibility of a real shift left becomes feasible. But all the money and traditional corporate-fueled media is solidly against him, so it remains to be seen how it will play out. And Sanders is increasingly taking the lead in the race to functionally head the Democratic Party, but there’s a long way to go. Will this be a replay of Eugene McCarthy in 1968, who upset incumbent LBJ and forced him out of the race, only to have the establishment regroup around RFK and HHH as alternatives, then kill off RFK so that Chicago’s convention could be stolen and the party restored to the power elites? Or will the momentum of Bernie be simply too popular, especially as the rise of Trump on the other side speaks to a populist rebellion that finally sees through the garbage of all the corporatist shenanigans above and wants a real change?

It’s an exciting time to look at these things, that much is clear. It may not be the terminal point of politics, but it’s a really exciting crossroads. We could realistically have a 2016 convention season that matters, where one or both of the delegate leaders have the nomination withheld by party elites as the Republican or Democratic establishment simply refuses to choose the person the people have chosen. And then what? Will we have four major candidates for President, including two major-party “choices” who the people have already rejected? Will there be any illusion of democracy after such an election season? Or will the parties go back to actually betting on the people and letting the chips fall where they may? Do corporations and the current complexes have enough of a hold on the pendulum that it cannot swing back naturally as political cycles tend to?

We’ll find out!

But to the extent that you can, you can influence these results. You, if you like the idea of democracy and want to give it another go, can try to be a believer. Don’t be skeptical, don’t give in to the voices saying “unelectable” and that it will never work. Because we get to choose. Or at least we can believe we can choose, and that might make all the difference.


Several Counter-Intuitive Things I’m Thinking Today

Categories: A Day in the Life, Marching to New Orleans, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Quick Updates, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Tags: , , , ,

If you don't post a picture on social media, people won't know what your post is about!

If you don’t post a picture on social media, people won’t know what your post is about!

It’s gonna be roundup-style today, kids. The loose thread tying it together is that I’m thinking things I think most people I know might disagree with. The snarky among you are saying “Why should today be unlike any other day?”

1. I don’t think Kim Davis should have been imprisoned.
I know. I know. She’s misdirected and misguided, biased and problematic, hypocritical and the whole nine. I’m not defending her actions or her as a person. But I don’t think arrest and imprisonment actually fit her actions at all. She probably should have been fired, probably on about the second day of her shenanigans. Let the long slow dreadful wheels of employment law sort her out. But I think even state officials failing to execute their job properly or carrying out their job in a biased way does not warrant arrest and imprisonment. Unless, you know, they’re killing people or physically harming them or something. But failure to do your job properly doesn’t warrant arrest. If it did, even more of the country’s population would be incarcerated, which is truly hard to imagine. On a political level, also, there’s the whole martyrdom issue. It made me pretty queasy to see so many “liberal” people condemning civil disobedience as a ridiculous concept on face just because their convictions don’t align with the person invoking said disobedience right now. Letting the person disobeying have jail as a place from which to make a more legitimate-seeming claim of mistreatment was just a bad tactical move, if nothing else.

2. NPDA might not be that bad.
The jury is out on this one, but my first earnest night of working with the Tulane Debate Team led me to believe that the differences have long been exaggerated. Certainly the “coaching” that RUDU has received in the last year or so makes me question this a little, but that might not be NPDA’s fault; it might just be the NPDA-experienced person in the position. Almost every time I asked if something was different, I learned that it’s not. There seem to be spready regions of NPDA, but it looks like Tulane avoids those. It might just be linked APDA, which seems to be what a swath of recent APDA leadership has been clamoring to turn APDA into anyway. I need to go to a tournament or two to be sure, though, which looks like it may be in the works! Don’t worry; we’re going to try to get Tulane up to some APDA contests too.

3. Only a Convention Coup can stop Donald Trump from winning the Republican nomination.
No matter how much the media fights and scrabbles and the establishment refuses to take Trump seriously, I think his momentum is almost unstoppable at this point. People forget that the Republican primaries are disproportionately winner-take-all, which is very different from the Democratic proportional system. Trump doesn’t need 51% support to start edging people out of the race and collecting a lot of delegates. People also grossly misunderstand how well he sits at the crossroads of so many things voters find appealing right now – the combination of irreverence for the economic establishment while being (or posing as) a successful businessman is almost irresistible for a group of people who are not doing well financially but assume they will some day. The Republican Party has always had slots for Trump-like candidates, though they’re usually from California (Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger). We’re facing a year when it’s quite possible that both nominees by delegate count will entering the conventions with no major establishment support or endorsements (R-Trump, D-Sanders). I don’t trust either party not to pull a coup, but especially not the Republicans. The problem is that the Republicans know that Trump will run 3rd party if they betray him, especially after he took the loyalty oath. But how else would you stop him? He’s a walking scandal, making him totally scandal-proof. He’s an American Putin. How would you honestly make people who love him now hate him when everyone in the party is trying so hard to emulate him?

4. The more you do, the more energy you have.
This is kind of an oldie but a goodie. And maybe those “you”s up there should be “I”s since this may not be true for everyone, though I might posit that it just doesn’t seem true for everyone. But awakeness and energy levels have always seemed to depend most on one’s interest in what’s going on when one is awake. If there are lots of things you’re looking forward to, lots of activities (even if many of them are objectively exhausting), then the tipping point of waking up when one is otherwise sleepy or getting out the door when one is otherwise feeling overwhelmed just gets a lot nearer. Part of this is a positive reinforcement loop – expending energy is an investment that may not always pay off. Sometimes activities are less fun or enjoyable or “worth it” than they seem. But I think most people (or maybe just most introverts) discount the value that will be gained from such activities, especially when one has a busy/exhausting job. The reality is almost always surprising that those activities are fun, enjoyable, and ultimately energizing. I think the same principle I used to try to convince people to play another game of Risk on Scheffres 2nd and then start their homework even later is still in play: fill your time and your time will fill you. And sleep is only necessary when there’s really nothing else to do.


Europe’s Migrant Crisis is America’s Fault

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: ,


Even in the typically self-absorbed and America-centric American press, the magnitude of the migrant crisis sweeping Europe has been the top story lately. There is something about a throng of humanity camping out in a train station because of being bureaucratically stuck, or piled dead in the back of a van because of being under-ventilated, that manages to capture the attention of most of the compassionate. And while Europe’s Schengen Zone has been built to be more accommodating to poor, tired, and huddled masses yearning for employment, the sheer quantity of suffering people has found, to quote a phrase, a higher pitch and broader scale.

There are a handful of migrants from Turkey and occasionally another country. But the top three, far and away, the nations that virtually everyone in this slow-moving morass of people piled up in Budapest or Calais or at the psychological gates of Germany are from: Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.

This is the US on the basketball court sticking up a sheepish hand. “My bad!”

Except, of course, we don’t. That’s not the way we do things in the US. Mitsubishi sent a team of executives to officially apologize for benefiting from the imprisoned labor of prisoners of war during World War II, finding a last survivor to sincerely admit guilt to. Nation-states have apologized for genocides, bombings, and other atrocities committed by previous regimes. Yet the United States, who has not even had a regime change since any of our many brutalities to fellow humans, peacefully transferring power in a direct line from genocidiers and slavers, firebombers and nuclear-bombers, we do not apologize. We, as a nation, are never sorry. Sorry is for suckers.

No wonder Donald Trump is halfway to being President in the national imagination. He is the embodiment of the American ego, ripped from the nation itself and implanted in one single person.

So it’s also little wonder that we’re not even whispering some responsibility for what, until recently, would have been called a refugee crisis. It’s unclear to me whether this rebranding is for the sake of the dignity of migrants – refugee becoming a little too tattered a word to describe actual people – or whether it’s a way of minimizing their desperation and suffering, though that’s hard to do when a makeshift raft of these beleaguered people sinks twice a week on the high seas. But make no mistake, when you hear the stories of this level of sheer torrid struggle and hope against hope: we did this. America created this reality.

Having a war rain down on your homeland is not an ideal circumstance. It is arguably far more devastating, destructive, and damaging than the most brutal and oppressive regime that you can imagine. Say what you will about the secrecy, idolatry, and lack of freedom of the North Korean regime, but at least most everyone in the society is intact from day to day, as are their houses, families, and places of work and leisure. Or put it another way – take the top five or ten most oppressive countries in the world and the most self-aware people in each of those countries (to solve for the “brainwashing” question). Then offer those people a choice: would you rather live here, as you do, or move directly to Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria? If more than 5% of people chose door #2, I’d be shocked. And if fewer than 95% of that 5% regretted the choice after actually seeing the status quo in said nations, I’d be really shocked.

Yes, Saddam Hussein was a bad guy. The Taliban was repressive. America still basically ruined the life of every man, woman, and child in those countries. For over a decade and counting.

Think about the level of fear, hopelessness, and anguish that would lead you to get on a boat that could easily sink, then get in a van that could easily suffocate you, then camp in a train station indefinitely, and to make a series of these risky and questionable choices over and over again. Can you even picture it? The predator at your back would have to be so fierce and tenacious that you would be willing to take almost any heedless act. We did that. We did that to these people. Us. The US.

Syria’s the exception, you say? You’ll concede that the places we bombed to the stone age, then raided house-to-house for years before being confused why killing everyone who disagreed with us kept manufacturing more people who disagreed with us and giving up – you’ll concede that those places may bear our responsibility. But not Syria! We have barely even started bombing Syria!

Well, uh, we created ISIS. And I think we can all agree that ISIS has something to do with why Syria is unlivable right now, though admittedly not all of it. The rest of it probably is related to the government there we used to prop up, or the rebels against it that we are now arming. Leaving a country alone has never really been a reasonable option. The US always knows best, taking sides, making kings, picking winners and losers, all to the benefit of our own people. After all, it doesn’t end up being our train stations that flood with suffering humanity, our vans found packed with corpses, our tax dollars at work trying to get people a better life. We are perfectly placed on the planet to lob a thousand interventions from way downtown, but be far enough away to not really be impacted when things go, as they inevitably do, south.

Yes, Mr. Trump, we are not far away from Mexico. You are right, and for that we have an agriculture industry. Build your wall and deport everyone and see how long people in this country can eat.

You know what, America? You don’t have to say you’re sorry. It would be nice, it would be civil, it would be the human thing to do. But it’s cool, there’s such a long list of things to apologize for, to reconsider, that it’s okay if this doesn’t make the cut. Here’s what I want you to do instead. Just think about what you’ve done. Think about how this happened, how your wars and bombs and drones and aggression created all this. Think about what’s going on in Yemen, where the next wave of migrants is already coming from as the infrastructure there returns to medieval levels. Think about what you keep doing, all over the globe, and maybe… just maybe, stop.

Like any unruly id, it’s hard for the US to really internalize that other people, their homes and lives and feelings, are just as real as they are. That’s good ol’ American Exceptionalism ruling the roost here at home. The secretly harbored feeling that we are the only people who truly matter, or at least we matter most. But it’s not true. Every resident of that train station matters just as much as you do, Mr. Trump. And if we’re not going to take responsibility for those souls, at least we can maybe save the next generation from the next possible target country, and decide to live and let live instead.


Free (Market) Fallin’

Categories: A Day in the Life, It's the Stupid Economy, Know When to Fold 'Em, Tags: , ,

Who doesn’t love Tom Petty?

I realize that what I’m about to discuss is not a glib and lighthearted topic for most of you out there. Largely because of the reasons I discussed here six months ago, involving retirement accounts and how you have been told to invest them all in the stock market and that the market always and only goes up. Last Friday, when the market plunged over 530 points the day after losing 357 points, NPR’s lead for the radio story was “Well, it’s a bad day to check your retirement account.” The ubiquitous penetration of market investment into these long-term “savings” instruments has only gotten more intricate since 2008. And it’s created a perverse incentive wherein most of the working core of society cares much more about the fate of corporate America and its top dogs than they should, because they see their ability to retire as wrapped up in the success of these multi-billionaires and their ventures.

It’s arguably an even more insidious and effective scheme than student-loan debt convincing a generation of young Americans to sell out rather than pursue their passions. At every stage of life, there’s now an American financial instrument guaranteed to make you prioritize the needs of the big corporation above those of your own moral compass or even personal financial fate. It’s all quite clever.

I happen to not have much in a retirement account, having cashed out what I could long ago and still trying to find a way to get the rest out before the alleged earliest date I can collect, currently slated as 20 February 2039. And no more than 5% of it was ever in stocks, and it certainly hasn’t been there in quite a while. Just as full disclosure of my own positions, which is good practice for anyone posting about the market, with or without giving advice.

Here’s the thing. People always try to explain what’s going on with the market and why things are happening or not. And most financial experts will tell you that the daily effort to attribute major swings in the market to one or maybe two key news events that day are only slightly more accurate than tea leaves. The market is complex, varied, over-leveraged, and unpredictable. To say “the market went down today on China fears” is not the same as saying a baseball team won because their star homered twice and the pitcher threw a shutout. It’s a little more like saying that the team won because 34,000 fans showed up. Like, yes, the fans may have helped the team win. But as the Orioles proved in April, you don’t need fans at all to win a home game.

But to the extent that what now seems by all measures to become at least a three-day slow-crash of the market can be attributed to any one thing, I think it’s best described as a giant tantrum. China, as they say, is just a red herring. Get it?

To the extent that there’s been a recovery in the United States economy in the last seven years, it’s been driven by an enormous transfer of wealth from the bottom 95% of Americans to the top 5%. The bailout was a giant metaphor for this kind of response to the Great Recession, but while income has stagnated and real employment has lagged, corporations have soared by cutting costs (wages, mostly), increasing productivity (longer hours and worse working conditions, mostly), and raking in financial incentives from the government (zero interest, mostly). While the stock market has been transformed to make us believe that it is a leading indicator of the health of the economy writ large, it is no such thing. It is an indicator of exactly what it indexes: the health and profitability of the largest and most successful corporations in society. And while an effort has been made to close the loop on this circular reasoning and make us all “shareholders” so we all feel (and are!) invested in the outcome of these corporations, most of us make most of our money from actual salaries rather than whatever extra we have to give back to companies. So our actual economic health derives from our own bottom line and not the company’s.

The problem with zero interest is that it all but guarantees that we all see the world through this corporate-driven lens rather than one of personal economic rebuilding. When I was growing up, I was taught to save and not to invest in the market. Because interest was around 5% and, as Albert Einstein allegedly used to say, “compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe.” As long as there have been financial instruments and economies, there’s been an assumption money saved will pay off over time. Which is why it’s so bizarre that people have described our present economy as recovering and healthy when you haven’t been able to conjure more than 1% interest from a savings account anywhere in approaching a decade. Despite what your state’s pension fund tells you, the stock market is not a savings account. It only feels that way because you are buying the rhetoric about the market’s unending meteoric rise and you can’t really stomach the idea of “making” 0.1% when inflation feels like it’s 25% on most everything you buy (except, perhaps, these days, gas).

So we’ve had a zero-interest world for a long time, simultaneously convincing the public that the stock market is the only viable place for their money and convincing corporations they don’t need to work to make money, because endless amounts of it are available free at the window. No wonder the corporate economy is booming! Any business can functionally print money for itself, just like the Federal Reserve itself. What’s not to love?

Well, the end of that reality is what’s not to love. Enter the tantrum.

Sure, China’s growth is only 7%. I guess that’s heartbreaking for people who felt that the country of over a billion people was going to generate better-than-Madoff returns forever. But analysts are, believe it or not, smarter than that. This has been foreseen. The skyrocketing growth that comes with a neo-industrial-revolution was never going to go on forever.

But the market really believes that free money, zero interest, can be the new reality forever. And they’re trying to take the Fed and new Chair Janet Yellen hostage.

I think that most market movers are making a play. They believe that if they can get the Dow Jones below 15,000 by the Fed meeting, she and her fellow Fed voters will have no choice but to promise to keep the free money flowing for the next year or so.

And before you think that my eye on the market is too heavily influenced by my own experience playing poker, I’ll counter with this: is there a difference? One of them is speculative gambling, a world of bluffs, calls, wins, losses, huge swings of money, the ability to read and predict the actions of others and react accordingly. The other is played in a casino with a deck of cards.

The market is bluffing, kids. They’re going all-in on free money.

Now don’t get me wrong. It’s possible that the entire pyramid scheme of the market, the illusion of the recovery, the enormous success of corporations and their big-money backers, is 100% dependent on 0% interest. It’s possible that this is only a semi-bluff, that they’re trying to manipulate the market so interest rates stay at rock-bottom, but they really are terrified to find out their worth in a world of even 0.5% interest. After all, the reasonable valuation for the Dow Jones is probably closer to 12,000 than 18,000. Unless, as I’ve observed before, you believe that not only has the economy recovered, but it’s the best economy that has ever been in this country by about 10-15%. Even the happiest true believers in this economy don’t believe that.

Regardless of which, I think it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the market touches 18,000 again for a very long time. I humbly suggest you factor that into your own financial planning. The one exception will be if this stunt works and Yellen and friends capitulate and promise in September to leave the rate at zero indefinitely. Then the market will be at 19k by Christmas.



Hillary Clinton and the Problem of Liberalism

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: ,

Why isn't calling myself a liberal enough for you?

Why isn’t calling myself a liberal enough for you?

“This was an incredibly new and important idea that people on the front lines of the gay rights movement began to talk about and slowly, but surely, convinced others of the rightness of that position. And when I was ready to say what I said, I said it.”
-Hillary Clinton, in 2014, on why she still didn’t support gay marriage fully, but was coming around. She fully endorsed it in April 2015, after 36 states and just 2 months before the Supreme Court legalized it in all 50 states

“Look, I don’t believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate.”
-Hillary Clinton, rebuking Black Lives Matter with her theory of “change”

I don’t consider myself a liberal. The term has been corrupted and co-opted by neo-liberalism, a movement really sparked in the US by Bill Clinton. It’s become a term that’s associated with milktoasty right-of-center policies masquerading as the new left. It’s waving the banner of corporatism, of free trade, of incremental change so small and slow that it looks like it’s going backwards. The very few actual Clinton supporters I know (not just begrudging and thankfully dwindling plurality of people who think she’s the only chance for “us” to “win”) tout the idea that her policies are actually very liberal. But liberalism is exactly the problem. Liberalism is about compromise, about (at best) the first six years of the Obama administration, about all eight of the Clinton years that brought us DOMA and NAFTA and bombing campaigns and a bunch of other policies that, before Reagan, we would associate with Republicans.

Hillary Clinton says her heart was changed, incredibly slowly, slower than the state of Iowa, by the gay rights movement. She was just two months ahead of the Supreme Court on this issue, around the time when they were hearing oral arguments, meaning that if Clinton herself were the decisive vote on the Court, the outcome of June’s decision would be in greater peril than it actually was. So much for voting for Hillary to protect the outcome of decisions in the Court.

Hillary Clinton doesn’t believe in changing hearts, though. Maybe because the first quote up top there is garbage. She came out for gay marriage at the last palatable second for a Democrat, largely because she probably still didn’t believe in it. I would contend that Clinton doesn’t believe in changing hearts because she doesn’t have a heart to change. There’s no idealism there. There’s no belief structure. There’s just a series of calculations about how things will be perceived, a mechanistic series of trade-offs en route to what she has seen for a long time as her inevitable just dessert. If this sounds familiar, it’s because this is pretty much the exact belief structure of Bushes the younger, both the successful two-term W and the contending-but-probably-sunk-for-now Jeb!

Here’s the problem, though, and this is coming at all those who posted on Facebook after this quote that Hillary “gets things done”. You have to believe in a change before you can fight to make it law. Hearts change before laws change. Anthony Kennedy’s opinion in Obergefell was not a deeply reasoned meditation on the exact nuances of Constitutional structure. It was a stirring plea from a heart that had been moved. If John Roberts’ dissent sympathized with the heartstrings but stuck to the legal guns, he may have had a point in doing so. “Whatever force that belief may have as a matter of moral philosophy, it has no more basis in the Constitution…” he wrote. He basically conceded that gay marriage was right, but he had found a justification in the “law” for not adopting it. Frankly, even John Roberts’ heart had been changed, but as a strict structuralist, he felt he couldn’t be swayed.

This kind of change is not what Hillary Clinton believes in. And in so doing, she offers a liberalism that guarantees stagnation. She will be even less of a change leader than Obama, who at least has found some will for actual change and chutzpah in his last two years, opening up Cuba and proffering the first sane Iranian policy in the US possibly in history. Yes, he still has his daily kill list and yes, he is still responsible for a terrible law that will make the next forty years of health-care policy even more reactionary than the forty before Obamacare (unless, that is, Trump or Sanders, both of whom believe in single-payer healthcare, get into the White House). But at least he’s found some change we can all believe in at the 11th hour.

The change Hillary believes in is to her bottom line. It’s to the self-serving reputation of the Clinton Dynasty. It’s to the ongoing entitlement of her clan as Democratic Royalty in an era when the Democrats became desperate and started moving further and further right to curry favor with corporate donors. And by resting on the laurels of liberalism, any moderate with a SuperPAC can come in and call themselves a winner to try to carry the banner of a new generation of leftists.

It’s no wonder that Bernie Sanders keeps gaining ground on this candidacy. A huge bloc of the Democratic Party are frustrated left-wingers who felt Obama was disappointingly moderate. You think those people are going to support someone who doesn’t even claim to believe in change? Who thinks Obama compromised too little? Your theory of change can’t be to move Clinton to the left in her rhetoric, because her rhetoric literally doesn’t matter. She doesn’t believe in changing hearts and minds. She believes in herself and doing whatever it takes to win. Fortunately, this year, or next year, so far, that doesn’t seem to be on pace to be a winning strategy.


Getting Closer Every Day

Categories: A Day in the Life, Let's Go M's, Quick Updates, Tags: , ,

Think these close games aren't exciting the Mariners?

Think these close games aren’t exciting the Mariners?

Ten days ago, I wrote this post about how close most games have been for the Seattle Mariners during the 2015 season.

I focused on closeness through the traditional metrics for such games – extra inning games, one-run games, walk-offs. You may have read that and figured that the variance would even out soon, that the closeness of their contests would “regress to the mean” as they say. You may have believed that the M’s are a fundamentally mediocre team this year, not one destined to barely win or barely lose night after night.

Let’s look at the results since I posted:

Monday, August 3rd: W, one-run game
Tuesday, August 4th: W
Wednesday, August 5th: L, extra innings, walk-off, two-run game
Thursday, August 6th: off day
Friday, August 7th: W, one-run game
Saturday, August 8th: L, extra innings
Sunday, August 9th: W, two-run game
Monday, August 10th: L, one-run game
Tuesday, August 11th: W, extra innings, walk-off, one-run game

For those of you scoring at home, that’s 4 one-run games, 2 two-run games, 3 extra innings contests, and 2 walk-offs. In eight games.

There was one (1) game that didn’t have at least one of those elements of closeness. And yeah, that Mariner eternal optimist in me kinda wants to focus on the 5-3 record during the span and claim progress. After all, we’re only 8 games out of the lead in an increasingly murky AL West. We’re only 7 out of the Wild Card, though we’re admittedly chasing almost everyone (literally everyone except Oakland and Boston) in that race.

The MLB record of 31 extra-innings games in a season (set by the Red Sox in 1943) is probably still safe – the M’s are trailing with a mere 18 at this point with a month and a half (48 games) to go. We’re on pace to finish with 25.5 games in that category, though if we keep up the pace of the last 8 games, we’ll get the record with 36 total. You can say that’s absurdly unsustainable, but I will call your bluff and raise you 23 years of Mariner fandom and the 1995 comeback season.

Keep your teams with leads in their divisions. I’m all-in with a team that, if they fall short, will only have about 40 games to look back on that they almost won, any few of which would have vaulted them to their first playoff trip in a decade and a half. Isn’t that more satisfying than your “winning”?



Categories: A Day in the Life, It's the Stupid Economy, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,

I promise this isn’t just becoming a Donald Trump blog. Though it would be a way to get more traffic.

Trump is one of two candidates in the race, along with the person I actually support, Bernie Sanders, who is observing the flaws in the current methodology for calculating unemployment. Unfortunately, both Donald and Bernie are focusing on underemployment as a facet of unemployment, which is mixing apples and oranges and undermines the strength of the argument that unemployment, meaning joblessness, is actually 11.52%.

They’ve been popularizing the often-touted “U-6” unemployment figure, which includes both discouraged workers, captured in my Real Unemployment figure month to month on this blog, along with workers who are part-time but would rather be full-time. Don’t get me wrong, these underemployed workers matter and are part of a larger picture of an unhealthy and overrated jobs market. But they are categorically better off than people who have left or never entered the labor force and are thus not only ineligible for part-time work income, but for unemployment benefits of any kind.

Definitions from the BLS website:

Persons marginally attached to the labor force are those who currently are neither working nor looking for work but indicate that they want and are available for a job and have looked for work sometime in the past 12 months. Discouraged workers, a subset of the marginally attached, have given a job-market related reason for not currently looking for work. Persons employed part time for economic reasons are those who want and are available for full-time work but have had to settle for a part-time schedule.

What’s amazing is that this inclusion itself nearly doubles the unemployment rate, from 5.3% to 10.4%. And yet this includes zero people who are actually outside of the labor force. And as we know, the labor force as a percentage of population is at a 38-year low, dating back to a time when it was still somewhat novel for women to be working regularly. That was October 1977, before I was born, when the Seattle Mariners had just completed their first season of existence, during Jimmy Carter’s first year in the White House.

By my calculations, factoring in just the truly unemployed, including those who’ve fled or been barred from the labor force, unemployment in July 2015 was unchanged at 11.52%. The Reporting Gap, measuring those left out by the ignorance of how labor force percentages impact unemployment, was also unchanged at an all-time high of 6.22%.

Here are your charts:

Unemployment, real and reported, from  January 2009 through July 2015.

Unemployment, real and reported, from January 2009 through July 2015.

Reporting Gap between real and reported unemployment, January 2009 through July 2015.

Reporting Gap between real and reported unemployment, January 2009 through July 2015.

If you add the difference between traditional U-3 unemployment and the U-6 figure that Trump and Sanders like back to the real figure of 11.52%, you get 16.62%. This is roughly how, I assume, Trump got the basis for his claim that he made during his announcement speech:

“Our real unemployment is anywhere from 18 to 20 percent. Don’t believe the 5.6. Don’t believe it.”
-Donald Trump, 16 June 2015

So I like where he’s going with that, but I think, like so many things Trump says and does, it’s a little exaggerated and more than a little mixed. Though 16.62% is really not that far from 18-20%, which is more than an alleged fact-checker like Politifact gave him credit for. Of course, Politifact makes irresponsible claims like this:

“For the sake of argument, let’s assume that half the additional increase in people out of the labor force comes from the Baby Boom retirement surge.”
-Politifact’s Louis Jacobson, 16 June 2015

We don’t have to just ballpark for the sake of argument. We can calculate this statistic based on data the BLS collects. And the fact is that Baby Boomers are delaying retirement because of the Great Recession, not fleeing the labor force. The Baby Boomers are responsible for 7.5% of the labor force drainage, as of October 2014, which I think you’ll agree is a bit shy of 50%.

Trump may be crazy and mixing his numbers. But if Trump and Sanders win their respective nominations, maybe the media will finally have to pay attention to the reality of the delusion that goes into reporting our unemployment figures in this country.

This is part of a continuing series on the under-reporting of unemployment in the United States of America.

Past posts (months indicate the month being analyzed – the post is in the month following):
June 2015
March 2015
February 2015
December 2014 – labor force participation assessment
December 2014
November 2014
October 2014 – age assessment
October 2014
September 2014
August 2014
April 2014
December 2013 – seasonal assessment
December 2013
March 2013*
August 2012*
July 2012* – age assessment
July 2012*

*My initial analyses led to a slight over-reporting of the impact of the reporting gap, so the assessments in these posts are inflated, as explained and corrected in the December 2013 analysis.


Why We Love Trump

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: ,

Donald Trump:  definitely not fired.

Donald Trump: definitely not fired.

People like dynamic excitement in elections. This is why I believe Bernie Sanders is more electable than Hillary Clinton. And I could write a whole piece on how that phenomenon is behind Donald Trump’s unexpected and meteoric rise to the top of the Republican polls. It’s fertile ground and there’s a lot there, but honestly, I think it’s a pretty small chunk of the reason that Trump is in the catbird seat for the Republican nomination. I think it avoids why he’s actually such a strong candidate and why, ultimately, he has a very good shot at the nomination and even perhaps the presidency.

People love Trump because he’s honest and sincere. He’s real.

Now you could very easily rebut this by saying there’s not an honest bone in Trump’s body. Many have posited that his whole thing is an act, that he says whatever he thinks will rile people up the most, regardless of his true feelings (if those even exist anymore). His hair is famously fake and surely anyone who goes that length to brag so repeatedly is covering for a mighty insecurity. Truth? Sincerity? Really?

The type of sincerity that Donald Trump offers is one about the political process and the political perspective of his followers and, perhaps, the whole Republican Party. Make no mistake, the Republican Party is almost entirely against immigration. They are fearful of outsiders, of foreign nationals, even (in many instances) of non-whites generally. The whole lineup in Thursday’s debate probably feels that way to an extent, or is at least trying to galvanize people who largely feel that way. So when Trump makes outrageously racist statements about Mexico shipping rapists and murderers north of the border, his statements are not different in kind from those his Republican colleagues would make. They are merely different in degree.

When Trump talks about the bounty of his riches and how he wins in business, he is espousing time-honored Republican (and American) values. Most of the other candidates want to be able to do that, but they have some notion in their head that such claims would be scandalous or indecorous. Similarly, Trumps comments about women reflect a wider ideology at home in much of the Republican Party about the role of women and their rights in society. FoxNews, desperate to assassinate Trump’s candidacy as quickly as possible, tried to zero in on this during the debate and Trump doubled-down. His popularity isn’t suffering, because it’s that kind of perspective that his supporters like. The folks sharing the stage would have similar policies toward women as Trump would. Trump is just going to be upfront about it, and about how he really feels.

Most Republicans (and Americans) want to get ahead of other countries very badly. They’re terrified about China, they’re concerned about our place in the world, they’ve been manipulated (again again again) into thinking war is necessary against [insert hyped Middle Eastern threat here]. Trump just comes out and uses the words folks are using at home to describe these threats and outsiders. It’s the same sentiment that a Bush or a Cruz or a Walker might be trying to get across. But it’s more direct, more biting, and thus more powerful. Because it exposes that Trump has the directness and sincerity to come out and say what’s really behind these political stances, rather than tiptoeing around it. Trump may look like a circus act, but if your alternative is playing with small wooden blocks, crudely shaped like a lion and tiger, wouldn’t you rather just go to the actual circus?

This is what makes it so hard for Trump’s rivals to get an edge on him, how he is hamstringing them all in both an individual debate and the national discussion. To distinguish yourself from Trump, you either have to diverge with him on a policy issue, or you have to sufficiently equivocate so as to seem substantially weaker on it. Neither of these are good strategies. He has cornered all the classic Republican tropes of candidacy in terms of advocacy, while doing so more brashly than others on every front. If you believe in something, you don’t want the person at the top of the ticket quietly mumbling about how it might be a good idea, but there will have to be compromise. You want them boldly embracing it, shouting it from the rooftops, adding bravado! And no one, not even the mighty Ted Cruz (whose territory Trump wholly and masterfully usurped) can out-shout The Donald.

This gets particularly effective when it comes to a subject like money in politics. The shadowy world of the so-called Billionaires Primary and the Koch Brothers and all the masses of cash that Citizens United has helped accelerate into the political process is something most people don’t want to talk about publicly. In an effort to embarrass Trump, FoxNews brought it right to him in the debate. They pointed out that as someone usually on the other side of the money/politicians hookup, he’d supported a bunch of Democratic candidates in the past. The sheer genius of his response has been sorely under-appreciated by the media and most pundits responding to the debate:

MODERATOR: You’ve also donated to several Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton included, Nancy Pelosi. You explained away those donations saying you did that to get business-related favors. And you said recently, quote, “When you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do.”

TRUMP: You’d better believe it.

MODERATOR: So what specifically did they do?

TRUMP: If I ask them, if I need them, you know, most of the people on this stage I’ve given to, just so you understand, a lot of money.


ONE OTHER CANDIDATE: But you’re welcome to give me money if you’d like, Donald.

[More assorted bidding for Donald’s money and discussion of opponents he paid in the past.]

TRUMP: I will tell you that our system is broken. I gave to many people, before this, before two months ago, I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And do you know what? When I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them, they are there for me.

OTHER CANDIDATE: What did you get from Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi?

TRUMP: Well, I’ll tell you what, with Hillary Clinton, I said be at my wedding and she came to my wedding.

Did you see what he did there? Not only did he set up a situation that literally illustrated the nature of his opponents’ groveling for money and the position of power that this put him in, but he simultaneously condemned the system that made it possible while reveling in the advantages he’s gained from it. And because he’s Trump, so brash and forthright, he can get away with that. And then, the kicker, the coup de grace, he turned gifts to Hillary on their head to embarrass her with them. Hillary and all that she represents gladly attended the wedding of Donald Trump and his third wife, something we all cannot really imagine Hillary enjoying, just because Donald asked. That’s the power of his money.

After a moment like that, how could anyone feel great about supporting one of Trump’s Republican rivals over Trump? Because here’s the thing: Trump is pointing out that pretty much whoever you’re voting for (*not Bernie Sanders, obviously), you’re voting for Trump. Even voting for Hillary is voting for Trump! His money gives him so much leverage over all these people that they are so desperate, they will literally grovel for money from the front-runner while they are debating against him.

It’s amazing.

We all know this corruption exists. We all read (or are at least aware of) dry and well-researched articles about the fact that whatever vestige of democracy we once had has been sold to the plutocrats. By bombastically illustrating it, by living it on the stage, Trump is simultaneously the embodiment of this system and its repudiation, reaping the best of both worlds. He can say to the public “You want power and money controlling your system? Go straight to the source! Cut out the middle-man!” and lampoon the system that makes this influence possible. Because it is, objectively, absurd. But no one is getting out of it.

It remains to be seen whether FoxNews and all the terrified Republican establishment hacks can assemble enough money and bad press to sufficiently tarnish Donald Trump and get him off that stage. But I really really doubt it. They may keep him from the nomination, making that old electability argument that leads to milktoasty losers like Romney and Dole, Kerry and Gore, but even then his bravado could lead him to a devastatingly upheaving third-party candidacy. Whatever the Republican establishment does to try to beat The Donald, they can’t buy him off. Which is what makes him so scary to the political order running this nation and so appealing to the voters who are sick of it.


The Quest for Understanding

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , ,

For most of my life, the prevailing presumption underlying my existence is that I was on a mission to be understood. More even than to be loved (though I of course see them as related), certainly more than to be happy. Simply to be really fathomed, to have someone be able to see into my thoughts and feelings and take up residence. If not comfortably, per se, at least with the notion that this is comprehensible.

I would argue that this is a more universal desire than might be readily agreed to. I have argued, at times, that this is all anyone wants out of life, or what most people most want. I’m not convinced this is the case anymore, in part from growth in (note the irony here) understanding others, and starting to grasp the depth of human diversity and perspective. There really are people, whether it’s deeply authentic or largely shaped by societal structures, who just want to be happy. Or, more often, comfortable. And being understood isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it’s a deeply unsettling experience.

Such an unsettling experience, that was simultaneously disturbing and movingly comforting, was had by me last night. It took place, like so many moving and disturbing experiences, in a movie theater. It was the experience of watching the new film Infinitely Polar Bear.

Folks, if you have even a passing interest in understanding me, if you want to know what it’s like to be the crazy person you know or read as Storey Clayton, this is your chance. Get yourself to a theater.

It’s not perfect. It’s not exactly spot-on in every place. I leaned over to Alex about four times during the screening and said “I’m not this bad, right?” It’s fueled by substances, both alcohol and tobacco and also lithium, none of which I’ve ever partaken in, nor ever plan to. And that makes a huge difference, in the severity and breadth of manifestations of manic depression. The see-sawing nature of addiction and chemical reliance certainly put a more dramatic and tenuous spin on the experience of emotional sine-curves. But good God, by and large, it was like watching a documentary of my emotional reality. Made doubly more mind-blowing by the fact that Mark Ruffalo, an actor whose range and depth I’ve always found disappointing, was bringing it to life so perfectly.

I was also probably more flabbergasted than normal by the fact that this viewing was one of the few in my life where I had the ideal movie-watching experience. I’d seen no previews, read no synopses or reviews, had no Earthly idea of anything about the movie other than its title when the movie began. All I knew is that someone I trusted to know me, at least a bit, had vouched that I would like the movie. So to have the movie really seem to get me, to understand my life and perspective, while I was viewing it this way, was incredibly special. One of the best experiences like this I ever had was seeing Memento in Boston at that vaguely independent theater that always seemed to spell doom for relationships. The immersion that can be achieved by having no idea what experience is coming brings movies the closest to simulating real life that they can. Something about that unpredictability that underlies our existence.

This issue of understanding, by the way, is what has made romantic betrayal such a particularly consternating aspect of my life. There is something about the people who came the closest to understanding, who professed understanding almost endlessly, being those who suddenly shun and disregard, that creates the ultimate devastation. There is this sinking feeling, actually attested to by my ex-wife, that the more one understands, the more inevitable betrayal becomes. That getting that close to the reality, to actually knowing what’s going on, creates repulsion, fear, the need to separate oneself. It is the increasing conviction that being truly understood will create this betrayal that has led me, for the first time in my life, to consider that being understood might not be the goal after all. That maybe we’re here to help each other get by without understanding.

True fact: I have received one (1) new e-mail during the time I’ve been writing this post. It is an invitation to the latest Bring Your Own Story event, wherein the theme of storytelling will be “To Good to Be True”.

I, literally, can’t make this stuff up.

Maybe I should just go hang out with the screenplay writer of Infinitely Polar Bear. Or even Mark Ruffalo, who seemed to capture something that so easily could have been a caricature as a real experienced life. Frankly, most people will probably see it as a caricature. And some of the extremes are things that I may not have actually done, though I’ve probably been close to everything depicted, outside of those scenes involving substances. Which I guess brings us to the only conclusion I can be sure of from all this today: Thank God I never started drinking. Thank you grandparents, thank you Gin Blossoms songs, thank you Sarah Brook and Fish for stopping me when I got off the plane from Liberia. I am convinced today that alcohol alone is the difference between me managing life as a high-functioning manic depressive who can “pass” as “normal” (though of course this blog lives in public largely because I don’t believe in passing) and being worse off than the polar bear stumbling through life on a screen near you.

The movie's publicity wing seems to be suppressing screenshots of Mark Ruffalo's character making a scene so they can market the film as a heartwarming triumph over adversity, I guess.  This slightly manic scene will have to suffice to capture just a glimpse of the real experience.

The movie’s publicity wing seems to be suppressing screenshots of Mark Ruffalo’s character making a scene so they can market the film as a heartwarming triumph over adversity, I guess. This slightly manic scene will have to suffice to capture just a glimpse of the real experience.


The Closeness of Baseball and the 2015 Seattle Mariners

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Let's Go M's, Tags: , ,

Logan Morrison scores an insurance run in the top of the 11th this afternoon after doubling in the go-ahead run for the M's against the Twins.

Logan Morrison scores an insurance run in the top of the 11th this afternoon after doubling in the go-ahead run for the M’s against the Twins.

The Mariners did something this afternoon they haven’t been doing much lately. They won a game.

Even more surprisingly, they won the game by more than a single run. The final score was 4-1 in their favor. Less surprisingly, it took them 11 innings to get there.

Those of you who read my baseball posts or follow baseball more generally may recall that while the M’s wound up one game shy of the playoffs last year, they had the statistically most exciting regular season last year, by a wide margin, as I ruminated on last October. This year, they’ve captured an almost dominating penchant for a different kind of baseball excitement than being close to the playoffs, and one that makes each inning even more engaging: close games.

The Mariners have played 39 one-run games this year, the most in the American League and third-most in baseball. That represents fully 37% of their season being games decided by the closest possible margin. Today’s game was their 15th extra-inning game, also the most in the AL and tied for the most in baseball. They are 20-19 and 8-7 in these two categories respectively, making such close contests basically toss-ups when the M’s play them, better odds than their .453 winning percentage overall (and way better than, say, their .418 winning percentage in games decided by more than one run). No one in the AL has won more 1-runners and only two teams have lost more (the A’s being notably hapless with a 10-25 1-run mark which will both underscore the near-miss potential of “moneyball” and make Oakland fans resentful of any kind of “how close we could have been” message I give the M’s from this post).

By the standard metrics of excitement per game, of memorably close game, the Mariners are at the top. But what happens when we drill a little bit deeper into the data?

The Mariners have been involved in 12 walk-off games (those ending in the very last at-bat), winning 5 and losing 7. For context, they were 2-6 in such contests all of last season (8 games total of 162, contrasted with 12 this season in just 106 so far). Less than a week into the season, they played four straight one-run games, the first three of which also went into extra innings and the last two of which were walk-off losses. In the middle of last month, they again played four straight one-run contests, with the fifth right after being a wild 11-9 win in which they overcome an 8-6 deficit in the top of the 8th with a pinch-hit grand-slam by Franklin Gutierrez, in easily the most exciting pitch of my Mariner fandom this year. I was jumping around the room and scared our rabbit, who has little appreciation for baseball, and the game’s 20 runs and 26 hits took four hours and felt longer than most extra-inning games, coming down to as close a game as a two-run contest can be. They’ve played 21 2-run games (at a disappointing 7-14 clip) and 13 3-run games (much better at 8-5). While they’ve been outscored by 58 runs total in 106 games, they’ve been outscored by just 4 runs total in the 73 of them that have been decided by 3 runs or less. Meaning the remaining 33 have carried a 54-run deficit, in which their record is 13-20. Three of those have been wrenching double-digit losses. Their largest margin of victory, on the other hand, is 7.

I don’t have enough data in front of me to know how some of this compares to other teams or other seasons, but I’ve spent enough years as a fan to know that most baseball isn’t this close, at least not this consistently. Of course, one of the greatest aspects of baseball is its lack of clock and the fact that no game is ever truly over till the last out is recorded. One’s theoretical chance of coming back to win is always in play until this happens, unlike timed games where victory is often long beyond physical reach before their conclusion. There is no being 25 points down with one minute to play in baseball. You may be down 10 runs with one out to go, but people have come back from that kind of deficit before, which can not be said of insurmountable timed leads in basketball, football, soccer, and hockey.

The end result of all this is that while the Mariners languish 10 games below .500 and 12 games out of first place, they feel like they’re in it. Every game is going to go the full nine, maybe the full eleven or twelve, and it seems that, punctuated by a couple embarrassing blowout losses, just about every game is going to be a nail-biter, ending in tragedy or triumph, and often a string of alternating tragedies and triumphs as we match the other team run for run. It is this exactitude, this playing to precisely the level of the other team whether it’s in hitting or pitching or both, that is so confounding about the 2015 Mariners, and simultaneously makes them so entertaining to watch. They did things like winning exactly every other game during the first 12 days in July, going 6-6 without ever doing the same thing in back-to-back contests. After that, they didn’t compile more than a 2-game streak in either direction till a rare sweep loss to Arizona in which only one game was a 1-runner. It was also an extra-inning game, the night after an extra-inning one-run walk-off.

How can you not want to watch this, even if it mostly ends the same way the last 13 seasons of Mariners baseball have, outside the playoffs?

Part of this, of course, is augmented by an irrationality that I think is almost unique to Mariners fans who were avid in the 1995 season. After our first playoff year ever as a franchise (after an 0-18 start in seasonal attempts) came from an unthinkable comeback in the standings, down 11.5 games on August 24th and coming all the way back to force a one-game playoff for the Division title with the Angels, every Mariners deficit seems possible to overcome. The spirit of Refuse to Lose has never left Mariners fans, so we can look at a 12-game deficit in early August and say “meh”. It’s utterly nuts, to make every season into 1995 in our imaginings, a year when the Mariners went 25-11 in their last 36 games, then won a one-game playoff 9-1, then came back from 0-2 in the ALDS to win 3-2. But for me, for I suspect most long-term Mariners fans, we see the glint of ’95 in every shortfall. We are the worst kind of incorrigible optimists, able to make hope out of the feeblest of circumstances. Excitement like that found in each game this year sure doesn’t help.

I have often pondered the role of sports in our lives, as irrational and control-ceding and time-wasting as they can be. But one of the things they add to our lives, for those of us who let ourselves truly care about the teams and their outcomes, is a level of drama, thrill, and uncertainty that is rarely found in the other routines of our modern existences. When it is found, it is often all too real, the drama of a near-miss car accident or the uncertainty of the fate of a loved one. Sports, like amusement parks, offer people a chance to safely let themselves experience these ups and downs, to get emotional over things that are not, ultimately, life and death. And while every sports fan will tell you that what they most want for their team is a championship, there’s something to be said for the excitement along the way. A championship is just a moment, but nail-biting see-sawing one-run games are a little version of that kind of moment, over and over again. Tune in tomorrow night for more lead changes, blown saves, 9th inning homers, and an outcome as unpredictable as life itself.


The Electability Trap

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,

Americans are obsessed with having voted for the person who happened to win. It’s bizarre, and I’ve discussed it before, and it’s a large part of what never gets fixed about politics in this country and why we re-elect 99.9% of incumbents (rough estimate) and have a deadlocked system of two parties that are virtually indistinguishable in actual policy. But whatever. I’ll accept that as given since it seems like reality and I can’t fight it every time.

What I want to observe in this post is how bad people are at predicting electability, even when trying to chase that dragon. Because it’s pretty well documented, especially in the recent history of the Democratic Party. And, of course, it directly relates to 2016.

You know who the two most obvious electable nominees of the Democratic Party have been in my lifetime? Al Gore and John Kerry.

Who, if you’ve forgotten and are scoring at home, share zero years of lifetime Presidency, combined.

There was never any earnest, real excitement around these candidates. There was never verve or enthusiasm. But there was a strong sense that they were winners. These people were established! They were going places because, uh, people have heard of them? And stuff? And familiarity must breed some sort of excitement in November? Right?

Now, yes, I realize that Gore may have technically won the 2000 election, though we’ll never really know for sure. But you know what he didn’t win? His home state. What a winner!

Meanwhile, there have been two extremely successful two-term Presidents who have served as scions of the modern Democratic Party. They were also most commonly criticized throughout the primary process as one deathly word: “unelectable”.

You know these folks. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

Part of why they were so unelectable is that you didn’t know these folks that well even two years before the election. Oh yes, Obama gave that stirring keynote at the Democratic Convention in 2004 that showed just how totally awful John Kerry really was as a candidate, but even then people smiled for the State Senator and told him that maybe in 2016 he’d have enough party credibility and establishment under his belt that he could consider running in the primaries. Clinton was a non-stop liability throughout the primary season. He had affairs and controversy following him all over the campaign trail. Meanwhile, in 2008, Obama was every bit the outsider that Bernie Sanders is today, against the presumed obvious nominee that Hillary Clinton was then, as she is now.

A funny thing happened on the way to the Convention. Excitement.

You see, it’s actually enthusiasm and energy that drive elections. This is what Americans, especially over-thinking political Americans, always seem to forget in analyzing electability. Barney Frank has certainly forgotten this, though he and all his Democratic establishment cronies are absolutely terrified of Bernie Sanders taking the Democratic Party back in the direction of its actual principles, before drone strikes and the TPP and workfare. His recent post in Politico is getting a ton of traction in my Facebook feed, mostly from debaters who seem to like the political gamesmanship of elections far more than the clash of principles. And Frank himself transparently bends over backwards to claim there’s basically no difference between Sanders and Hillary, despite Sanders shouting from the rooftops about income inequality, the slaughter of oppressed peoples at home and abroad, the minimum wage, and billionaires, while Hillary quietly defers and goes back to platitudes and equivocation.

Let me ask you a question. Are you excited about Hillary Clinton? Do you know anyone who is excited about Hillary Clinton?

And allow me to clarify. I didn’t ask if you were excited about the theory of four more years of a Democratic President, or about Supreme Court nominations, or about not-Republicans, or any other red herring issues that Hillary supporters have trotted out. And I didn’t ask about the abstract of a woman President since, after all, I know exactly what you would think if it were Sarah Palin vs. Barack Obama now, or back in 2012, so that’s not your real voting issue or what drives your enthusiasm, even if you have put aside the fact that her initial political experience and qualification was First Lady.

Are you energized? Are you inspired?

There may be a few of you who answered yes, I guess, though I think you’re lying to yourself. Unless you’re reading this, Chelsea. You’re probably pretty pumped.

But the crowds and the rallies and the buzz are telling the story. The excitement, the only real excitement on either side of the fence, is for Bernie Sanders. Oh sure, Trump is getting a lot of attention, but not a lot of enthusiasm. It’s mostly controversy. After all, he had to pay people to attend his candidacy announcement and pretend excitement. Trump is great theater, but he doesn’t have the energy. No one else on the Republican side is really getting people jazzed. Bush and Rubio and Walker all seem to have a bit of a following, but it’s with the same kind of verve of the most ardent Hillary supporter, which is to say a tentative shruggy kind of “well, I guess he’s…. electable?”

Energy wins elections. Obama. Bill Clinton. Reagan. In the modern media era, it’s this visionary excitement that drives voters to the polls. Not a resigned half-compromised “Well, let’s go with the establishment candidate because they have name recognition.”

Hillary does have name-recognition, along with strong and intractable unfavorability ratings from a majority of the electorate. People who like to talk about Bernie’s unattractiveness to Republicans forget that Hillary was the target of merciless attacks from the Republicans for most of the ’90s, far more hated than her husband, and was probably the biggest driving force behind the 1994 midterm Republican landslide. Those people haven’t forgotten how they feel about Hillary, no matter how many wars she’s promised to fight.

Meanwhile, Sanders has that kind of alternative appeal that could peel a lot of the fringe wings of the Republican Party away, just as a Ron Paul candidacy would have peeled a lot of fringe Democrats had he ever been nominated. If you see a Bernie Sanders general election against some big Republican Party hack, someone like a Jeb Bush or a Scott Walker, his authenticity and creativity are going to run circles of excitement around the trotting out of another established insider. Just as Hillary, the ultimate insider, seems slippery, dishonest, and unappealing to the average voter.

The only way Bernie Sanders can lose this primary contest coming up is if Democrats vote with their fear instead of their heart. Choose Kerry over Dean, choose Gore by default, choose tired unexciting establishment cronies to carry the banner instead of someone with fresh ideas that actually galvanize. You may think that your primary issue is electability, but I think you need to think again.

Three obviously electable Democratic establishment campaigns... that lose.

Three obviously electable Democratic establishment campaigns… that lose.


Privacy is Death

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: ,

Sandra Bland, right, with the incident that precipitated her death, left.  You know her name because and only because someone filmed the incident.

Sandra Bland, right, with the incident that precipitated her death, left. You know her name because and only because someone filmed the incident.

The thought occurred to me yesterday that had the events of Freedom Summer happened this summer, they would have ended with the police just gunning everybody down. I don’t think that’s quite actually true, because of the nature of numbers and publicity and death and the fact that Freedom Summer had enough white people involved that it would make such slaughter hard to pull off. But I think it’s a fitting thought experiment to launch further reflection on what is happening in this country with civil rights and the police and the kind of near-daily crisis that the African-American population is facing in this nation.

Then, of course, I realized, that this summer is new for only one reason, or the last two summers since we’re now about a year after Ferguson. It’s not that the behavior by the police is new, or the racism has intensified, or that the killings are up. It’s that people are talking about it and paying attention. That’s all that’s changed.

The incarceration rates of African-Americans are truly shocking in this country, the dominant number behind a nation that has used prison as a first-response mechanism to any threat, real or imagined. It is easier to lock up people who disagree with you than to improve their lives, work with them, bridge the divide between your perspectives, or try to build society. We aren’t just failing at nation-building abroad, we’re doing a woeful job with it in every impoverished neighborhood and traditionally disenfranchised group here at home. In large part because top-down nation-building by white imperlialists has always been a broken model. The nations of the developing world that were once colonies were built and established to forever be colonies, perpetual slave states to be milked by foreign powers, their people exploited, but now with their own “independent” flag. It’s hard to trace a problem or a shortfall in developing countries that can’t be directly attributed to this phenomenon.

Similarly, the ghettos, slums, and poor neighborhoods of the US function as colonies, churning out new victims for an American police state, free labor to head to the prisons, and just enough resistance to fuel an oppositional dynamic that can be used to justify crackdowns to the rest of the populous. All while providing enough criminally cheap labor to keep the pyramid of American capitalism churning, allowing people to think working three dead-end jobs at once is “opportunity”, giving just enough hope to the downtrodden that they don’t examine the whole system and tip it over.

So what’s different now? What’s changed this summer, last summer, the last year that the reverberations of this system and all its carnage are finally subjects that the President and those who wish to be the next one (okay, one or two of them) are actually talking about it?

It’s the end of privacy.

The only difference between the publicity of the last year and the silence of all the years that came before is the role of cameras and social media. The reason you know the name Sandra Bland, the reason you feel outraged by what happened to Eric Garner, the reason you can even conceive of a world in which police will violently attack Black teens at a pool party, is because you’ve seen them on your screen. You’ve seen the evidence. It’s not that police are suddenly attacking, incarcerating, and slaughtering Blacks for selling loose cigarettes, failing to use their turn signal, playing in the pool, walking down the street, or not immediately complying with outrageous demands. These things are not unprecedented. They are the long-running status quo of life in this country. You’re hearing about it because you’re seeing it. It’s getting taped and shared and spread and people have a very hard time ignoring an outrage they’ve actually witnessed, at least comparatively to one laden with rumor, uncertainty, and the presumption of authoritarian credibility.

As always, the issue with privacy’s death is its symmetricality. Asymmetrical publicity is 1984. It’s authoritarian and terrifying and every Millenial and Xer and probably most every Boomer has been raised to fear it more than any other system. If the government and those in power have all the cameras, all the investigators, and all the means of dissemination, then privacy is very important. It’s to be guarded and protected. That’s the dynamic which most societies have operated under for centuries.

But our current world offers us symmetrical publicity. The ubiquity of cameras, the near-universal participation in web-based social networks, these are actually the tools of liberation. This concept seemed obvious when the Arab Spring was underway and the complacent advocates of American Exceptionalism thought it was obvious that those “backwards and oppressed” Arab nations were thowing off the yoke of their oppressors. It’s less obvious to that perspective when our own oppressed start rising and resisting here at home. But it is no less true. The advent and ascendance of technology that wantonly disregards privacy as a value is a burgeoning tool of liberation and accountability. It is holding the long-broken mirror up to our authorities and showing how far we’ve gone down a rabbit-hole of oppression, racism, and terror.

It’s why people like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange are so important. It’s why WikiLeaks and anonymous hackers are meting out more justice than all the non-Supreme courts of America combined. It’s why a world in which everyone wears a camera, everyone is constantly surveilled, if it’s symmetrical and universal and includes those in power, is not terrifying. It may be our only hope.

The only thing preventing a neo-revolution, full-scale riots in the streets, a total demand that we change the practices of our systems, is the fact that we don’t yet have footage behind the prison walls. We don’t have a publicly available tape of what happened to Freddie Gray or Sandra Bland behind those still-closed doors. If you knew what happened, if that video were viral, we’d be living in a much different country this morning.

Privacy is a moral issue. Privacy is complicity with the traditional status quo, one of racism, oppression, violence, subjugation. Privacy gives power to the powerful and strips it from the powerless. Privacy is the shield by which those who would commit abuses and atrocities believe they can do so with impunity.

Living in public, openly, is the mechanism of justice, of comeuppance, of accountability. Yes, it has to be universal. It has to be applied equally to those in power. It has to, for this to ultimately work, go into the prisons, into the police cars, into the torture chambers and basements and Guantanamo and sites too covert to mention or even know about. But the best disinfectant to society, any society, especially a police state, is sunlight.

Whatever benefits you think you derive from privacy, do they justify complicity with what’s happening this summer, every summer, on the streets of America? Do they justify a system that allows racist cops to hind behind their badge and get away with murder? Do they justify a system that views Black lives as expendable and unimportant? Does your right to cling to your secrets outweigh the rights of others to live?

We’ve all done things we’re not proud of. All participated in the systems that create and manage this oppression. Until we’re all willing to examine that ourselves, let others examine it publicly, and commit to that kind of scrutiny, we’re never going to get better enough to keep this from happening. Publicity is freedom. Privacy is death.


It’s 2015 and You are Alive

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, If You're Going to San Francisco, Know When to Fold 'Em, Marching to New Orleans, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Quick Updates, Read it and Weep, Tags: , , , , , , ,

There’s a lot going on. There always is. Despite the efforts of various media outlets, phone applications, and the narrative brain to confine your existence to a narrow set of coherent and perfectly tailored activities/perceptions, reality is a cacophony of wills battling for your attention and interest. I can’t consolidate today. But I feel compelled to document. My thoughts are scattered and they’re cloudy… and like clouds, the thoughts can blow away. The Internet, as long as electricity works, is some sort of vault with which we can offer solidity to the clouds. That’s even how it’s described.

Barack Obama is suddenly the President he said he was going to be, at least a bit, in a lot of different fields. This is both exciting and sad. I have been one of the more anti-Obama leftists out there, frustrated as anyone about his drone strikes and his corporatist policies and his total ignoring of the plight of anyone who looks like him or the environment or poverty. And yet, every other day, there’s a news story about Obama suddenly talking about the prison-industrial complex, or opening an embassy in Cuba, or openly celebrating gay marriage. The 2008 Candidate, who disappeared for six or seven years, is suddenly back on the scene. It doesn’t take a political scientist to understand that it’s not having to win any more elections that is the direct cause of this change of (return to?) heart. I’m not sure anything could more concretely underline what’s wrong with the American electoral system than that someone feels they have to sell out for six years in order to sneak in a few good policies at the end. I still hold out hope that he’s going to commute every death sentence in the nation on January 19, 2017.

I have moved three times in the last twelve months. This one is mostly just sad, or exhausting and frustrating. All three were summer moves, in New Orleans, though the first one started in Jersey, where it wasn’t much less humid than here. Okay, it was a bit less humid. Every time I move, I say I’m going to get rid of all my stuff. I never do. I hate how American I am, deep down, in many ways. I can only say that moving frequently is good for me, so I don’t build up too much complacency about my acquisitions.

Returning to Berkeley was not as hard as I feared. I expressed a lot of trepidation about flying back to Berkeley, by myself, to spend a few days. The context of the trip was of course magical, but I still expected to feel a lot of angst and sadness. There was really very little. The place is still incredibly haunted, but I was more heartwarmed by seeing all the old great restaurants and little quirks that make Berkeley what it is. This was all only augmented by happening to start reading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius right before the trip, which I feel like is nearly impossible to follow without a deep understanding of the Bay Area. It’s easy to forget that there are places where people unironically embed poetry into the sidewalk, where a meditation center is available as an AirBNB, where a guy like Ben Brandzel could be raised in context. Remembering that is nice.

Being without the Internet is both immensely frustrating and kind of good. This new apartment is great in a lot of ways, including that we get to have our rabbit, Brownie (quickly becoming a Facebook mini-celebrity) and that it’s walking distance to all the great stuff on Magazine Street. But it’s expensive, something we justified in part by the claim that Internet is included. This claim was greatly exaggerated, at least so far. Internet works about 30% of the time and will go out for days on end. I am not great at standing up to landlords, though we’ve been grousing a bit. But in the meantime, I’ve both gone without writing posts I was really excited about and read more than I would have otherwise. I guess it makes it about a push. The Internet, like so many things, is a tool that takes on a life of its own if you let it. It’s just a tool. It’s just a tool. How you use a tool is what determines its value.

I mostly eat when other people are around. It’s not that I completely starve when I’m alone, but I can regulate my food intake much better when there aren’t social pressures to eat with someone. Alex has been back in Jersey for a couple weeks and I find that my eating patterns have settled back to a more comfortable minimalism for me. Given that I gained 50 pounds between 2010 and 2015, I prefer the self-regulation level, which has brought 10-15 pounds off that high-water mark. I’m not looking for 2010 weights, which were depressively skeletal, but I also have no business being 170 pounds.

I’m not sure any news story has made me happier in years than Ashley Madison getting hacked. It’s hard to think of a business more pernicious or predatory of human emotions, nor people who more thoroughly deserve the searing light of publicity. I hope it all gets published in a wiki-style searchable index.

Walking in the rain in New Orleans in the summer is no big deal. I remember the one year I lived in DC, suddenly rain was not a hard deterrent to being outside. New Orleans is the first place where the rain has been sufficiently warm to replicate that experience. It was highly unintuitive to start out on a walk two nights ago into a burgeoning thunderstorm, but I felt reassured and ready. And I wasn’t disappointed. Remarkably, tons of people were out in the rain, equally unhurried. Yet another way this is a seriously liberating place to live.

Patience is an incredibly easy lesson to forget, but it’s at the center of everything. This is a lesson I had to learn and forget, learn and forget, learn and forget when playing poker semi-professionally. And it’s still at he heart of poker, and every competitive game out there. The fun and even more forgettable thing about patience is that it actually can slow time down, which makes you feel like you’re living longer. This is mostly just a note-to-self that I’m sharing with everybody. Yoga and meditation are kind of the embodiment of patience, that unhurried slowing of intention and desire and replacing it with the ticking of each second, slowly. Time is extremely perceptual. Everything in Western society pushes us to rush through things, push for a future that may never come, go go go go go at a busy and overwhelmed pace. This is a life-destructive, time-destructive force. As much as we can layer our lives with the opposite, with patience, with milking a second’s worth of time out of every second, the more whole we will tend to feel.

I have a lot more thoughts, all of which at one point could possibly have merited a whole post on their own. But this format, a little more like the days of Introspection, is fitting for now. And now I have to go get ready to have a day at work.

Life hack:  thinking about death makes you feel more alive.  Remembering that so many are dead makes you appreciate not being there yet.  It is not a coincidence that New Orleans is both one of the most stunningly vibrant cities in the world and has above-ground graves everywhere.

Life hack: thinking about death makes you feel more alive. Remembering that so many are dead makes you appreciate not being there yet. It is not a coincidence that New Orleans is both one of the most stunningly vibrant cities in the world and has above-ground graves everywhere.


Finance Lessons

Categories: A Day in the Life, It's the Stupid Economy, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,


I don’t know when we decided that someone’s moral worth, both individually and collectively, depended entirely on their ability to manipulate financial arrangements. But I think we should probably go back and un-decide that, posthaste.

Unfortunately, recent steps to increase corporate power and control, to vault the corporation (the only type of entity I like less than the nation-state) above the nation-state for preeminent domain over how people conduct their lives, are all but locked in. A done deal, you might say, if you were inclined toward the business end of things. Increasingly, there is no other end of things to be inclined toward.

Obviously, I’m talking in part about Greece. After talking a big game and getting everyone excited for a couple days that Greece was actually going to reject the fascism of finance to make people’s lives miserable and potentially unlivable, Tsipras backed down and Greece swallowed a deal that pays obeisance to the corporate gods of privatization and burdening the poor. Remember how we discussed that those who are successful have all the power to determine what success even is? When the wealthy or those with disproportionate pieces of the pie get to write the contracts (spoiler alert: they always write the contracts), then the poor end up paying. Every bailout and austerity measure disproportionately hits the poor, in taxes, in lack of a safety net, in the corrosion of basic civil society that comes from mortgaging the very notion of civil society and putting it up for fire-sale to a private entity.

There is also this high-minded moral condemnation that comes with all this, a heavy-handed rhetoric of “you deserve this” and “you lived beyond your means then, so suck it up now”. This presumes that more than a handful of people in Greece were responsible for the irresponsibilities of the initial accrual of debt. It’s like blaming the people who took bad mortgages in 2008 for the housing bubble/crisis. When you live in a society that worships home-ownership and tells you you’re worthless till you’ve hit that milestone, of course you’re going to take the loan when it’s offered. After all, it’s the bank’s job to know whether it’s a reasonable deal or not. Similarly, the average Greek citizen bearing the bulk of both direct and indirect costs of the new measures punishing them for their “misdeeds” had absolutely no role in decision-making for the circumstances that led them here. They may have enjoyed the theoretical benefits of a prosperous bubble, but could no more have stopped it and made Greece behave “responsibly” than they could have overthrown the government in Germany.

This notion that people are responsible for all actions of not only their governments, but their banks is frightening and irrational. I recognize that in the theory of conservation of finance, someone “has to pay” or be held responsible. And I guess the Greeks are geographically closer to the Greek bankers and former regimes than, say, the Swedes. But any notion that the connection is much stronger than that is pretty flimsy. Power and decision-making are what tip the scales in this arena, and the average Greek citizen had close to zero. The strongly-defended reaction of Germany and the Eurozone is a little like jailing the whole city of Baltimore because they “allowed” a murder to take place in their city limits. “Well,” the indignant authorities respond to cries of injustice “if you didn’t want this punishment, you should have elected people who would make sure no murder could possibly take place!” Airtight logic, no?

If you feel like we’ve seen this movie before, it’s because we have. Most poignantly in the 1920’s in Germany, which I guess helps explain the hypocritical fervor with which that country’s representatives now enact vengeance on the Greeks (see also freed slaves coming to Liberia and subjugating the local population and the whole Israel/Palestine debacle). The government running Germany and charged with paying impossible bills had nothing to do with the government that had decided to fight World War I, and indeed had far less responsibility for the war’s destruction than, say, the other European governments. And the people of Germany had far less power over the Kaiser’s decision set than anyone. But the whole nation’s people got blamed and penance was extracted, all with heavy-handed moralizing about the superiority of other European peoples. Now I guess I believe in a sliver of culpability for being willing to fight the war, albeit under coerced circumstances, and I suppose I feel there’s a comparable amount of culpability for cooperating with capitalist institutions at all (yep, I’m not absolved here, though I personally don’t believe in taking on debt). But that level of culpability is more like an asterisk than a warrant for an indeterminately long prison sentence. Someone said yesterday that 50 years is the “optimistic” timeline for payoff, that one of these unimaginable bills would come monthly for a half-century. Now, sure, I guess they just negotiated that down to forty years or something, but Jesus. Are we even thinking about these things, or are we just letting the invisible hand pin our arms behind our backs?

Don’t worry, kids. Nothing bad happened with that consistently humiliated and subjugated population in Germany in the ’20s. They were fine.

Corporate dehumanization and the expectation that everyone keeps up with the rules, learns them perfectly, and makes all the “right” decisions, mixes particularly badly with recent advances in technology. We’re talking oil and water, pills and alcohol, fireworks and forests kind of mixing here. My parents have been going through a series of micro-disasters stemming from this combination lately, including their newish car’s computer rebelling on them through sensors that almost cause accidents and my Dad getting locked out of his GMail for nearly a week because they (apparently?) thought his Albuquerque IP address was the source of Chinese hackers. When Alex got a new phone on our joint cell-phone account, my phone’s voicemail password suddenly stopped working and, when I got back in, I was told several “unauthorized attempts” had been made from my phone. This despite the fact that when my previous version of this phone had been stolen, they were perfectly happy to charge me for the unauthorized data bill that the thief had racked up.

The problem is that the computer always knows best who is who and what that means. It doesn’t seem to matter if you have the password that you’ve always had or the secret code, the algorithm will decide whether you’re real or not. There have been a lot of trippy neo-Frankenstein type movies made about this scenario, but it is a real-life and chilling set of circumstances that are developing. When my Dad offered to take his IDs into Google, they wouldn’t entertain the idea. There was no way to prove to GMail that he was who he always had been, except to input an attached cell-phone number to the account that had never been tied to the account. The computer assumed he had a cell-phone and that this phone was more intricate proof of his identity than anything human he could provide or prove.

In that same post linked above, I displayed a YouTube video of a scientist questioning ten tenets of scientific orthodoxy, including the idea that people are just machines. The prevailing belief system of those in power at this juncture is that we are all just machines and should become more machine-like in our behaviors, our “thinking” (air-quotes theirs). It’s the underlying premise not only of modern science, but also of economics. People are pre-programmed rational actors who deserve punishment and even being taken offline for deviating from the mechanistic behaviors of accumulating wealth, delivering productivity, and making smart financial decisions.

This would all almost be a reasonable way of ordering things if what smart financial decisions were stayed constant, sane, and fair. The heavy-handed moralizers of The Economy claim that finance is a lesson that can be learned, internalized, and applied to situations in a consistent manner and that everyone has equal access to the education to know the rules, learn the game, and play. Even if money were entirely equalized, though, this wouldn’t be true. Because the real winners in contemporary finance are those who manipulate the situation to their advantage. There’s nothing objective about the accumulation of wealth and power. It depends largely on not only your ability to swindle those who know less than you (in this one arena) out of their money, but even more on convincing the government to give you free money. Those that have succeeded in the last ten years in business did so primarily by convincing a vulnerable government to give them near-endless supplies of free cash, in the form of bailouts or interest-free lending. And the main way those people convinced said entities to float them is with, well, money. So the game is just to start with an unequally distributed good, then spread that good from those who happen to have it to those charged with making the decisions and, voila! Entrenchment at the top, paid for by those who never had power, influence, or money to begin with. Stupid people! They should have figured out a way to steal their own money in a way financial rules have arbitrarily deemed acceptable!

Among other things, this system is intensely immoral. Charging the uninformed, the downtrodden, the long tail of societies for the recklessness of their society’s hegemons while simultaneously rewarding other society’s hegemons for happening to outwit them… Really? This is the way we want to structure a global operation? And for what benefit? So we continue to drown an unwell planet in more terminally unnecessary plastic widgets? So we continue to cancerously grow our species until it chokes out all other life that had the misfortune of being born on Earth? If you’re going to celebrate the alleged lifting of people from poverty that you attribute to capitalism, you also have to revel in the creation of poverty it ensures every day, starting with the functional enslavement of Greece.

And then, hopefully, you ask where poverty came from in the first place. Poverty is not the natural order of things that capitalism saved us from. Poverty was invented by imperialists and robber barons, people who thought they could trick and swindle whole countries out from under the feet of people who’d always lived there. You may think we’ve come a long way from feudalism, but at least feudalism allowed people at the bottom to work their own land and save some of the food. People were not wholly owned subsidiaries of whatever wealthy decision-maker swindled them away from the other wealthy decision-maker.

There are other ways to structure a society, that give humanity back to the humans and recognize that cancerous amoral/immoral growth for the sake of enriching whoever has the reins today is not the objective of our existence. Or should not be. I know, I said “should”. I know science and economics tell you morality doesn’t exist. That appears to be the whole problem.


Independence Day

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, If You're Going to San Francisco, Pre-Trip Posts, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , ,

“There was an exodus of birds in the trees
because they didn’t know we were only pretending.
And the people all looked up and looked pleased
and the birds flew around like the whole world was ending.
And I, I don’t think war is noble
and I don’t like to think love is like war.”
-Ani DiFranco, “Independence Day”

I’m going back to Berkeley on the 4th of July. I’d already be on the plane right now, but it was delayed, which is a bit of a surprise given how few people choose to fly on this day. Berkeley, of course, is the origin of my “4th of July Hat”, so named for the day I bought it. The hat is featured in this picture:


When I tell people how cold the Bay Area is, especially in the summer, they don’t believe me. I talk about this hat. It’s not just that I’m a chronically cold person who chose to wear this hat on 4th of July (the day perhaps most associated with heat on the entire calendar) in Berkeley. It’s that street vendors were selling this hat on 4th of July in Berkeley. Meaning they had to believe that other people, other more normal and warmer people, would also be interested in making such an acquisition. And they were.

Of course, that picture was taken in on December 23rd in Albuquerque, a few years later, a place where it sometimes snows. Like the snowflakes on the hat. It never snows in Berkeley. That would make the cold worthwhile.

Despite my bellyaching (I blame the delayed flight), I love everything else about the Bay Area except the weather. I love the people, I love the places, I love the restaurants, I love the… oh. There are also the memories. I love a lot of the memories. And I hate a lot of them too. There’s really just nothing to be done about that.

I just watched “500 Days of Summer” twice in the last 72 hours. I think it might be the perfect movie. I saw it at least thrice in theaters when it came out and I’ve seen it a couple times since. The movie is many things, including a brilliant depiction of miscommunication and misunderstanding and how that can emerge and evolve, but it is mostly a distilled and exquisite rendering of how love impacts the human brain and how completely devastating that experience can be. And perhaps even more perfect is its depiction of memory, how it can lie and cheat and illustrate and illuminate. I almost watched it again this morning. I can’t get enough.

It is, I guess, a weird time to focus on such a heartbreaking film when I’m on my way to the wedding of a dear friend. But such dwelling also coincides, of course, with only my second return to the Bay Area since the demise of my marriage that spent 6 of its 7 (pre-separation) years there (curse you, New Jersey!). As much as anything, visiting the Bay Area is like going to the grave of my married life and waiting for the ghosts to come rising from the earth. Good times.

The other movie it makes me think of is “Inside Out”, which may be battling “500 Days of Summer” for the top spot in my heart this month. [Be you warned, for here be spoilers!] How a core full of happy yellow memories, powering a whole field of identity can be stripped of its meaning, soured blue and sucked away to lead to collapse and ruin. Yes, the ultimate lesson is that efforts to make yourself happy when you’re not amount to bullying and that sadness is the conduit to compassion and listening and ultimately, hope (or at least a richly complex emotional life). But the metaphor of how quickly those yellow memories go blue, never to be reclaimed, spoke to me perhaps louder than anything else in the film.

There was going to be a tie-in to the USA here, its annual Orgy of Jingoism, why I choose to fly rather than get pressured to watch fireworks meant to simulate the murderous destruction of other nation’s people. I remember some Bay Area 4th when I was too upset by the whole thing to see straight, it was a Big Blue House year, me moping around Oakland and not wanting to go anywhere while Fish and Emily tried to boost my spirits. Or maybe I’m getting it tangled with the summer of 2002 in my mind, a year before the wedding, back in Waltham, when I decided to skip out on Emily and … I want to say Nikki and maybe Ariel? … and just came back and played video games with Russ because I couldn’t handle the disconnect between everyone’s buoyant patriotism and my angry sadness. They probably both happened, though the little blue-red orb of the latter incident is becoming clearer in my mind as I write this. Blue and red, of course. The days flip around, the memories shoot through the chutes, and I am no closer to knowing how to sit with this than I ever have been.

It is a happy time, a happy trip. So many of the orbs that remain yellow from this time involve the people I’m going to see. Brandzy, of course, and friends from Glide, and a town that almost claimed my college years, that I fell in love with during my first real flirtation of my lifetime, then gave a good seven years almost a decade later. The gobstopper of emotions, as I’ve always said. The swirly swirl of rainbow colors, all together. Rainbows. I still remember that meal at the awful Turkish place in 2004 with Brandzy and I, and of course and Emily, the day they started marrying everyone, the brief time before injunctions and stoppages and then Prop 8 came to delay it all for a while. That brief, heady time before this ultimate fulfillment.

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
-Justice Anthony Kennedy, Obergefell v. Hodges

Maybe we’d all be better off if, at the outset of it all, some loud and authoritative voice said to us: “But you should know upfront, this is not a love story.”

Or maybe I’m just on the downslope of the roller coaster. I’m sure I’ll be up again soon, possibly in accordance and angle with the plane I’m about to board.


The Muddy Lens

Categories: A Day in the Life, Metablogging, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Read it and Weep, Telling Stories, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Problem of Being a Person, Tags: , , , , , ,

The problem with writing is that it’s all done by writers.

But seriously, it’s an innate flaw to the medium. Though not a unique one, this flaw carries its own particular proclivities and issues stemming from the viewpoints of writers. They have a tendency to care about words. They have a tendency to care very deeply about being a writer and all that perception entails. They are inordinately interested in writers and writing. And other writers and their writing. And various detailed minutiae of the writing process, including how to use it to extract the very best writing.

Not everyone who reads is a writer. Arguably, most people aren’t. And thus we have this conundrum wherein what is most interesting to the writer is not necessarily what interests the reader. But, by definition, writing must be done by writers. Unless, of course, it is done by Snookie. There are, I guess, non-writers who write. But even if they do it very badly, they will eventually become writers. By the sheer process and fact of having done enough writing, one is, like it or not, a writer. And thus the problems entailed above ensue.

This isn’t a unique problem because it is inherent to almost any field of produced media, let alone field of study and perhaps creative or thoughtful pursuit writ large. It is most visible (my opinion) in the realm of movies, where the vast majority (99.5%+) of moviegoers are not filmmakers, but they are subjected, via tautological monopoly, to the whims of filmmakers if they wish to witness films. It seems, probably, least problematic in the art of photography, perhaps ironically vis a vis what happens once that lens starts moving. But there is something quiet and observant enough about the process of photography that we seem to be subjected to relatively few illustrations of cameras, lenses, photographers, and whatever it is that particular interests those behind the (still) camera.

I am speaking somewhat glibly and perhaps not entirely sincerely with all these “subjected to”s. After all, I consider myself a writer. And I sure as hell am subjecting you to what interests me as a writer, which is, if anything today, meta-writing. Or possibly, God help us, meta-meta-writing, since I seem to be writing about the nature of writing about writing, at least at this moment.

But I think there’s something fundamental here, that transcends even the creative arts. Nearly any field or group or category inevitably becomes self-referential and, in America at least, self-aggrandizing. It is in the interests of an insular group, be they a team of researchers or a team of debaters or a team of basketball players, to congratulate themselves disproportionately, to overemphasize the value of their accomplishments and struggles. In some of these arenas, say basketball, there is a small country worth of reporters, fans, and businesspeople all too willing to reinforce this kind of insular self-emphasis. Less so in college debate, perhaps, but the reduced number is counter-weighted by the verbosity and eloquence, in that order. But all of the debating is still done by debaters, and therein lies the rub.

This has application to things that matter very much indeed, as you might have already predicted would be the ultimate direction of this post. I think it’s something we’ve put our finger on, collectively as a society (I nearly said “as a collective society” to be more direct about phrasing before realizing that’s a very misleading representation of the United States at present – we are no such thing), but haven’t quite grasped, let alone articulated. Specifically with regard to politicians. The problem with politics is that it’s all done by politicians. Which sounds almost trite in its 1990s mock-discovery, ignoring the quarter-century since of cascading candidates who want to paint themselves as outsiders. But really. There are things that matter to the kind of people who would seek office that don’t matter to everyone else. There are assumptions that they make and priorities they presume that are not held by the 99.5%+ of us who are, roughly, “the governed”. There’s a little bit of “power corrupts” in here, but it’s more than that. It’s that every profession becomes an echo-chamber. And pretty soon all you can hear are the voices, quite loud, of politicians.

This applies to science, too. I was going to do a separate post about this Ted Talk video that I ran across, somehow recommended for me on YouTube as though the Internet really is learning things about people other than to try selling them the product they searched for yesterday. I’ll link it below, even though it interrupts the train of thought, because it’s someone who knows a lot more about science than I do saying what I’ve always said about science, which is that in the twenty-first century, it’s adopted a hierarchical and unyielding religious orthodoxy that would make most faiths blush. We have fallen so in love with our technological innovations and (albeit doom-creating) mastery of the planet that we cannot question any of the fundamental assumptions underlying the founding beliefs and doctrines of those who put us on this path. Anyway, I think this is enlightening, if not entirely in keeping with the theme. And no doubt many of you will find it laughable and/or offensive. But at least stick it out till the stuff with the constants:

As those of you defending the scientists will no doubt say, possibly for the first time in a list of prior professions/pursuits that you may consider to be empty, airy, and/or blustery, but the scientists are the only ones qualified to do science. You can’t just bring in a writer to do chemistry! And more importantly, as observed before, if that writer did enough chemistry to properly be seen as doing chemistry they would, inevitably, become a chemist. Because part of the learning process requires enough contact with and tutelage by the elders of the field that it is basically impossible to learn enough about the field to not become a part of its echo-chambery flaws.

There’s a place this all gets way more insidious than politics, though. A thing I’ve thought for a long time and have almost been afraid to bring up for its implications about my own slight successes in whatever field they’ve been in (okay, mostly debate). And this thing may be at the core of what is really wrong in this country and maybe all the countries. And I mean really, truly, deeply powerfully wrong, like the root. Like the hard core taproot of what is wrong.

Are you ready?

The problem with success is it’s all had by the successful.

Yes, this applies to wealth, and that’s a big chunk of it, but the myopia of the rich for problems of the poor are pretty well documented and discussed. What I’m saying actually goes way beyond that, though it’s worth observing how wealth and poverty interplay with these things the whole way down. Because finances are not the only way one can achieve success. One can receive acclaim, fame, the respect of one’s peers, awards, even self-fulfillment. And once one is recognized for this success, in whatever form those achievements take, one joins the ranks of the successful and all that implies. One transforms into someone who is repeatedly getting praised for their success, given credit for that success, and asked how they did it as a model to others. And this creates several knee-jerk reactions, all of which I posit may be total myths.

1. The belief that you are the reason for your success. No matter what role luck, timing, or the help of others may have played, the successful (at least in this country) are inundated with the narrative that “you did it!”

2. The belief that this success is actually what success is supposed to look like. This one is tricky and complicated, because it can sound very quickly like we’re not talking about anything. Easiest example I can think of is Presidents who do nothing with their term or make the country much worse, but still get re-elected. They have achieved “success” as defined by their surroundings and context (political party, supporters, voters), but this is a lousy definition of the notion.

3. The belief that anyone could reach this success. This one seems like it should be in high tension with #1, but empirically these myths persist in unison all the time. We revere the winners for being extraordinary, for doing the impossible, and yet simultaneously take copious notes for how we can precisely emulate them. It is the great drumbeat of hope, aspiration, and even the worship we lavish upon those at the top. They just worked harder. They wanted it more. They put in the extra time it took to be better.

Our society is so full of these responses to success that it’s hard to even picture a world without them. I mean, what would it even look like to not revere success? Or to not then apply it to others as a model with the belief that they can get there if they learn the lessons of that success? Questioning this is pure blasphemy, and not just for capitalists. For teachers. For coaches. For anyone. I mean, how else are you supposed to even tell someone to try if it’s not through the lens of how Michael Jordan worked to recover from getting cut from his high school basketball team? (He grew a lot.)

Even Outliers, the Malcolm Gladwell book that is supposed to break down the grand myths of the genius and talent of the most successful people, goes back to a sheer formula of time and opportunity to maximize time. Ten-thousand hours, kid. That’s it. This number has been so often repeated as a mantra that it’s just taken as a proven fact at this point. Play as much as the Beatles, code as much as Bill Gates, and you will become the Beatles or Bill Gates.

I fear we’re at another quandary, though, that getting around this is about as easy as having people who write really good stuff who aren’t writers, or people who can do science well who aren’t scientists. It seems definitional to the pursuit that someone has to pursue it long enough and seriously enough for it to become a part of their identity, or at least for them to sufficiently identify with being that thing that they can adopt its core principles. Even if those core principles include things that undermine the nature of the best development of the thing itself.

The best we can do, probably, is step outside ourselves and try to shed our perspective a little. My mantra in young adulthood was that “truth is vision without perspective” and it still holds true (!) today. And by “without perspective”, I mean “all perspective”. For by having 100% of the possible perspectives, one loses what we mean by “perspective” as an aspect of where one is standing in relation to the object being perceived.

Imagine a tennis ball. The truth about the tennis ball can only be grasped when one simultaneously sees it from all possible vantages. Up, down, left, right, but also inside at every molecular distance. It is, of course, impossible (for humans) and very difficult to picture, for it is a jumbled and confusing collection of seemingly contradictory information. Especially since our image of a tennis ball is a round fuzzy green ball, but much of the truth about it is the hollow inside that we basically never see. There is the old saw about the three blind men and the elephant, but the reality is that everything is the elephant and we are all blind. We are prisoners to our perspective. But we have the power of abstract thought to allow us to step outside it, or at least to try.

That’s all we can do. To write as though we are not writers, to make movies as though we are not filmmakers, to debate as though we are not debaters. Traditionally, when people can actually do these things, they are often called groundbreaking, revolutionaries, even visionaries. And then the real challenge is to wear that success as though we are not successful so that we may, possibly, make a way forward for a world where most people are not deemed to be successful at all in what was never really a fair contest to begin with.



Unemployment Spikes in June, Reporting Gap Sets New Record

Categories: A Day in the Life, It's the Stupid Economy, Tags: ,

The reality-bending nature of the reported unemployment figure in the United States hit a new high watermark, with the BLS today reporting that unemployment was at 5.3% when it actually spiked to 11.52%. They reported a decline of 0.2 points when it actually climbed 0.24 points. And while I am amazed and pleased that the media is at least starting to talk about labor-force participation rates when they report these statistics, no one in the mainstream is putting it in real figures that play ball with the types of figures that people expect to hear.

Unemployment in this country is actually over 11.5%. The gap between the reported figure and the real figure is a whopping 6.22%, an all-time high, or fully 117% of the reported rate! The last time the unemployment rate was reported to be over 6.2% was in May 2014. That’s a figure that currently represents the number of people who are left out of the labor force because of the Great Recession. Which they tell us ended years ago.

This month does reverse some recent positive trends that were happening in the actual unemployment situation. Unemployment in May 2015 hit an almost seven-year low of 11.28%. Yes, folks, for seven years, the unemployment rate has been been over 11.25%, or 1.25 points higher than the peak reported figure. If you’re wondering why this doesn’t feel like a recovery outside of the gambling halls of Wall Street, that’s why. But unemployment has been below 12% for over a year now and was steadily trickling downward until June.

Here are your charts:


It’s great that people are finally talking about why the reported unemployment rate went down or up and that it’s all about the labor-force participation. But once we realize that the labor-force participation rate is actually having a far greater impact on the unemployment rate than the reported unemployment rate itself and start talking in real terms about what the figure comparatively is to a healthy economy, then we’ll really be in business. Heh. Or, y’know, we’ll realize that the nature of work and business has fundamentally changed and it’s completely out-of-touch to talk about “full unemployment” (actually discussed on NPR last week!), perhaps ever again.

This is part of a continuing series on the under-reporting of unemployment in the United States of America.

Past posts (months indicate the month being analyzed – the post is in the month following):
March 2015
February 2015
December 2014 – labor force participation assessment
December 2014
November 2014
October 2014 – age assessment
October 2014
September 2014
August 2014
April 2014
December 2013 – seasonal assessment
December 2013
March 2013*
August 2012*
July 2012* – age assessment
July 2012*

*My initial analyses led to a slight over-reporting of the impact of the reporting gap, so the assessments in these posts are inflated, as explained and corrected in the December 2013 analysis.


Identity Politics

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: ,


“My understanding is, is you’ve got some of the same organizers now going back into these communities to try to clean up in the aftermath of a handful of criminals and thugs who tore up the place.”
-Barack Obama, on the Baltimore unrest, 28 April 2015

“Every nation has to either be with us, or against us.”
-Hillary Clinton, 13 September 2001

Many were shocked in the last week to hear African-American leaders, from the White House to the streets of Baltimore, utilize the word “thugs”. The word has become sort of a proxy slur in recent years, a way people have of painting people they fear with the same broad brush, whether those people pose any sort of danger or threat or not. It’s a little like using “terrorists” to describe anyone on the international scene with whom one disagrees, though “thugs” is often more liberally applied to an entire race since the n-word has really fallen too far out of fashion.

How can people of that same race being victimized by the use of the word thugs in this context be using it themselves? What sort of self-denial is this? Wasn’t the whole hope of having a Black mayor in Baltimore, a Black President in DC, to change the cultural landscape so things like this would never be heard?

The problem, unfortunately, seems to be the opposite. Ask any radical African-American activist how they feel about the Obama Presidency. (Or, frankly, any radical activist full-stop). Despite some glimmers of a leftist that have peeked out in the outset of the back half of his lame-duck term, Obama remains a staunch moderate to a fault, calmly pausing between words to ensure he doesn’t come off as rash, angry, or frustrated, or even someone who could be confused with having a particular interest in the fate of minorities nationwide. When he has spoken up for minorities, they’ve often been other minority groups than his own, appointing a Hispanic to the Supreme Court and sticking his neck out for an executive order on extremely mild immigration clemency. He has gone out of his way to never take an action that could be confused for doing things differently because of his race.

This is understandable, if unfortunate. Obama rightly understands that he’s been under an extremely focused microscope and that many lingering racists would attempt to find anything in his Presidency possible to justify never electing another Black President. He has no interest in being the last Black President, so it’s vital to him to be seen as functionally no different than any other President. The only problem is that many many people who voted for him, who made his election possible, kind of wanted him to be a Black President. Or to at least have enough perspective from his upbringing to do more than speak of it anecdotally, interlaced with words like “thugs.” That maybe he would carve out some time away from the drone-strike kill-list to take on the disproportionate allocation of prisons, the death penalty, police oppression, or poverty on people who grew up looking like him.

This gets to the very core of whether identity matters or means anything in our society. Yes, there is something cool about Barack Obama’s ability to be elected as an African American man (technically he’s more Multiracial, but whatever, racial constructs are stupid) in this country. I didn’t vote for him because of his commitment to continue the war in Afghanistan, but even I trembled a bit watching him speak in Chicago in 2008. But if his Presidency is dictated by a fear of speaking out on issues pertinent to his community, does it matter? I mean, other than a technical self-congratulatory American footnote, are we any better off for having elected a Black President who is terrified to do anything about the problems disproportionately facing the Black community? If the best he can offer as a legacy is not screwing up so badly that people write off Black candidates in the future and then maybe that next Black President does something about injustice and inequality in 2032, is that really the change we can believe in?

Which brings me to the question of Hillary Clinton. Back in the day, there was a belief that electing women would make a difference because women might be different, on balance, in some way in their policies. Women might be disproportionately likely to listen, to compromise, to seek a peaceful solution to problems that men would, on average, want to pull out the big guns for. While the last 20 years have brought scores of women leaders in nations across the globe, the vast majority of them have gotten elected by demonstrating themselves to be even tougher than their male counterparts. Think fast! Who comes to mind as national leaders for women? Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel, I’m betting. Two staunchly conservative, hard-line, tough women. And Hillary Clinton is cut from the same mold.

Look, women can be tough. Women can and should be whatever they want to be. The problem is that, to find political success in the modern Western world, women have to be tough. Clinton and her counterparts are terrified of being painted with traditional female stereotypes, being labeled as weak and conflict-avoiding and passive, so they contrast themselves with militaristic vision and aggression. The result is something like the Falklands War, one of the most pointless bloodbaths of the 1980s (and that’s saying something), where Thatcher had to establish herself as willing to go to war when provoked just so people wouldn’t think the reason she didn’t was because of her chromosomes. One of the key reasons I don’t support Hillary is she’s made it abundantly clear that she would eagerly find a war to start just to establish that the first woman President in the United States isn’t afraid of starting a war. It’s like those Geico ads – “When you’re the President, you start a war. It’s what you do.” And she sure as hell isn’t going to break that trend and have people think it’s because she’s not a man.

It’s hard enough for people to imagine electing a woman President in this country, which is kind of a stupefying fact. That reality will fade as my generation continues to cross the 35-year-old line, just like gay marriage has turned on its head, marijuana legalization will be right behind it, and hopefully (please God) some socioeconomic justice will come behind that. We’ve done a good job ensuring that our grandchildren will all consider us rabidly myopic bigots. But if the only slots for women are in the Thatcher/Merkel/Clinton vein of tough-as-nails ready-to-drop-bombs hell-or-high-water genre, are we really making space for diversity in our electorate?

Here’s the problem with Obama avoiding talking about his community and Clinton refusing to be seen as softer on anything: they become totally indistinguishable from the traditional angry old white man model of politics. So if we’re getting technical diversity of identity, I guess that’s some technical version of progress. But when all those people are in every way other than appearance indistinguishable from the traditional make-up and approach of angry old white men, is it worth it? Is it meaningful change?

Which brings us to the supreme irony of the 2016 election coming up. His name is Bernie Sanders. He is the oldest and whitest candidate (though admittedly perhaps not the manliest). And he is the only person in the race for either major party taking a different approach to US policy than the traditional I-am-the-hammer, the-world-is-my-nail approach to American hegemony. Even Rand Paul, son of Ron, is out there carrying the rhetoric of the War on Terror and surveillance without end. And it takes an old white man to bring us real Socialism, the kind of policies that insensate Republicans have somehow confused for the center-right Presidency of Barack Obama.

Defenders of Obama and Hillary might easily say that only an old white man could be a Socialist in today’s political landscape. That a minority or a woman bringing that kind of rhetoric an perspective would do a disservice to their entire class. But I think this is bunk for two reasons.

1. Racists and sexists and naysayers will always find ammunition for their warped perspective. Barack Obama’s Presidency, at least before this year, has probably mapped out just to the right of GW Bush’s (other than perhaps Supreme Court appointments). He has extended the War on Terror, initiated violent interventions in countless countries, ramped up government secrecy while punishing those who speak out against it, refused to take meaningful steps on environmental protection, and backed Wall Street and big corporations at every opportunity. And yet the naysayers and racists have branded him a Muslim, a Socialist, a Kenyan national, and a provocateur. Since before he was elected, I have been saying that my ideal President is the Republican caricature of Obama. That’s who I think this country really needs, but he is totally distinct from the actual Obama in every way. Obama has taken every pain to be as moderate and uninteresting as possible and is still hated by people who don’t like his identity. That was always going to happen. He might as well have tried to do some good first.

2. If we elect people of traditionally under-represented class, but the only slots for them are for people who are indistinguishable in policy from traditional angry old white men, are we actually diversifying? Is this frankly any different than demanding that a minority or woman “pass” as a white man? If they have to conform to the dominant cultural standard to be liked, is that truly cultural diversity? And if the standard they set demands that future Blacks or women or people who are different must conform rigidly to the old white male paradigm, how are we progressing past that paradigm? And isn’t it the paradigm that matters? If we have a Black man still oppressing Blacks, is it meaningful that we elected a Black President? If a woman sets the precedent that the first female President only got to power by being the wife of a popular President, are we really standing up for women and their right to be equal to men?

Maybe I’m the wrong person to speak about these issues as a white man. I’m sure there are some who would think so and believe this to be a trite undermining of the accomplishments of Obama and Hillary to overcome the incredible obstacles they’ve faced. My fear, as someone who hates the established order of American politics as they’ve unfolded since 9/11, who hates the traditional patriarchal approach to war and poverty and politics, is that our obsession with the identity of a person has actually set back diversifying or changing policies. The patriarchy can still use a woman to establish patriarchal policies. And we should not be falling all over ourselves to celebrate electing people who look different if that difference is only an appearance.

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