Categotry Archives: Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading

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Follow-Up: No Effects of Aging

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

A couple days ago, I posted at length about jobs and where they’re going and the hidden unemployment rate. I promised to hop back onto the BLS website, a wealth of statistical information about our country, and look up the effects of the much discussed aging populous on the sapping of the labor force in America.

I expected that I might find something to mitigate the alarming findings of my last post, those that included that the unemployment rate is actually closer to 13.5% than 8.3% and that note, more importantly, that the unemployment rate is near its peaks of this recession with no signs of ebbing. I expected to find evidence that the aging population was responsible for a decent chunk of the people fleeing the labor force and thus not getting counted in the unemployment figures traditionally discussed by the media in this nation.

Instead, I found this:

SrNoLabor

What this graph shows is the percentage of seniors (aged 65 and above) who are not in the labor force as a percentage of the entire population that BLS counts in their labor survey (civilians age 16+ who are not institutionalized). Keep in mind that the percentage of those in the labor force has crashed by over 3% of the entire population during this recession (or at least since 2001), so if that’s mostly about aging, you’d expect a big uptick in this number. Or at least something visible.

There is a rise in late 2011 and 2012, but it’s almost imperceptible. The overall movement in this entire chart is about half a percentage point. And while we are at the highs of the non-labor-force seniors as a percentage of population for the last decade, this fact cannot be held responsible for the massive gulf between unemployment figures as reported and unemployment figures counting those who’ve left the labor force.

I could release an “age-adjusted” chart, but there are two problems with this. One, the difference in the line between the one I posted earlier this week and the one I’d post now is almost nothing. Two, we cannot assume that every senior in today’s world is out of the labor force by choice. Given that a higher percentage of seniors than ever before are working, many of those not working may be just as desiring of work as their younger counterparts.

Were the gulf even a full percentage point, let alone two or three percent, it would be worth it to adjust the rate for age. But in the absence of any major shift in seniors out of the labor force as a percentage of the overall population, I’m inclined to stand by my original chart and the rate of 13.5%. 13% is probably a slightly safer figure if you really want to wring your hands and mitigate. But that’s not enough of a shift to indicate any notable change in the trendlines for real unemployment.

And as a housekeeping note, this post is inaugurating my new “It’s the Stupid Economy” tag for the blog. I have a feeling I’m going to be tracking a lot of these things as I do more thinking about this in the coming months.

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Getting Jobbed

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

Industries that are literally destroying the planet and human livelihood have recently found a new pitch to make themselves palatable to the average American. No one really wants to get fracked or drilled or whatever new word they’ve come up with for draining Earth of polluting resources with plenty of carcinogenic side effects for those in the region of the extraction. But even on NPR, supposed bastion of liberal bias, these lovely industries will advertise and remind us that they’re “providing jobs” for Americans. As though this mere fact alone will absolve them of any and all wrongdoing.

Never mind the quality of the job itself being done, or its carcinogenic impacts on those doing the work. Never mind the impact on quality of life for others, or even long-term potential for jobs and thriving. As long as you’re employing someone to do something, then you’d best be protected, valued, revered in our society.

I’m half expecting the Mob to come out shortly with similarly minded announcements of the great services they provide for our people. They call their work “jobs”, don’t they? “Hit-men of America, providing over five-hundred jobs a year for underemployed workers to keep our economy moving.” The drug-dealers could certainly make their case as well, though I guess Budweiser and Coors already run similar ads with more devastating effect.

Meanwhile, those who believe our planet is literally doomed if we continue to emit carbon into the atmosphere won’t even embrace the fact that total economic collapse is the only thing we can do to survive the projected catastrophe of climate change. Reports keep coming out about the improved emissions levels in the years since 2008, but everyone admits that it’s just because the economy’s down. But even the hard-core environmentalists root for jobs over planetary sustainability.

Clearly our devotion to the notion of jobs stems from the worship of The Economy (discussed here in June), but it’s hard to say why our cultural obsession with jobs is so deeply rooted. For decades (certainly my whole lifetime, and I’d imagine back to the 1950s), a job has been how a person defines their entire identity. No one can be content to be who they are, let alone a combination of pursuits and interests. People ask “What do you do?” and they aren’t interested in your creative efforts or recreational activities, unless you have somehow managed to be one of those lucky microscopic few who are permitted to live off of such endeavors. No matter how intellectually diverse or varied, you are an Administrative Assistant or In Sales or a Manager or a Doctor or a Lawyer or a Plumber. What you spend your least voluntary time doing is who you are. Full stop.

The elements of this are pervasive, not just in our daily culture, but in our very documentation. Profession is one of the only entries on a marriage license, alongside name, date of birth, and sex. Same for tax forms, a little more explicably. Profession is how we size people up, categorize them, weigh their merit relative to our own. People never ask if you enjoy the work that you do, or how you feel about that job, but merely what it is to make their own assessment of where you stack up in the human pantheon.

I would argue that it is this reality, more than any other, that has made the contemporary American evaporation of employment so challenging for the people experiencing it. Losing access to a paycheck is surely trying, though unemployment benefits do a remarkably good job of ensuring that at least those who’ve worked before can continue to eat and buy the easily breakable trinkets that connote happiness in our existence. I’ve discussed the drawbacks of failing to have a purpose and a use for one’s time, though I also believe that has enormous potential to unlock creative and higher pursuits than mere jobs can facilitate. But it is hard for those lacking an identity or a sense of self to feel inspired to create. And everything in American culture shouts that one without a job is failing in the most fundamental way a human can fail. They have not even begun to do, and thus to be.

There’s a lot of fervor in the countryside about unemployment ticking back up, to 8.3%. And there’s been a lot of fervor in the past (less so now) about the “real” unemployment number being much higher than the reported figure, for truly those who give up and don’t work as many hours as they’d like are, in some way, unemployed. And while there’s method in this approach to the unemployment number, sometimes putting the figure almost double the reported number, I’m not really comfortable saying that someone who is working part-time when they’d prefer to work full-time is “unemployed”. Indeed, the operative word here is usually “underemployed”, but someone putting in 20 hours is surely able to define themselves in terms of their work and thus ineligible for what I’m trying to discern.

Which is not to say that 8.3% is in any way a good figure. Nor is including the people who just went off unemployment because they stopped looking for work sufficient to meet the total. I think the best approach is to look at the percentage of people who are even in the labor force to begin with and see if we can discover a pocket of people we all know to be there, among the most discouraged and disheartened of them all, who don’t get to collect a check or a validly applicable self-definition to use on new acquaintances.

So I went to the BLS, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and came across this alarming little chart:

BLSData9712

The x-axis, of course, are the years from 1997-2012, with data points by month. The y-axis is the percentage of the population that “counts” as being in the labor force. The labor force is simply the population of those working plus those collecting unemployment. No one else counts as part of the labor force. It’s not that 8.3% of the US isn’t working. Actually 34.6% of the US isn’t working.

Now don’t get alarmed by that figure – most of the people who aren’t counted in the labor force shouldn’t be. Tons of them are elderly, and can safely answer the inquiry of their identity with tales of past employment. Tons more are children, and can safely fantasize about what they want to do when they grow up without fear of recrimination. And a relatively good chunk are voluntary parents who devote their full-time to the rearing of the next generation of jobless fantasizing Americans.

But there’s a good healthy chunk of those people who probably should be counted as unemployed. Because this chart has a clear and distinct trajectory over the 15 years depicted. And, unsurprisingly, it’s down. Way down.

For most of the late 1990s, 67% or so of the population counted toward the labor force. It seems reasonable to draw that as a baseline for the era of rough parity/equality for women, who have recently surpassed men in terms of employability (if not, unfortunately, in terms of pay). And until 9/11 and the dot-com crash, the number is so consistent as to seem reasonable as a bellwether.

Then the number steadily declines as the economy nosedives in the wake of the events of 2001. It picks up again a bit in places, peaking at the outset of 2007 with the bubbling of the housing market, then drops precipitously in 2009 and thereafter as the impact of the 2008 crash rippled out through the economy. This is not a coincidence. These are all people who want to be working and should be under a normal economic model, but can’t. Won’t. Aren’t. They are the heart of the hidden unemployed.

The number has been below 64% for the whole of 2012. The last time it was below 64% was January 1984, when the economy was still recovering from a recession and women were less than 45% of the workforce. Today they are about 55% of the workforce. In July, the number was 63.7%, tied for the second-lowest month of the last three decades with January 2012. The lowest (63.6%) was April 2012.

So if we use 67% as our baseline and then plummet to 63.7%, that’s an extra 3.3% to tack onto unemployment, right?! Wrong. While that would put unemployment at a disheartening 11.6%, it’s actually not how math works.

You see, unemployment isn’t a percentage of the population. Unemployment’s a percentage of the labor force. Which is only fair, since you’re demonstrating the inefficiency of the labor market and it’s not reasonable to factor that as a percentage of people that include great-grandmothers and infants. So what we’re looking at is that 3.3% of the population is actually unemployed, but being excluded from the number entirely. But 3.3% of the population is equal to 5.2% of the current labor force. So the real unemployment figure should be … wait for it … 13.5%.

That’s not underemployment. That’s not working a little bit. That’s no job, no interaction with the labor force, no definition. Thirteen point five percent.

That number may not be totally perfect. Some of this may be because of the much-discussed aging population. Although, far more likely, a lot of it is about people who are young enough to keep working but too old to get jobs, so they give up. Are these people unemployed? You bet. Some of this may be because more Americans are having kids, but I really doubt that’s the case. Especially since I just looked at the original chart again and realized that this only counts people age 16 and over! So kids cannot be a factor at all. Some time when I have more time and inclination to look these up the aging issue, I’ll factor that in. But I don’t think the population got radically older during that precipitous decline of 2009, where most of the movement in this figure was found. So I’m going to stick with this calculation being a good proxy of where the real job figures stand.

What’s really damning about this figure is that the percentage of those disappearing from the labor force, if we use a constant benchmark of 67%, actually impact the real unemployment figure at a higher-than-linear rate. The way to determine the percentage’s impact on the real unemployment figure is to use a multiplier. You divide the total population by the percentage in the labor force, then multiply that by the percentage absent from the labor force. So the multiplier for 67% is 1.49, but the multiplier for our current standing of 63.7% is 1.57. That may not seem like a big difference, but it adds up.

Enough abstraction and math talk. Here’s a chart I just made of the real unemployment figure by my calculation outlined above vs. the reported figure in the media. (Even though the source for my figure is also the BLS, the same source as the official media figure.) I start the chart in April 2001, both since that was on the verge of the collapse and since March 2001 was the last month the labor force exceeded 67% of the US populous.

RealUnemployment0112

Uh oh.

Suddenly everything makes a little more sense, doesn’t it? Suddenly it’s a little more clear why the jobs haven’t been coming back and why no one you know feels like the economy is getting better. Suddenly we have a chart that reflects how the recession has actually felt. The numbers you have been using and hearing and thinking about are as cooked as the books at Countrywide or Lehman Brothers. They’re as relevant to the 2012 economy as same.

And who are these people, this marginal 4-6% of the labor force that’s told they don’t count? They’re new graduates from high school and college who can’t get work, people told to double or triple down on debt in order to someday have a hope at that societally defined identity. They’re the older people discussed above, who’ve taken involuntary retirement at 55 and don’t know how they’re going to live to 65, let alone past it. They’re new immigrants who came for legal work through all the right channels, only to find a total lack of it available. They’re you and me and someone else you know, because it’s one out of twenty people who want work and one out of thirty adults altogether.

I may have to start reporting the real rate of unemployment every month, same day as the BLS-spun figures, just so someone is. Even cutting-edge sites like this one that report the U-6 figure for unemployment, supposedly the broadest possible measure of the unemployed that includes “marginally attached workers and those working part-time for economic reasons”, shows a disturbingly misleading downward trend-line to unemployment since a peak in late 2009. The reality is that unemployment peaked in November 2010, at 13.7%. But with current figures at 13.5%, we are functionally stalled at the peak of the employment crisis.

I cannot stress enough that these are the BLS’ own figures. They are publicly and freely available for anyone to see. You have to do two simple calculations to realize what’s really going on with American jobs.

Maybe it’s time we redefine what it means to be a person in this country?

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Object Lesson

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Just Add Photo, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Read it and Weep, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , , ,

I have learned a lot about myself in the past week. This is good. Learning is fun!

One of the things I have learned, or relearned perhaps, is how little I am surprised by things. Most people like surprises. I kind of miss them, I guess. Which is not intended as a way of tempting the fates. But if anything, I think I’m surprised that there aren’t more mass-shootings in America. About one a day is probably what I’d expect. Maybe we’ll get there soon. This is not a desire or a hope. It would be nice to have no mass-shootings in a year. But there would have to be a lot of changes to make that happen.

No, not increased security measures.

I wrote at length about the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon last October, how I saw it as a harbinger not of a revolutionary protest movement in our society, but as a reflection of how many people were left with nothing to do in our society. It would be nice if it were a revolutionary protest movement that was burgeoning in our society. Unfortunately, we have all seen too many revolutionary protest movements. We are watching several of them now! Look at Libya, Egypt, Syria. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. A bunch of people get themselves killed and do some killing and you end up with a society that looks a lot like it did before. But the leaders are slightly different and maybe this race or religion or sect has the advantages to lord over the prior victors. There is much to deter a young revolutionary in society today.

To believe in revolution, you have to believe in the future. You have to believe that there is a future worth fighting for. We are getting little stark illustrations all over the place that this is a foolish perspective. There will be a future, surely, in the sense of days that follow this one. No matter how much caves in or how much I lose, that is inevitably clear. But the idea that the right people can be in control, nay, that there even are right people, seems unlikely. And the more people who were raised and brought up to believe in an American dream and a future that was better than their parents’ and the mass accumulation of growth and so on and awaken to find the piles of debt and futurelessness waiting for them, the more people they are likely to go out and shoot.

I probably shouldn’t put in print that I understand that frustration and powerlessness of mass-shooters. I am a pacifist, of course, and abhor violence of all kinds, and am in no way trying to justify or vindicate the actions of James Holmes or anyone like him. But I get the idea of the world being so backwards and upside-down that only an absurdist and horrific reaction seems fair or justified. I have felt this way in my life sometimes and am very grateful to my pacifism for keeping me from stockpiling weapons. I know that some of you are probably surprised (there it is again!) to see me writing this, but I think you are not necessarily checking in with yourself sufficiently if so. Look inward, my friend. Have you never felt that kind of anger and despair?

This society is manufacturing anger and despair at an incredible rate right now. We’ve been over why, this worship of the magical “Economy”, and we’ve even been over how it manifests when people only turn the proverbial gun on themselves, most recently. As my friend and debater Kurt Falk often tells me, I should be the entertainment at children’s birthday parties. His idea for fixing all this is in his most recent post, where he joins Kurt Vonnegut (in Palm Sunday, just finished today, certainly influencing the style of this post) in advocating that we have new rites of passage for American youth, bar mitzvahs or quinceañeras for a culture unmoored. It’s a good idea. It used to be that graduating from high school was our culture’s adulthood commemoration ceremony. But now there is no real adulthood to be reached. In the sense of independence, of self-sufficiency, of freedom to make informed decisions, our newly minted adults are as bankrupt as someone with six figures of student loan debt. And just like those folks, they can’t file it and start over.

So they shoot people, don’t they? I guess that’s a little oversimplified, but that looks to be the size of it. Apparently Mr. Holmes is walking down the corridors pretending to be the Joker or some other masked movie villain (get it?), but I’m sure he was perfectly sane when he spent meticulous hours buying guns on the Internet or laying tripwires across his apartment. He did the math. He was good at it. He realized that he had no future, that the people of America who were being distracted to death had no future, and he tried to illustrate that. All the way down to the six-month-old and the six-year-old who were apparently watching one of the most violent franchises in movie history after midnight.

I am not trying to glorify this scumbag or turn him into some sort of dark anti-hero (I’ll leave that to Hollywood). But I am trying to dissent from the media chorus singing about the senseless unpredictable shock of all this. It’s perfectly predictable and it has a kind of logic. Michael Moore did much the same treatment of Columbine in his masterpiece movie Bowling for Columbine, which we should all probably go rewatch. Part of his thesis was that kids growing up in the shadow of defense contracting, preached to about how the country they’re supposed to love solves all its problems through violence, will occasionally take this environment seriously. And respond in kind. People are all agog about what’s wrong with Colorado when Michael Moore already told you. To be fair, Holmes did hail from San Diego, one of the biggest military cities in the country aside from those found in Colorado. When we have a society filled with people who play a little video game attached to real drones that blow up real people, how shocked can we be that disgruntled broke teens or twenty-somethings from the new Lost Generation walk into a movie and emulate the solutions found on-screen and in real life?

What no one seems to realize is that you need to do something with these people. I don’t mean to sound pejorative when I say “these people” – many of them are my closest friends and confidants. I coach them, I talk with them, I worry about the very concept of a future around them. They need things to do. They have active minds and have been raised on poisonous dreams about growth and accumulation. They need to put their mind to something other than disappointment, despair, and the soulless thresher we call “The Economy”.

Many would suggest a war. I have no doubt that’s one plan being hatched in the corporations funding the Obama/Romney campaign. A nice big war to sweep everyone into the old employer of last resort. You wouldn’t even need a draft, you’d just have it de facto. I’m sure a land invasion of Iran or North Korea would keep many hundred-thousands of a Lost Generation occupied and out of the way. The legend is that this is what saved America from the Depression, what saved the Baby Boomers from totally overwhelming the system in the sixties. There’s little doubt that part of the lack of enthusiasm to really make jobs and work for the youth of our society has to do with making the incredibly unappealing military look a little more enticing.

I, of course, would never suggest a war, any more than I would advocate you going down to your local movie theater and shooting up six-year-olds. They are the same thing. Only in a war, more six-year-olds die. Usually more horribly, more painfully.

I would suggest make-work programs. We certainly have things that need fixing. Let’s build a free wireless Internet network for the whole nation. Yes, even rural North Dakota and Alaska. That would require some people, wouldn’t it? Give them room and board and a college-like camaraderie, a little spending cash (so they can – gulp – see a movie), maybe access to a shared fleet of cars on weekends. Let’s build some high-speed rails so we can take all these dangerous overpriced gas-guzzling trucks off the road. Let’s build some solar and wind plants. I know, I know, it would require a total resignation from the very concept of The Economy. It would mean government was actively putting corporations out of work, and some of their employees too, and treating the youth of America with dignity and respect and like they’re people who can do things. Heaven forbid.

But what are your alternatives? These people are going to be on the dole one way or the other. There aren’t jobs, there aren’t opportunities, and everyone in The Economy is doing their damnedest to make sure there are fewer jobs and fewer opportunities to come. I guess you can repeal minimum wage and make everyone punch each other in the nose for a scrap of bread you throw from the tower at midnight, but these people are increasingly going to leverage their debt and take matters into their own hands. And they’d have to believe in a future to make a revolution. If all they believe in is despair, then you get Aurora or Columbine or Virginia Tech. You get little dark knights everywhere, believing they are extolling some kind of neo-nihilism with every bullet, not realizing governments cornered that market with wars centuries ago.

I envisioned this post a long time before there was a movie theater shooting, and it was going to be about another kind of object lesson, back to the theme of learning about myself. It was about the fact that I bought a new coffee maker I didn’t need a few months ago and haven’t had the heart to set it up and replace the old one. The old one looks like this:

CoffeeMaker

I won it at the Yale tournament in the spring of 2002. They gave out useful or fun objects like rice cookers and Gameboys and coffee makers with the budget they would have spent on shiny trophies. I actually initially took the rice cooker at Emily’s behest, but quickly swapped it for a more practical (for me) coffee maker with Steph Tatham, who’d won some lower award. The thing has worked perfectly for a decade. It’s a relic of an American era of making machines that lasted, even though it didn’t come from that era at all. I’ve probably had six-thousand or so cups of coffee out of this thing. It still worked perfectly this morning.

My intent was to replace it with this model that I got at Target for like twenty bucks:

Sunbeam

It shouldn’t take much imagination to see why I picked this out. The color is like the font of this page, the color I would pick for nearly all objects out of a pantheon of a thousand hues. It has a timer so that it will brew the coffee for me and have it ready when I blearily awaken at six in the morning to go to a tournament or fulfill some other wakeful task of existence. It is in every way perfect. Whereas the old one is dingy, off-white, wearing the stains of thousands of brews, incredibly simple in its design. It doesn’t even have digital numbers! In an era where you can’t dry your hands in public without interfacing with a motion-sensor, holding on to this thing is as old-fashioned as not having a cell-phone (I’m coming up on two years with a cell-phone!).

And yet I can’t seem to make the transition, to get rid of the old thing. It was free. It has served me so loyally for so long. It still works.

I am such a bad capitalist.

Or maybe, to borrow a phrase, I’m just committed to commitment.

Maybe we just need to take everyone in the Lost Generation and have them paint our coffee makers. Have them fan out in the neighborhoods, house by house, and ask what everyone would like updated or changed or painted or retooled so that life feels new and fresh again. So that it feels like there’s a future that’s not just austerity and decline. So that people can feel like a rich person without actually being decadent or aspiring to buy and sell people.

That kind of house-by-house work sure beats the hell out of what that phrase is being used for in Afghanistan right now.

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The Economy’s Stupid

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

The way we talk about the economy is delusional.

Pick up a paper or turn on the news or talk to a friend and chances are that they will discuss the economy (perhaps I should put it as The Economy) in terms that our ancient ancestors reserved for the weather or perhaps the gods. It’s a nefarious nebulous force that few understand and none have control over, something that masters humans and dictates literally everything about their existence, from their occupation to its compensation to their location. And yet, it is a fabrication. It is something that we, as a species, created out of whole cloth, with no independent existence other than our willing mutual suspension of disbelief. And we are rapidly being enslaved by it.

In the old days, we didn’t have control over much. Wild animals or the winds or seasonal changes would dictate our fate, whether the crops would grow or we would starve or be eaten alive. People built prayers and sacrifices and rituals over trying to gain control over the uncontrollable, but with time we also made efforts to compensate for the unpredictability in the natural forces around us. We improved technology and animal husbandry and plant breeding and architecture to give us a chance at survival and thriving despite the forces beyond our control, eventually getting to the point that while we cannot literally create the weather (quite) and we are still thrown off by hurricanes or earthquakes, we pretty much have nature’s prior domination of our species in check. And yet the more we have been able to corral nature and the other base forces that dominated our fate, the more we have ceded that control through the ever increasingly complex machinations of money and its corresponding policies.

Consider for a moment what the difference in general quality of life is for people under a sustained good or bad economy. For a stark illustration, imagine comparing America of the early 1990’s to Greece of the past year. The ability for life itself to exist and thrive, ranging from people’s ability to do the work they would like, feed their families, own property, indulge in luxuries, and every imaginable human activity is massively affected, in our modern world, by The Economy. Under a good economy, people with few skills and little training are able to flourish in material goods and individual agency. Under a bad economy, even very skilled and competent workers are left to forage between odd jobs and despair. And yet the differences between these states are relatively whimsical, shift unpredictably, and are as impossible to overtly rein in for any individual, government, or entity, as a hurricane is to be halted midair by contemporary humans.

And yet the monster is of our own creation. We deliberately, willfully, carefully gave over control of our fate and our future to the Invisible Hand and its nefarious unseen fingers. The lure of gold and prosperity, the promise of growth and abundance, prompted us to let an inhuman robotic and capricious force gain dominion over all that we consider important in our lives. At the same time we beheld democracy in the face of prior tyranny, decrying monarchs and unrepentant dictators, we simultaneously instated an even more forceful and unforgiving regime to tell us what to do, where to go, and how to behave. And now our soothsayers and shamans run daily columns in the news describing their own shadowy portends and omens of how the Great Economy will dance and shimmy, shedding one people or another in its wake.

It is especially damning that the guideposts of this robot army that’s been given the keys to our societies and their lives are the maximization of profit and efficiency. Profit, by definition a wasteful consolidation of resources in the hands of some over others, continues to accumulate at the highest level at an alarming rate in almost all developed societies, especially those who have given the greatest power to the Mighty Economy. Meanwhile, efficiency continues to edit out the human equation, for there is nothing in the Economy and its powerful Hand that mandates it cares for the fate of people, their ability to live or prosper, let alone work or participate. A business or any economical operation is always incentivized to hire fewer people for less money while charging more, something that innately pressures people at the margins to fold, implode, or even literally die. While most societies implement non-economical checks against actual death such as food stamps or soup kitchens, the pulse of the economy will always urge more ruthless efficiency, involving fewer and fewer workers doing more and more. Or, eventually, no workers at all, merely machines who are less likely to call in sick, demand health benefits, or take vacation. The idea that there are incentives to create jobs in the endgame of capitalism is a baseless pipe dream maintained by those whose livelihood depends on the notion that the 1950’s or 1980’s could run on a loop forever, even though cancerous growth was the sole basis of their success.

And yet we continue to make sacrifices to the Mighty Economy, to hope and pray that it will be benevolent, relent, and flood our streets with milk, honey, and gold from the sky. If you think I’m exaggerating, find me one person on this planet who believes they have even a modicum of control over the economy. Barack Obama? He vents his frustration at his inability to change the Economy’s course daily. Ben Bernanke? Can’t stop talking about how forceful and independent the economy is and how he is maximizing his leverage over it to little avail. Mark Zuckerberg? Perhaps he has some real power, but even he has recently lost his shirt to the whims of the economy’s assessment of his own worth and merit. Angela Merkel? Hopelessly cowed in the face of a few Greek voters and forces she claims are well beyond her control. Find me that sole person on the planet who feels they have any tangible bar-moving impact on this new malevolent deity. Find me that person and then maybe we can convince them to get us off this mad train.

Why is it mad? For it not to be mad, you have to honestly believe that humans today are less capable, less efficient, less important, and less smart than they were ten years ago. You have to believe that our collective abilities to live, thrive, create, and prosper are severely diminished because of something innate in us that’s changed. Of course nothing whatsoever has actually changed, outside this bizarre belief-bubble dictated by The Economy.

Put another way, from October 2007 to March 2009, $34.4 trillion in wealth was “destroyed”. There are tangible things that can have that kind of real impact on people as a species or a series of societies. There can be wars, famines, plagues, natural disasters, resulting in widespread cessation of life and decimation of property. And yet none of those things, save for a handful of anxiety-ridden suicides or foreclosed buildings, actually transpired during that devastating year and a half. We didn’t even lose a cache of gold or paper money. Our belief in symbols on a series of screens told us that we were worth half of what we had been a few years ago.

Think about it. Functionally, no one died. No land or buildings were destroyed or damaged. We just all suddenly believed that we had lost half of what we had because of an uncontrolled force we dub The Economy.

What could be more delusional? What could be, frankly, more stupid?

The only counter-argument of any sense or value is that this force sometimes convinces us we’re worth double what we were just worth, or ten times, and prompts people to do things they would never do otherwise in the face of unbridled optimism. And that sounds good, until you consider that what they’re doing that they wouldn’t otherwise do is working at the detriment of time with their family or other more self-directed uses of time and energy. For some, this might be more “productive” than what they’d otherwise do, but almost no one is ever choosing something they’d choose if they didn’t feel forced to by, you guessed it, The Economy.

But even if you want to argue that this force, in good times, is saving them from uselessness on the couch and that everyone is better off working for The Economy than doing what they’d prefer otherwise, that’s only in good times. And the capricious changes from good times to bad, based on a few poor decisions by high rollers or merely inscrutable forces that can only be tempered but not controlled by world governments, turn everyone’s joy into sorrow.

So if I were to give you a choice of two worlds to live in, which would you choose… One controlled by a capricious and often vengeful force, immune to supplication or anything but the most drastic sacrifice, that whimsically chose when you would do well or poorly? Or one where you had some agency over the global state in which you tried to make your way? Or at least one where the overall state was somewhat predictable and steady instead of a series of booms and busts?

There are other ways to organize our society. The first step is to stop believing in The Economy. We’ve stopped making blood sacrifices of goats and chickens and first-born children to unseen inhuman forces. Why do we persist in making sacrifices of our livelihood and, all too often, our lives, to the uncaring Invisible Hand?

by

The Impending Class War

Categories: A Day in the Life, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,

I’ve spent a reasonably large chunk of the last week shuttling myself to New York City to see one of my favorite bands, the Weakerthans, play all four of their studio albums on four successive nights. This may not mean much to you because most of you haven’t been introduced to the Weakerthans, but you can play along at home by imagining one of your top five active bands playing all their albums in consecutive nights live, plus a smattering of other songs at each show. In fact tonight, the first in the last five to be devoid of such a show, feels a little empty.

It’s hard enough to sum up the emotional import of any one show without trying to string together four, especially when each had their own distinct feel, ranging from the foreboding drunkenness over-present at the second (Left and Leaving) show to the unbelievable happenstance of running into four former APDA friends at the third (Reconstruction Site) show, four of the maybe 25 people I know in the eight-million-strong metropolis of New York City. The fourth (Reunion Tour) may have been my favorite, if only for the somber reverence of the crowd and the true appreciation of realizing that one is watching a band for the fourth straight night and desperately craves a fifth.

John K. Samson spent a small part of each show referencing Occupy Wall Street and encouraging people to participate, even evoking some excitement for the somewhat faded jaded revolutionary spirit from some earlier Weakerthans tunes and no doubt his prior stint with the band Propagandhi. Playing “Confessions of a Futon Revolutionist” each of the first three nights, including one impromptu in the encore seemed a clear reference to the growing fervor of a generation disappointed to miss out on the sixties but still desperate to change an order that has only consolidated its grip on power in the ensuing four decades. The Weakerthans used their platform at the Bowery Ballroom the way they have used their entire fifteen years in the limelight of the Canadian independent music scene – to live their values as they envision them, shunning overt fame, the chance to make it big, overcharging for tickets, etc., in favor of selling political books alongside their CD’s and T-shirts while selling out small clubs that fervently sing along.

I used the weekend to discover a couple other things too, like how surprisingly drivable lower Manhattan is from my current residence, taking just forty minutes to get to the venue from New Brunswick after I gave up on the subway after a miserably cold rainy night running under awnings to get from Penn Station to the BD line in its circuitous far-from-everything-but-still-getting-vaguely-where-you-want routing. (See also Tournaments, Fordham.) And it also occurred to me just how expensive New York really is relative to the rest of the world. People may complain a bit about the cost of living in the Bay Area, but the bridge across there cost, what, $4 and had a carpool opt-out for free? And BART would usually run you about $3-5 a pop to get pretty close to where you wanted to go? All the entrances to NYC now cost $12 by bridge or tunnel and the roundtrip train is $26 from New Brunswick, subway fare not included. I know that New Brunswick is significantly further out than Berkeley, but it’s not much further out than, say, Dublin or Pleasanton, and that gets you up to maybe $8 on BART. New York City is just a giant financial funnel and while I see its worth in occasional cultural access points, regular entry starts to feel like a life tax.

You may have to put a small X where I lost my way on this post. It wasn’t really supposed to be small-minded whinging about the cost of living, although one could argue that’s the only source of the angst and discontent abroad in the land, that that’s what it takes to knock Americans out of their complacency and into action is having to pay more than they can for things. Certainly the crass commercialism of traditional wealthy USA seems alive and thriving in NYC as compared to other parts of the world, though the Best Buy in New Jersey seemed full and bustling, even if the actual lines for items were pretty short. It is the great paradox of whatever this economic situation is that most people appear to be hurting and yet most everyone seems to have essentially the same quality of life as before, give or take some stress. There are exceptions and people who’ve been knocked from their pedestal, but for the most part the magic wheel of debt has kept spinning its web of lies to obfuscate the true nature of what’s broken about our system.

So you can forgive John K. and I and the other upbeat believers for getting excited about the present circumstances and the awakening possibility that we won’t have this same tired unjust system to kick around for the entire remainder of our lifetimes. And yet, it’s the personal poignance, as it seems to be with most every important band (Ani DiFranco certainly comes to mind) that overrides the political upheaval and potential tumult at the end of the day. We can raise our fists to “Futon Revolutionist”, but people probably relate more closely to the bipolar maturation of “Aside”. We can hum along to “Pamphleteer”, but there’s a reason “Left and Leaving” gets played every night and that one only once. The compelling nature of internal emotional struggle has got to be at the heart of why the two songs ghostwritten by Virtute the Cat get the loudest cheers, why “None of the Above” resonates so deeply, why we all feel heartened by “Reconstruction Site”.

This review is probably meaningless to anyone who doesn’t know the Weakerthans, but that’s probably true of every concert review and doubly important because you should get to know the Weakerthans. John K. batted away catcalled questions about the next album date and even concert date and his upcoming solo release next month portends the possible demise of an indy set that’s only released four albums in a decade and a half and sort of missed their every-three-years pacing deadline in the year before the one about to die shortly. John K. looks forever young, like the man who introduced him to me, but his supporting cast wears their facial hair a little hangdog and seems like the comforts of Canadian homefires might start to outweigh New York nights, no matter how much the bassist sweats while he rocks out.

John K. admonished us to go to bookstores. It’s the only place we’d be able to find him if he hadn’t somehow tried to teach himself to sing. I’m not sure my catchphrase “All the Poets Became Rock Stars” applies better to anyone else.

7 December – Fallow Show
Illustrated Bible Stories for Children
Diagnosis
Confessions of a Futon Revolutionist
None of the Above
Letter of Resignation
Leash
Wellington’s Wednesdays
The Last Last One
Greatest Hits Collection
Sounds Familiar
Anchorless
Fallow
Tournament of Hearts
Sun in an Empty Room
[Anne of Green Gables song]
Reconstruction Site
Plea from a Cat Named Virtute
Aside
Left and Leaving

One Great City!
Bigfoot!
The Reasons
Watermark

8 December – Left and Leaving Show
Everything Must Go!
Aside
Watermark
Pamphleteer
This is a Fire Door Never Leave Open
Without Mythologies
Left and Leaving
Elegy for Elsabet
History to the Defeated
Exiles Among You
My Favourite Chords
Slips and Tangles
One Great City!
Our Retired Explorer
Civil Twilight
Letter of Resignation
None of the Above

Confessions of a Futon Revolutionist
Plea from a Cat Named Virtute

9 December – Reconstruction Site Show
Manifest
The Reasons
Reconstruction Site
Psalm for the Elks Lodge Last Call
Plea from a Cat Named Virtute
Our Retired Explorer
Time’s Arrow
Hospital Vespers
Uncorrected Proofs
A New Name for Everything
One Great City!
Benediction
The Prescience of Dawn
Past Due
Everything Must Go!
Aside
[Anne of Green Gables song]
Greatest Hits Collection
Tournament of Hearts
Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure

Left and Leaving
Confessions of a Futon Revolutionist
Night Windows

10 December – Reunion Tour Show
Civil Twilight
Hymn of the Medical Oddity
Relative Surplus Value
Tournament of Hearts
Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure
Elegy for Gump Worsley
Sun in an Empty Room
Night Windows
Bigfoot!
Reunion Tour
Utilities
One Great City!
Watermark
Reconstruction Site
Our Retired Explorer
Wellington’s Wednesdays
Left and Leaving
Without Mythologies

Aside
None of the Above
Plea from a Cat Named Virtute
Manifest

by

Occupation

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

As most of you know, I used to counsel “emotionally disturbed” kids in a group home. That was my occupation. We used this system generally known as “behavior modification” whereby we rewarded good behavior and punished (to a degree) bad behavior, usually by changing the meter on what kinds of activities someone could do. There were behavioral levels someone would start out on in the morning based on their behavior the previous day. They were color-coded, running red, yellow, green, and then purple and finally gold, which could only be earned after sequential days on purple. For example, you couldn’t watch TV on red. You couldn’t watch TV after dinner on yellow. On gold, you didn’t have to stand at each doorway announcing yourself and waiting to be permitted to cross a threshold, as long as you told the staff where you were going and responded if they asked you to stop.

There were also behaviors which would warrant an immediate “level drop”. Contrary to my ex-brother-in-law’s assessment, this did not indicate that we would dump a kid off the stairs, but merely that they’d go from yellow to red or gold to purple if they swore or made a threat or tried to make a peer act out. And then violence meant “R&R”, a term I guess we were trying to reclaim for the bad, which would be resolution and restitution in this instance and prompt spending the rest of the day on red, usually after long periods of sitting time to calm down.

A lot of our job, other than navigating and assessing people through the process of earning their levels (surprisingly like APDA judging – the level sheets even looked like debate ballots), was about keeping people motivated to meet their goals and make their level. After all, most of the kids had grown up in households where, de facto if not overtly, bad behavior was rewarded and good behavior was punished. If you were quiet and humble and polite and got your homework done, you’d get neglected. If you set the house on fire and kicked the family dog and yelled and screamed at the table, then you’d get some attention. And in the world of six-year-olds whose parents are addicts, any attention is good attention, because it means you get fed or talked to or even physically contacted, even if it’s to be hit.

The hardest part of this engagement and motivation was finding ways to get people on red to believe that tomorrow would be a new day and they’d have some way of climbing out of their bad level. Often they’d be on red after spending significant portions of the day in R&R, which meant no points were being earned toward the next day’s level while they were in the quiet room (an Orwellian term if there ever was one) or restraint or sitting staring at a corner thinking about what they’d done. Usually this meant they’d spent the day not only being unstable and unhappy, but they knew that the next day was doomed to be another day on red – that it’d be 36 hours before they could watch TV or even think about going on the computer. And 36 hours is long enough for a well-adjusted adult human – for an anti-social adolescent, it’s an eternity.

One of the things my boss – an ex-drill-sergeant (literally) and college football player the size of a small house with the voice of an irate seal – was very good at was advising us what to do with these kids in these situations. He told us that the key to their motivation and improved behavior was engagement. Keeping them interested, distracted, putting their minds to something. In a word, keeping them occupied. The man was often a blunt instrument, but he had incredible insight into the mindsets of these kids, having worked in mental health facilities like ours and/or juvenile hall for the better part of two decades. And he implored us to, when times were stable, engage and stimulate the kids who were on red with the few activities always allotted to them – playing outside, playing board games, reading, talking with peers or staff. And there, over time, I learned a fundamental truth: that people act out when they’re bored. It’s something to do.

The human mind despises boredom. Probably more than pain, certainly more than sadness. The brain is too complex, too creative, too active, to tolerate monotony and absence of objects. It will create things to think about where none exist, it will foment processes and possibilities in a vaccuum. The only antidote to this is another element of our strategy in engaging red-level kids: exhaustion. Playing outside was not only good because it kept someone occupied, focused, and not-bored, but it also meant they came in too tired to create a ruckus. Adolescents have restless unspent energy in the best of times – abuse/neglect victims triply so. A kid who comes in tired from his day will be disinclined to take offense at a peer’s comment or a staff direction to a time-out. One who has nothing but seething surging energy beneath the surface will be ready to rumble.

This difference of exhaustion is why so many people can put up with assembly-line jobs or grocery-checking or long commutes, but buckle under the universally feared torture of solitary confinement. The capitalist structure of our country went through a really glorious period of getting humans to willingly accept and even embrace monotonous boredom because the tedium of their jobs created the byproduct of wearing them down. So even if they were getting repetitive stress injuries from twisting the same widget the same way and almost falling asleep from the 3,275th time making the same commute, they would arrive at home too beat to complain about it, having only just enough energy to awaken the next day and do it again. Meanwhile, those confined to small dark boxes alone with little or no exercise were slowly driven insane in their prisons.

Something’s been happening in this country the last three years. People have lost their occupations. No matter how small and crappy and minimally engaging their jobs were, they were still jobs that carried the heavily taxing byproduct of exhaustion. They were still something that took enough mental and physical energy to negate the urge to rebel, to foment discontent, to hold out for something better. But one by one and in droves, they were turned out of the opportunity to spend their energy flailing in the capitalist mill and instead consider the walls and corners and televisions and want-ads of a solitary existence.

Yes, some have turned to creativity. Some have expanded their minds to accept the lack of occupation as a gift and driven themselves to occupy themselves instead. But most, realistically, have not. Most people turned out of work by downsizing or offshoring or consolidation or automation have turned forlornly and blankly into an abyss of disinterested blandness. They wake each day not even sure what to do without someone telling them. They wander aimlessly through a directionless day, storebought distractions no longer working for them in light of the fact that they are only sufficiently entertaining or engaging for an exhausted person, but not someone with all their faculties at disposal. No longer exhausted, they become restless, agitated, rumbling with a soul-deep longing for something to do, be, create.

This, my friends, is the fundamental root of the Occupy Wall Street movement. It is the quest for occupation. And despite my framing the question in the context of a job where I tried to modify violent kids’ behavior toward the more productive, I am very much in agreement with the principles and methodology of this budding revolution. The powers that seek to maintain order, stability, and the status quo in America have overlooked some fundamental tenets of how to stave off rebellion by controlling the masses. They have forgotten that bread must join circuses in sufficiently distracting the people, insisting instead on a system which puts bread at a premium as a mechanical rabbit to hold in front of the racers. They have allowed the attitude of those at the top to become perniciously elitist, rubbing superiority and greed in the face of all society. But most fundamentally, they have forgotten that people must have something to do or they will find something to do themselves. That people accept the terms of their social contract when they are too occupied or too tired to read the fine print. When people have nothing else to do but read the fine print because they are so bored, they will realize what they are forfeiting and rail against it.

What is most exciting and inspiring about the Occupy Wall Street movement (and its hundreds of offspring across cities across America) is that it does not overtly seek political solutions. Naysayers and corporate threshers want the occupiers to write their Congresspeople and go to the polls, knowing that anyone accessed in such a way has been bought and paid for to the point of complete imperviousness. Even those not explicitly on the payroll of corporate America are believers in the fundamental tenets of a system that rewards greed and punishes altruism, a way of aligning society to maximize the consolidation and stratification of wealth and power. It is blindingly obvious why this is so, as any student of history (from age eight on) could tell you: those in power like being there and will rig the game so they can stay there. And capitalism is one very effectively rigged game.

I myself have struggled mightily with the advent of the Occupy Wall Street movement, feeling pulled almost inexorably to the front lines of its tent encampments and yet not even setting foot as yet in the wake of my overwhelmed exhaustion at my full-time job. For me, unlike most, it is not the gun-to-my-head need for the pay of a job or even the expected pressure of finding fulfillment in one’s occupation, but rather the true motivation of actually loving my work and wanting to devote sufficient time to it that it brings me to the brink of capitulation and illness. I hung out with Ariel and discovered yesterday that I may be her only friend whose problems wouldn’t be largely or entirely solved by money. Which itself is no small factor in the Occupy movement, that reality. For me, I work because I want to and I love to, but it has thus far kept me off the sidewalks and streets of a rising tide that could sweep the whole world.

It is hard to feel twin obligations that are mutually exclusive and equally compelling. Even at Glide, I think I might have begged out of work to go join the protests, though there I may have felt the pull of alleviating the suffering that was driving so many to this brink. But I also must self-examine and recognize that each marginal person could be part of a tipping point in creating more change in this country than anyone born prior to this year could have imagined was possible. When I first saw the most recent Zeitgeist movie, I chuckled at the slightly naive vision of hordes of people gathering around Wall Street to give their money back in rejection of the system that printed it. Now it’s underway. And it feels wrong to not only not be a part of it, but to not be a spearhead.

And yet it feels like a hedge is in order too. It is unclear the direction or power the movement will have, whether it can be co-opted by money and politics and all the American powers that have resisted internal change before. And throwing away the best job I’ll ever have, one I created from scratch, and all my obligations to people I feel a deep personal bond with, for what could be a week and a jail term depending on how things bounce, seems crazy.

But it only seems crazy because I am occupied. Were I not, it would be the most obvious thing in the world.

I will continue to wrestle and struggle with the question, continue to dance on the razor’s edge of conundrum. I can’t really see myself abandoning everything to go live in the encampments, at least not yet, so the Rutgers debaters reading this should let out their breath. But there’s a big part of me that feels I should anyway. And I know it’s not zero-sum – I know I can go try to participate without sacrificing it all. And I will. More than anything, though, we need to develop a way that people who are occupied can still Occupy. We need a day where everyone who still wants or has to go to work can show their solidarity and support. Sometimes revolutions can’t all involve defection from the military, because they need people in the military to be quietly sympathetic so they can make sure that institution changes with the rest of society. This revolution needs occupied people too in order to make all the changes necessary.

If those on top of this precipitous pyramid know what’s good for them, they will create new incentives and occupations. They will come up with some way to motivate the masses and make use of their time and brains. But it can’t be through capitalism, at least the way it’s been manifest in society so far. The market is editing out jobs, ensuring they never return. We need a new system to occupy our minds. Until then, we must occupy the streets.

by

Obligatory 9/11 Reflection

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , ,

Yesterday I went to Philadelphia to play cards and see Ariel and be social on a day when I expected to be overwhelmed and over-tired after reconnecting with the debate circuit (see here for how that went) for another season. It was a pretty decent day overall, even if I mostly learned from the poker experience that I still haven’t gotten the formula for when to leave the table down yet. Turns out that playing with overtly bad players (spot the sucker at the table, etc.) is actually usually more costly than it is profitable. Still left up, but could have left up a lot more.

In any event, I was really sick of 9/11 yesterday. All I wanted was some NPR or talk radio that wasn’t about ten years ago, and that just wasn’t happening. I get it, I guess, but I was simply completely overwrought with the references and remembrances, especially given their personal context which I’ll outline a bit herein. Basically, 9/11 has become rebranded with a trauma for me that it never had to begin with, which is kind of weird and melodramatic, but nonetheless true for my emotions. I’m not exactly sure why I feel compelled to chronicle all this when I was so OD’ed on it yesterday, but my perspective is a fickle beast these days, to say the least.

As far as my actual perspective on the 9/11 event itself and most of its remembrance, I think Ariel summed up my feelings beautifully in her post yesterday. I include the link not only to highlight her spare but poignant description of said feelings, but also to highlight that she’s back to blogging, something that few people are doing with any regularity these days (self somewhat included), so you should check it out. And it was this same shared perception, the idea that 9/11 itself was, while tragic, vastly overblown in significance by a country and city steeped in complacency, that was so much of the baseline of Emily’s and my connection that led so quickly to our near-decade union in life.

Emily and I shared spots on APDA’s governing body, the APDA Board, with roughly similar levels of ambivalence at the outset of the 2001-2002 debate season. And three days prior to the opening tournament, the Columbia Novice contest in New York City, the events whose description need no reviewing unfolded on a Tuesday morning. The APDA Board, like so many other leadership councils, scrambled that night to determine the fate of the weekend and APDA’s President (from the host school of Columbia Novice) insisted that not only would the show go on, but so would the celebratory party on Friday night. The Board somehow concluded that it would be appropriate to cancel elimination rounds, but not the late-night festivities.

It is easy to forget in the light of a decade without terrorism in the United States how much paranoia was abroad in the land in the days and weeks following September 11th, 2001. I had friends, several of them, who unequivocally told me I was committing likely suicide by driving to New York City on September 14th and a possible atrocity by bringing college freshmen with me. I felt serious responsibilities to APDA and especially those new recruits on the team who wanted to attend that I had to lead them in whatever decision they preferred and enable a real choice on the matter. And I felt driven, as did Emily, to make sure there was a viable alternative to going to a bar on Friday night for those attending the tournament. And thus she and I planned the vigil that would ultimately yield our all-night diner talk that would single-handedly put us on a course for marriage.

It was a permanent fixture in our relationship and marriage that 9/11 directly caused our union, a serendipitous quirk that gave the historical event a greater legacy for our lives than either of us had personally found it to have for the world. And in my first e-mail to friends in the wake of her attempted over-the-phone-from-Liberia divorce salvo, I cited how this silver lining had gone gray overnight, how what once felt like a sign that all could bounce back in the universe now felt like a monument to the meaningless trudge of life’s ongoing hardship. A more draconian interpretation might instill a lesson that tragedy is tragedy and one ought never take solace in it, no matter how redemptive it seems. But most of my mind went back not to the event itself, but my tenterhooks feelings on that unfolding evening itself.

I had developed a crush on Emily for years prior to 9/11, but sometime just before 2001 had resolved to actively try to eradicate it from my mind. Her judgment and perception of people seemed fatally flawed in the context of certain overtly disastrous public incidents with her then-boyfriend and I concluded that no matter how intelligent, attractive, and vibrant she seemed, she simply lacked the judgment required for a trustworthy foundation. It was this internal argument that I mulled for hours in Tom’s Restaurant as night became day and I was forced to conclude in her flirtation and the ambiguous silence on the topic that she must finally have shed the relationship and demonstrated that I had judged her judgment a bit too hastily.

This was incorrect, though. She was still with that boyfriend at the time. And it was a much eerier and less comfortable joke sidelining our marriage that my not knowing that on that night was as responsible as 9/11 itself for our forging a life together. It was only the increasing though ultimately disproven conviction that she’d made a good decision that convinced me to quiet my own pre-committed voices against pursuing her any further.

By the time I found out her true status at the time (not that she lied about it or that we did anything that violated the relationship), I was already mentally invested in us having a future. And the rest, as they say, is history. Creepily foreshadowing history, as it turned out.

Emily asked me late in our Stateside disassembly of our mutuality whether my story on our time together would be all about the betrayal. I blinked at her and asked how it could be anything else. And she returned to platitudes about the time that we spent together for its own sake, the love that we shared, and especially her cloying refrain that I would be the better for our parting. And despite its seriously grandiose overtones, I can’t help but find a parallel to the question in the event of 9/11 itself. After all, the power and prestige of Osama bin Laden was purchased by the United States of America. His military interest, knowhow, and capability was all facilitated by the country he ultimately attacked. It is hard to imagine US officials close to bin Laden feeling like the partnership paid off overall, like it was somehow worth it in view of its fiery catastrophic conclusion.

Of course, there is an underlying asterisk to that whole angle on the story, namely that the US itself, or more broadly certain interest groups and factions within same, did probably end up better off for the experience of 9/11, despite its horrible upfront costs. It is this reality that prompts such widespread belief in the Inside Job theories that I myself share a sufficient sympathy with to make almost everyone I talk to about this wildly incredulous and uncomfortable. Almost as incredulous and uncomfortable as I feel every year that the dire predictions of in-country terrorism subsequent to 9/11 go unsubstantiated. The evidence of negligence in the face of threats is irrefutable, and the evidence of Pearl Harbor-style ignorance in the face of an impending reality is nearly so. The next step to active crafting is more ambiguous and will always remain so until someone can at least build a lifesize replica of the twin towers and send a remote-controlled jetliner into it to see if the theories invented to cover apparent empirics have any validity. You have to remember that the reason so many police and firefighters (and, frankly, regular people) died that day is because literally no physicist or architect believed it was possible for the buildings to fall. Had structural collapse even been the remotest inkling of a possibility in the minds of anyone witnessing the events as they unfolded, the death count for the day would stand around 400. And that has to give you pause, regardless of how crazy you think questioning the official story is.

Suspending that thorny, divisive, and potentially alienating question, though, part of the 9/11 story (as with any tragedy) is trying to find redemptive outcomes and hopeful plotlines that mitigate the sheer horror of the unprecedented and unpredicted death of innocent humans. Indeed, my marriage itself was key among these. Which brings us to an unsettling conundrum that has underlied a great deal of my life in the last year. Anything good that happens in my life – from the success of the Rutgers debaters to any future relationship I might have to simply having a day where I don’t cry and contemplate giving up – can be used as a justification for Emily’s destruction of my previous life. If I wind up happy in a year or five or twenty, Emily gets to come back and say “I told you so,” to justify her callous and cavalier betrayal as a necessary step in both of our lives. I would no more hope to thus be unhappy than I would myself fly a plane into a building with people in it, but the insidious extent of her poisoning of my life puts a tarnish on any future joy or success I have. Anything I hope to find or build or do is asterisked as an argument that I had to lose what I most cared about, that I had to be betrayed.

I was going to say that the difference between that seemingly irrefutable reality and people making the same claim about 9/11 is the obvious irrecoverable destruction of 3,000 lives and a certain sense of American security (and ultimately, rights). In other words, no one would ever claim that this could be somehow “worth it,” no matter what benefits were reaped, while I’ve had to endure countless close friends already lobbing the “you’re better off without her” tripe because that’s permissible in the wake of divorce in our society, but not death. But I don’t think divorce/death is actually the key distinction here. I think it’s that even Osama bin Laden didn’t have the temerity to claim that his attacks (if they were his attacks, which he [uncharacteristically of all terrorists] denied for years) would ultimately be for the good of America and its people. Yet that’s exactly the kind of claim Emily’s tried relentlessly to make.

I know how this looks. The point of this post isn’t to say I was married to the moral or functional equivalent of Osama bin Laden, or even a more audacious version thereof. Indeed, the character flaws that led to her unraveling actions had nothing in common with terrorism so much as the weakness and distractability and poor self-awareness already identified before we even kissed. In other words, I knew exactly what I was signing up for, or should’ve. The fault, as I’ve shouted over countless eye-rolling friends, is mine. Not that this itself justifies her not checking her own immature proclivities, but neither does it render them entirely responsible for surprising me. So forgive me this melodramatic comparison. It is, as discussed with Ariel yesterday, merely my inclination to intertwine themes that have an echoey resonance, to contextualize the significance of an event that, in spite of itself, carries enormous world-changing weight even in my life.

But this counterpoint helps serve another function, namely to illustrate and reemphasize the depth of pain that actually brought me to, for the first time in three decades, cut off communication with another human being. It is only by being this visceral and thorough that I can truly show how hurtful the claim that her betrayal was for my sake is. How hurtful and endlessly compounding, a domino chain of exponential increase, cascading with doubt and haunting as I am left in the wake of wondering if all my suffering is for my own good. It is also to articulate across the void, I suppose, to a person who may or may not be reading this, that that one thought, baseline of her own self-righteous defense of her actions, was the tipping point in my being able to keep her in my life or not.

It may be fundamental to Emily’s future happiness and even functionality that she believe this malicious notion. But it is anathema to my own. And as long as we both maintain this, unsoftening, we will stand as hard and opposed as the World Trade Center towers themselves. Twinned, unyielding, so similar and yet never touching. And ultimately doomed to fall.

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The Randomness of Money

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, TH'HEAT 2011, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , , ,

A couple weeks back, before the storm blew in and failed to knock out the power and the storm of novices came in to reignite the debate season, I came home and found a note under my door saying that the rent was going up about 3%. Given that I’d already splurged for more rent than I really wanted to pay when I moved here, spending more for a place on my own than I ever had as a couple, I was none too pleased about it. Yes, heat is included, which is a clutch expense in this climate, and yes, I have a functionally extra bedroom that serves as my office in a relatively palatial space in a great neighborhood. But sometimes, rent is too damn high.

But just like the day that I got waitlisted at Swarthmore (what had, in spite of myself, become my first-choice college for undergrad applications back in ’98) and the Brandeis scholarship package was the other envelope available to open in the same delivery, so too was there another envelope waiting for me this day. And instead of coming from Trudi Manfredo and friends, it was from my new academic department at Rutgers, informing me of a little stipend I’d be getting on top of my regular salary for serving as adjunct professor of the one-credit debate class. And suffice it to say that the stipend easily more than covered the uptick in rent. And so I had this weird moment of wanting to be grumpy about the increase, but being wholly unable to because I had basically found unknown money under the proverbial couch cushions of the mail.

To be fair, though, I shouldn’t have been surprised. This has basically been my entire life experience with the green paper figments we call currency in this country. Despite an upbringing where my parents and especially grandparents taught me to take money very seriously and be quite sparing in its expenditure, the actual flow of finances in my life has been something like the pacing of a poorly-shot action film. And it’s all served to remind me of what I’ve now long known – that money is totally and utterly random and that any correlation between its availability and anything resembling work or effort or especially dessert is entirely coincidental.

It is this increasing conviction, borne of scrimping money early in our life in California only to have a hit-and-run driver force $1,500 of repairs on a car we ended up ditching shortly thereafter or me follow advice to an Emergency Room bill of similar heft that was entirely unnecessary for our uninsured selves, that has probably solidified my conceptual comfort with gambling. Many people are surprised to learn that I not only gamble, but enjoy it, perhaps assuming it fails to dovetail with a life devoted to avoiding all drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and meat (probably quadruply redundant, that list, or at least triply so) as well as one spent railing against capitalism. And there are times that my anti-capitalist convictions make me squeamish about the financial fracas that is wagering, though I also have this Pi-like (the movie) fascination with numeric patterns and beating the system, something only reinforced by having a series of close friends who also invest a lot of mental energy in same. Nevertheless, I’m squarely in the camp that gambling helps unearth a fundamental truth about money and capitalism writ large, or a series of them – namely that your income always comes at the expense of someone else’s cost, and that money is oh so random.

Which is not to say, mind you, that gambling ought be random. I am a lifetime vocal opponent of the lottery for precisely that reason – there’s nothing remotely involving skill one could attribute to this institution, unless you want to sort of count this innovative couple who bought enough tickets to beat the house. Besides the fact that the lottery positions itself to violate the other fundamental rule of gambling, namely that one should only risk what one can afford to lose. A rule that I probably violated when managing some retirement funds before the dissolution of my marriage, in a sense, though once one has access to a certain amount of cash, it gets harder to see the real value of any given dollar or even thousand. And this gets even more difficult when the person betraying one steals far more than that in the effort to extort a friendship one will soon lose interest in maintaining. Good God, this stuff is so random.

But back to gambling, quickly. The point is that gambling is an arena whose entrance should be blocked by a certain playfulness with the money, and whose contents should require skill instead of luck. Which has of course driven a lifelong fascination with poker, which can combine with an addictive personality (there’s a reason I don’t get involved with mind-altering substances, or about twenty-six of them – reasons, not substances) to really ramp up the stakes. I’ve probably been a break-even player for most of my life, in aggregate, treading water at the limit game at Oaks Card Club in Emeryville, California for a few years, occasionally dropping money in Vegas or somewhere else and paying for it with pretty decent money taken off my friends $10-$100 at a time in weekly home games or in the Castle Commons back in college.

I can’t really explain why gambling is fun, but I think it’s only fun if it’s affordable and requires some sort of skill. I had twice as much fun bowling when we bet on it as when we didn’t, and the same was probably just about true for chess. Maybe it’s the risk-reward structure or the adrenaline of competition or the personality of a generation raised to be incentivized to the hilt with a thousand tiny carrots ranging from literal grade-school warm-fuzzies to free candy bars for high grades to book-club books for lots of reading. I don’t think it’s an oversimplification to say that the children of the 1980’s were a straight-up bribed generation, without even getting into the countless kids of broken homes whose parents would outright bid for their affection with toys, trips, and allowances. No wonder we’re drowning in debt and associate every activity with some sort of dollar cost or potential reward. And even I, ever the skeptic of the whole exchange of goods and services thing, get pulled under if there’s enough strategy or drama.

Something changed on this roadtrip, though, the mosaic of the nature of poker altered and shifted like a desert djinn and started to reveal itself in a new more visible light. I actually lost overall in three trips to casinos in three different states, but felt I was absorbing almost alien-inspired knowledge about the way the game should be played. Something that’s always intrigued me about poker also accelerated, namely the social aspect of the game. Even in the frigid east coast, with its brusque disregard for human communication, poker tables knit strangers together in a friendly camaraderie rarely rivaled outside of ideal workplaces and debate or sports teams. It was largely loneliness that drove me to Oaks on many of those Oakland and Berkeley nights, the challenge of living on four hours a night of sleep with a wife who preferred ten. And though I walked out of the St. Louis cardroom agreeing not to make poker a continuing thing in my Jersey life, at least until the summer, I still had this nagging feeling that I’d made a breakthrough even in light losses.

Fast-forward to a couple weeks back, when I was feeling energized and excited after a great week looking forward to the debate season, all friends in any sort of range busy, but wanting to go talk, be, and see. I posted on Facebook that I was considering going to AC for the weekend, but probably knew better. To my near-shock, at least five friends almost immediately posted with exhortations for me to go gamble. Maybe they knew me better than I know myself, saw the glint of caring and distraction entailed in cards that makes the mopey self-recrimination cycle of much of the last year more difficult. At least if one doesn’t lose too much, that is. And one of them informed me there’s a card room a half hour east of Philly, twice as close as AC, which made the difference between needing a hotel and not. I was sold.

Seven trips later, I’m making $27 an hour playing poker. That only counts table time, so tacking on the drive time puts it closer to $20, and then there’s a little gas as well. But twenty bucks an hour is surprisingly job-like compensation for something that’s incredibly fun and social. I also feel like I’m getting better, and even though there was one losing session overall against the six winners, I’m up over $1100 in two weeks of play.

Granted, seven trips in two weeks is utterly unsustainable during the debate season proper and winter will also likely dampen my enthusiasm for that much Route One driving. Though I do thank the roadtrip for reminding me that I actually enjoy driving a fair bit and otherwise tend to lack time to belt out singing to favored songs or absorb some NPR. Or even, as I’ve discovered I actually like lately, put on a dance radio station and bob along in the sheer momentum of an underlit night. It even occurred to me, in light of a surprisingly lackluster feeling about not only the online dating site I joined a month or so back but the idea of online dating writ large, that maybe poker can be my girlfriend for a while. I can well see the withering look I’d give myself had I heard myself say such a thing, but I’m starting to think my heart may just be closed for business for a good long while. And it might even prompt me to take another look at monasteries if I weren’t suddenly fascinated with the idea of making something like an income playing cards for chips.

The nicest thing about this whole process and experience is that the flash-temptation I have to quit my job and play poker full-time is resoundingly defeated by how much I love my job. For perhaps the first time in my life, I know I wouldn’t give notice if I won the lottery (which I would never play, but you get the metaphor) tomorrow. Even hitting the big-time with a bestseller and having the opportunity to write full-time would probably not prompt an overnight shift to a new career. I don’t know quite what to do with this information other than to be grateful for that aspect of my existence. I really love the debate team, the people thereon, and the endless opportunities emerging from the school’s support of both. And maybe it’s that confidence in how I’m making a day job that makes the night job both relaxing and viable.

Or maybe I’m just lucky.

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Why I’m Cancelling Netflix

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

It has nothing to do with the price, although the increase doesn’t hurt for putting things in perspective.

I’ve talked about this phenomenon to a few people, but it seems like the kind of thing that’s worth documenting at this juncture as I cancel Netflix today, because I think it has some implications for broader incentives and how money messes with people’s better motivations. I’m also considering creating a “War on Capitalism” category for posts here because the broader “Politics…” one is starting to feel like it’s getting thrown at too many disparate ideas. We’ll see.

Anyway, I like movies. Quite a bit, I feel, perhaps more than most people. Although I traditionally don’t like watching movies at home. I’ve spent a lot of time discerning why I love movies in theaters and am kind of annoyed, generally, by the process of watching movies at home. Most of it, I’ve found, is about immersion. I’m able to really lose myself in a film and the world it’s creating when it’s on the big screen in a huge dark room and I don’t control the timing of the event. It is just that: an event. I cannot pause the movie, I cannot rewind it, I cannot determine the parameters of the environment. I am part of something larger and bearing witness and thus I have no choice but to let go and be captive to the universe around me. Whereas that element of control that a remote offers, combined with the reduced sound and size and co-viewers, saps the surreality from the perspective and reminds me, repeatedly, that this is just a movie I’m choosing to watch and I can break the spell of illusion any time I want.

And that immersion gap is the hinge point for a lot of my enjoyment of experiencing a film. If I’m constantly hyper-aware of the fact that I’m in a fictional space with fictional characters, I’m far less likely to learn anything from what they’re trying to illustrate. The reason I like fiction is that there’s more truth in it than the often blatantly biased “non-fiction” presentation of an argument or perspective. If I’m continually being reminded that it’s just a bunch of actors, then that goes out the window. Which it can, because I’m in a room with windows, as opposed to the theater.

But I’ve been able to put up with shifting gears to a lot of home-watching, first because Em and I were trying to save money after moving to Jersey (and she had spent years lobbying me to watch more at home because she liked couching it, which makes her citation of that as a flaw in our relationship thereafter so unfair and ridiculous) and then later after she’d robbed me. It’s not as much fun, but I did it enough that I got used to it and didn’t mind so much. And then, in the last six months or so, I started noticing a creeping phenomenon from Netflix subscription that was having a detrimental impact on my life.

Netflix is a subscription service, and an unlimited one at that, with the only restriction on one’s capacity for utilizing it being how many movies one wants to pay for at a time and how quickly one can turn those movies over. There is also streaming, sure, but I forgot to buy a laptop with an HDMI port and thus my connecting it to the TV screen is extremely complicated and requires unhooking my desktop speakers and a bunch of other garbage, making it unpalatable. And I really don’t like watching movies on the laptop itself, since that’s a whole extra stairstep down in the immersion factors discussed above. Once in a while I’d watch something in bed with a headache, but the reduced immersion made it almost a non-starter.

So for the most part it’s about turning DVD’s over. And one has this pressure in the back of one’s mind that makes it clear that the value of the subscription is maximized by turning over the most number of DVD’s possible. Ideally, from an economic perspective, one would watch ever DVD the day it arrived and ship it back that night. This would make the price per movie the lowest possible and thus maximize the value of the service.

As a result, even though I am often able to resist economic motives and urges, I would feel this light but needling pressure to watch movies whenever they were available so I could ship them back and get more movies. The irony being, of course, that the reward for satiating this feeling of pressure was the opportunity to feel it again, sooner and more frequently. Which I feel is actually true of a lot of capitalist motivations, when it comes down to it.

This becomes especially problematic when what I most want to do at home most of the time is either read or work on a creative project. Given that I’ve mostly been reading library books lately, or books purchase for me or a while ago, there’s no economic pressure there. And creative projects, except for the occasional “next big thing” to win the Internet, are also the opposite of a financial incentive. Both of those pursuits tend to be ends in themselves, where the process of doing them is their own reward. Whereas watching movies, something that should probably also be an end in itself, had been corrupted by Netflix implying how I could best value its service.

The problem, of course, is that I actually prefer doing things that are an end in themselves, but frequently would choose to watch a movie because of this slight monetary motive. There were several nights in sequence when I was really into my book and would prefer to read it, but somewhat begrudgingly forced myself to watch a movie first so I could turn it over. This, my friends, is insane behavior. It’s totally irrational and it’s exhibit 342001389B in why capitalism is crap.

So I’m unhooking myself from the machine. In retrospect, maybe it’s entirely about the price. Obviously if Netflix were a free service, I’d feel none of the economic compulsion and thus be content to keep it for the occasional filmy distraction. But it’s just that, a distraction, stealing time from the pursuits I actually prefer. And I hear they have DVD’s at libraries from time to time, so I’m not completely stranded on that front if I want to have a movie night. Libraries, one of the few bastions of salvation from this collective insanity we’ve all decided to embrace in society so it can motivate us to ruin our lives.

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Time in the Seat’s Not Neat

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Video Games Killed the Free Time, Tags: , ,

People ask all the time why kids love video games but generally seem to hate going to school. Why people will spend a lot of time diligently devoting themselves to baseball statistics or the arcane rules of a particular game or even Angry Birds or how their cell phone works, but not apply the same steadfast energy to chemistry or the latest novel they’ve been assigned to analyze. It’s often not a question people investigate seriously or intellectually; more often, they’ll simply throw up their hands and say “kids these days” or decry the collapse of attention spans and young minds.

What they often overlook, as is becoming somewhat trendy to observe, is that there’s actually a lot of effort and even intellectual curiosity going into these alternate pursuits. There’s creative problem solving and collaboration and sometimes almost obsessive dedication. It just happens to be to the “wrong” things. Or as I’ll explain in a minute, I don’t think it “happens” to be to that at all. I think it’s obvious and measurable exactly why some things get attention from the younger generations of our era and others get ignored to the aghast gasping of old-school academics and their ilk that everything is about to collapse.

Video games and other time-consuming pursuits of the genre are structured around motivating a certain series of behaviors. And many of them, especially the best ones (e.g. the much-maligned Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games, or MMORPGs [e.g. World of Warcraft or WoW, which you’ve almost certainly heard of]) do an almost insidious job at motivating their player to achieve the goals desired at the expense and detriment of everything else in their life. The rewards are frequent and satisfying and there are always more goals and rewards to unlock, all amidst a fun and interactive environment to partake in. Contrast this with traditional classroom learning or the traditional workplace, where the main goal to achieve is simply putting in hours, regardless of accomplishment or function. There are goals and rewards to unlock, potentially, but the main goal and reward is being at an appointed place for an appointed time when expected and surrounded by others doing the same thing.

Indeed, this motivation, something my Dad and I have called “time in the seat” since my first serious rebellions against education in the late 1980’s, is the fundamental core of the modern Western life. People are not recognized or acknowledged so much for what they do or even how they do it, but when they do it. And not even when they do it so much as for how long. The person who works 60 hours a week is automatically respected more than the person who works 40 (let alone 20 or 30), no matter what they’re actually doing with that time. They could be surreptitiously playing eight hours of Minesweeper while no one is looking over their shoulder at their computer screen, but people will nod sagely and say that this is a better worker than someone putting in 20 hours of brilliantly focused work and otherwise out living their life.

Thus we see that Minesweeper itself, unlike our school and work places, actually motivates people to minimize how long it takes to complete a given task. And one ends up spending a long time, or long enough, mastering and perfecting that task in order to complete it more minimally the next time around. While school and work actually motivate and incentivize people to maximize the amount of time it takes to do a given thing, because that will prolong the time in the seat and fill the hours or enable one to work longer and thus get more respect and/or money.

It’s no coincidence that pay is traditionally doled out by the hour in our society and those like it, or that schools are paid for the number of full days of attendance logged by their students. And even for the increasing army of “exempt” non-hourly-paid employees, their respect and prestige tends to correspond to how long they can be seen “slaving” away at the office, yet only an excellent supervisor or trained eye will be able to see the person actually working smarter and harder, not just longer and longer. These incentives and motivations are precisely backwards, and among the best and brightest actually create a very common and extremely pernicious impact.

This impact is to actually sandbag productivity in the effort to make something challenging or interesting or actually push oneself to develop. Almost everyone I know will recognize this from their own college days, but I’m sure many have also done this during high school and work. The phenomenon is centered around procrastination of a given task or duty, not because one is lazy or disinterested, but because the procrastination itself builds a sort of excitement or pressure around then having to complete the work in a short period of time. And that pressure supplants the lack of excitement or push to learn or grow or exert effort normally found in a school/work environment, building a learning curve and a thrill of challenge that the work would otherwise go without. And almost universally, inevitably, the work completed under such circumstances is better than that completed over a slow plod or mincing hours of working laboriously. It’s fresher, it breathes with the passion of a looming deadline, and it reflects the rise to the occasion so often seen as a result of a human pushed to their capacity.

So what’s the solution? Is Storey just railing again with another problem and no fixes? Or is he going to suggest something absurd like having us all play MMORPGs instead of working? Fear not, friends, for I have the most obvious solution in the world.

School is the easy one – work’s a tiny bit trickier. But we need to unleash school students of all ages from their annual fixed rate of progress. Graduation from high school – not a GED or quick-fix substitute, but actual full graduation – should have no implied age. One should be able to complete the full work of high school assignments at any pace they so desire. Maybe people have to get kicked out of high school by 22 or 25 or something to keep things moving along, but there are otherwise no restrictions on pace of work. Assignments are available to be taken on at any point – the only catch is that when an assignment is given, it comes with a fixed deadline X number of days thereafter. But if you want to do three grades’ worth of work at a time and graduate at 11, you’re welcome to try.

Suddenly under such a system, which would take roughly the same resources as status quo, just more open-minded teachers and a more flexible attitude overall, everyone in school would be motivated. Don’t like high school? Get out quick! Bored with a subject? Finish it in days! Your motivation would be not just to play a game for grades or to goof off in the back of class for a diversion, but to actually absorb material, demonstrate mastery, and get moving with your actual life. Even if this system took more resources to try to deal with all the people flying around at an individual pace, the job satisfaction and ease of work increase from dealing with people who want to be learning would be exponential. You’d basically turn school into a video game with checkpoints that can be completed faster and better with more obsessive play.

Work can be trickier because there’s sometimes the need for people to have meetings and, worse, committees. But I think the same basic rules apply. Release all hourly requirements and restrictions. Have each job assigned a pile of tasks. These tasks must be completed by X time and short of that, however much or little you have to work to do that well is done. This even works for construction and ditch-digging and some of the worst jobs imaginable, because you’d suddenly be incentivized to complete projects faster rather than take your time and milk them for hours. Lawyers would no longer be limited to billable hours, but freed up to try to streamline the efficiency with which tasks were completed. About the only thing I can’t figure are certain service jobs where a place is open for X amount of time and people have to be there to anticipate that. Then again, outside of maybe restaurants, most of these jobs are being replaced by online retailing. And I think that’s great, because most of those jobs being replaced are no fun at all.

The human mind was not meant to pursue things for fixed amount of hours every day. It craves creativity, spontaneity, new thinking, innovation. It is not greed that motivates us to such things, but flexibility and our own internal motivations of wanting to get things done. If the motivation were to speed up this process, then synergies and opportunities would continue to rise exponentially. Instead, our society languishes in the doldrums of clock-watching. No wonder we’re disproportionately overweight, saddled with back problems and stress and all the other collateral damage of life glued to chairs for fixed amounts of time. We need to get up, get out, get going, and get faster. And we can’t do that with the number 2080 (or a larger one) around our necks like a stone collar.

Free your time and the mind will follow.

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Insurance = Fraud

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

I actually bought furniture the other day. New furniture. New furniture other than an office chair. I’ve basically never done this in my life. Emily and I bought a new bed when we lived in Berkeley, mostly at her insistence. She kept that one. Other than that, I’ve never bought anything more impressive than an office chair new. And suddenly I have a new plush microfiber overstuffed couch, armchair, and ottoman. It’s pretty surreal. For the last half-week, my living room has smelled like a furniture store and I keep walking by doing Krameresque starts every time I see the chocolate brown comfort that has invaded my quarters.

A funny thing happened on the way to exchanging meaningless electronic representations of meaningless green pieces of paper for fabric-covered stuffing, though. I was having a nice conversation with a pretty competent salesman who seemed genuinely interested in debate (either he was really good or really interested) and then, right after he’d quizzed me about all the ways he could improve his own public speaking (and thus, presumably, sales), he offered to make a side-bet with me. He offered to bet me money about the longevity of the furniture he was selling me.

To be fair, he offered to bet the furniture store’s money with me about this. On behalf of the store. Yes, folks, he offered me an insurance plan. An extended warranty. A fee for replacing the furniture, whatever happens to it. And I had been enjoying the interaction, so I did my best not to get angry.

Insurance has become a common, accepted, and even well-liked thing in our society. There’s a lot of rhetoric, some of it well-lampooned in this recent mac-n-cheese commercial campaign (I think it was in front of a movie or a YouTube clip at some point, because I don’t know how I otherwise would’ve seen it) about “security”, “peace of mind”, and “safety” associated with insurance. And since our government has decided to guarantee us almost none of these things in the US, it’s not terribly surprising that we go looking for it from corporations. The problem is that corporations are sleek, well-evolved, profit-making machines that have no regard for anything else. Kind of like sharks without the remorse.

So insurance is nothing of the kind. It’s a wager that I’m invited to make against myself. It’s saying that I bet I will cost myself more than the bet on the table through my own stupidity or contact with danger or, in this case, likelihood of ruining furniture. It’s saying that I want something bad to happen to me so I don’t look like a dummy for making this bet in the first place. Or at least lowering the possibility of my best-case outcome to losing that bet. And increasingly, corporations are offering them at every turn. Warranties and insurance on almost every item (maybe not quite macaroni – yet), deals and offers that sound so good. For just a little extra, you can make sure that you don’t have to be careful in that rental car or with that chair or on that hotel visit. Almost nothing that costs more than $100 these days is sold without the offer of a tack-on fee for replacing it.

The problem, of course, besides the philosophical issues with betting against oneself, is that these profit-seeking missiles know the bet is rigged in their favor. They have armies of staff evaluating and bean-counting and figuring out how to maximize profit and have it outstrip any potential liability from people signing up for insurance. The odds have been critically determined, proven, and reproven, to be against you any time you take that bet. Because otherwise, they would have no incentive whatsoever to offer you the bet in the first place. And trust me, the furniture store knows more about furniture costs and longevity than you do. The car company knows more about cars, the macaroni company… you get it. So they know that they’re going to make money on that bet, regardless of what happens. Maybe you’ll take it and get lucky and need a replacement, upgrading your stolen insurance money to a lottery ticket. But since when were lottery tickets sold at furniture outlets?

So when my otherwise friendly salesman looks me in the eye and offers me a $129 bet that I’m going to want to take the scissors into my chair at some point in the next 5 years and get a brand-new one for free, I say no thanks. Granted, there’s also a small moral compunction here that makes me recognize that, were I ruthless capitalist, I would throw the furniture off the roof about 4.5 years into my 5-year term and then say “oops, look what I did – I guess I need new stuff now” and that there would be this Friedmanesque voice in the back of my head telling me I was a fool if I didn’t do that if I made the $129 bet. Of course, there’s also the other issue that the new stuff would presumably come with a new bet, maybe $159 now since I’d proven I was risky, for that furniture. And if I was the kind of guy who took the bet in the first place, I should surely take it again. And that’s how these things guarantee that they make money no matter what, because the odds of you calling in that bet sequentially are pretty low, and by that time you’ve basically paid for the full price of the replacement furniture.

There’s a reason that gift cards are everywhere now, vast quantities of them hanging tantalizingly on racks at every grocery store and convenience shop. There’s a reason everyone wants to tack on a warranty and tries harder to sell you that than the initial item itself. There’s a reason three cents of soda sells for a couple bucks at most places and five or seven at movies and plane stations. And you really have the audacity to tell me that this is efficiency? Really?

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Storey Advocates Nuclear Annihilation

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Primary Sources, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Tags: , , ,

If you liked it when I argued we should profit off of hapless students instead of offering them non-profit education, you’ll love this.

This was the case Dave & Kyle were going to run in Nats Finals had they gotten there. Instead, Dave & I had fun with the sisters Sanders in this round that is not precisely an exemplar of full decorum. Enjoy:

APDA Summer 2011: Round 1 from Storey Clayton on Vimeo.

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The Case for Religion

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Primary Sources, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Tags: , , ,

I have another TH’HEAT video in the wings, but the uploading seems to be going slowly because it’s really long and something about the lighting of it makes it extra-colorful and thus takes a lot of byte space and bandwidth. At least, I think that’s contributing to the issues. In any event, David Yin uploaded our fourth round from last Saturday’s fun tournament at Columbia and I wanted to share it since it was by far the highest quality round of the five we debated. We also got to defend something I believe in, more or less, even though I was accused of being an atheist during the round. It was after giving this LOR that I really felt I was on my game again and had shaken off all the rust from my time not debating.

Debate: “Would You Get Rid of Religion?” from David on Vimeo.

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Storey Defends Profit

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Primary Sources, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Tags: , , ,

One of the most fun aspects of debate, as well as its most educational and most challenging, is that it mandates one frequently argue persuasively for things diametric to what one actually believes. Here’s a key example, where Dave and I, debating as “Red Dawn” as a nod to our personally socio-communist leanings, argue things like the market solving, the ethos of American opportunity, and even the accrual of debt:

APDA Summer 2011: Round 2 from Storey Clayton on Vimeo.

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It Doesn’t Get Better

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

It’s not a new thought that hit me while I was working on the Consequences of Capitalism Quiz, but the nature of it probably hit me harder and more profoundly than similar realizations in the past. We live in a society whose fundamental problem appears to be the belief in growth – not just as a possibility or an aspiration, but as an absolute fundamental baseline taken-for-granted necessity. The assumptive reality pervading everything about the United States of America and especially its economic reality is that everything will continue to grow, ever upwards, become ever more efficient and profitable, forever. In short, it gets better.

And while a decent amount of empirical evidence from the twentieth century seemed to affirm this belief structure, the very logic of the notion is completely fallacious. The nature of reality is not to grow infinitely. The only thing that grows endlessly with such abandon in the natural world is cancer. Adapting, perhaps, living in harmony with ones environs, adjusting to the nature of life, possibly. But simply growing and growing for the mere sake of growth, of taking up more space and resources and demand? This is probably the opposite of what we ought be advocating as a collection of people.

The ability of America to get away with this unchecked growth for the latter part of the twentieth century and brief slices of time prior is the result, almost entirely, of hidden exploitation. In the early colonial and expansionist days of the United States, of course, it was exploitation of racial minorities, primarily enslaved Africans and genocided Native Americans. When we ran out of local peoples we felt comfortable oppressing to death, we started exporting, using the Cold War as an excuse to strip-mine the rest of the world, both literally and figuratively, lining the pockets of ever more powerful American corporations while the resources and labor of foreign people were drained. We called it American ingenuity and patted ourselves on the back for how much richer and more powerful we were becoming by the alleged sweat of our brow. By the early part of this century, we’d started ramping up exploitation of our own labor force as well, ever spiraling wealth disparities while creating engines of debt and advertising to ensure that most people would feel wealthier while functionally inching closer to enslavement.

Despite my ability to rant on about the political situation we find ourselves mired in, I’m actually more interested in the personal and emotional impacts of this phenomenon in today’s meditation. Remarkably, they strike me as both directly correspondent and possibly even more pernicious in their overall toll on individuals raised in America. And it is this outgrowth of the belief in eternal growth that I find to be most cancerous, most malignant, most in need of swift and holistic surgical removal. We need a chemotherapy of the soul, something to bring us to the brink of our own mortality if only to see how brokenly we’ve lived.

The issue here is that people are raised in the United States to believe their lives will always get better. That time itself is a magical healing property, that merely by existing over the course of days, one’s lot will improve, one’s fortune will be benefited, one’s ship will come in. It goes well beyond mere hope, for hope is humble and patient, biding its time while American expectation zooms past in a red sports car, laughing maniacally as the wind whips its hair in a million directions. The expectation becomes a birthright, an entitlement, not even a demand, for demand implies the possibility of rejection or resistance. It is simply known that things will get better.

Of course, life pays little heed to the American self-image and its egotistical entitlements. Life, inevitably, doesn’t always get better. People may learn or change over time, but often for the worse, the more cynical, the more deprived. They lose jobs, they lose houses, they lose marriages. They make mistakes. People they love die. The myriad mundane experiences that philosophers and novelists have put in perspective for millennia worth of human beings take their toll on the human souls, yet only in America do we seem to bear it with such profoundly little grace, such massive resort to drugs and despair. This is not to pick on America, entirely, as I am wont to do, for increasingly little of the world bears such losses with dignity or perspective. But this nation, as with most phenomena of the last half-century, appears something of an epicenter, a ground zero from which the ripples of expectation and greed and self-delusion ripple out as we infect the rest of the world with our brand of capitalism and neo-neo-imperialism.

The question becomes why? Why is America this bastion of disappointment, of flight to distraction in the form of quick-hitting media or fast-acting painkillers? What makes us so different that we cannot handle the bends in the road?

I believe it’s because we don’t see them coming. We’re told they won’t come, because the passage of time is supposed to, somehow, inevitably, make things better. And worse than just making our reactions to our unhappiness more extreme, I think it’s actually the cause of most of that unhappiness.

Take a marriage, for example (shocking that I’d start here, I know). If one has the expectation of eternal growth and improvement, it becomes all too easy to become dissatisfied with the course of that marriage. There is not the mere push to smooth out problems and challenge one’s partner to betterment, there is the God-given mandated right to eternal improvement, because that’s the nature of time. Every year should not be a mere marker of stable positive time logged, it must demonstrate tangible growth over time. And subjecting any person, any situation, any element of existence, to that kind of expectation is going to take a toll. Any shortcoming can be compared against the ever-upward stock-market curve of fabled expectation, leading to foot-tapping impatience at how one could tolerate a year when things were the same, even if that sameness was still very good. It doesn’t take long before one imagines that everyone else is growing and one is somehow stuck in unnecessary stagnation, and it’s time to take drastic action to correct one’s disappointing circumstances.

Even more importantly, that same situation is taxed by a lack of appreciation for the present. The very nature of a constantly-improving future is to belittle or undermine whatever values are banked for the time being. The evidentiary documentation of advertising and corporations’ role in dissatisfying people with their present circumstances is too legion and vast to even reference – it is as trivial as observing that people need oxygen to breathe. And yet other, deeper elements of our societal structure serve the same function. Profits must not only exist, they must be ever increasing. Success must not merely be maintained, it must be heightened. This kind of pressure on ever better futures mean that whatever happens in the future doesn’t end up even mattering as much, because we never reach it. When the future is always better, the present it always worse, whether that future actually is better or not. And thus we do not appreciate whatever we have or have been given. Doubly so because everything we gain, if it actually is better than the past, was expected and promised from the get-go. The only surprises are bad ones, never good. And in that, we undermine any tokens of joy we could hope to get during life as we actually live it.

An alternative structure to both society and our lives might be better focused on the nature of life as cyclical, as changing but perhaps not improving. It is a fine line between this and hopelessness, a line that must be guarded carefully and walked closely. Saying that things will not necessarily improve, however, is not to say that they cannot. It is merely to observe the blindingly obvious reality that things do not always get better for all people at all times. Have you ever seen an old homeless person? Have you ever seen someone suffer a loss they could not endure? Have you ever seen someone undergo an injury or a disease and never fully recover? These are daily mundane proofs of the fact that one’s life is not destined to always spiral upward in some magic escalator of rapture. And yet most people persist in the constant belief that they are mandated to ride such an escalator, forever.

Adjusting to the reality, internalizing it, sharing it with others, teaching one’s children: all of this would seem to lead to a more harmonious understanding with our fellow people and the actual circumstances we seem to face on this planet. It would make losses easier to stomach, not adding the trauma of being wrenched from expectations to the already devastating loss endured. It would make happiness more pervasive, more appreciated, less belittled in the face of greater happiness to come. It would allow people to be satisfied with less while still striving to seek improvement and truly valuing whatever they were actually able to improve. It would reduce exploitation, of ourselves, each other, foreign nations, the environment.

It’s time to be anti-growth. It’s time to understand that life is not a linear straight-line pointed upwards, but another game we all played as children: Chutes and Ladders. But no one ever wins. And you know what? That’s okay. Life shouldn’t be about winning and losing. Life should be about being happy to be on square 55 because of whatever’s valuable about that square.

It’s probably too late for my generation in this country, though we can make strides to try to undo a century’s worth of work before us. But some of you have a role in raising the next generation and I urge you to take heed.

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What Do You Expect?

Categories: A Day in the Life, Let's Go M's, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Read it and Weep, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , , ,

Mariners’ record this year: 2-2
Mariners’ record this year with me watching: 0-2
Mariners’ record this year without me watching: 2-0

I might want to keep track of this over the course of a season, but it might be too depressing. There’s something very 2010-feeling about the above statistics, making the whole thing seem retrograde and unfortunate. I’m still getting mail from the Law Office of Trudi G. Manfredo, slowly training me to not let my heart leap when I see a large envelope or package waiting for me by the mailbox. No wonder so many adults used to hate getting mail. No wonder people have so robustly embraced e-mail and the postal service is having to run pyramid schemes to stay afloat.

Dissolution. There’s an apt word for you. The solution is getting dissed. Amen.

Got my copy of The Pale King today, the first new book I’ve let myself purchase since I started getting mail from Trudi. I am palpably excited about it, despite the fact that I know it won’t finish, perhaps especially because, since David Foster Wallace’s books never really finish and often almost die mid-sentence. They are about the journey and the exploration and in this case, about the descent into madness that accompanies a final chapter, a final submission, the narrative into suicide. Which is not to say, of course, that this book killed him, but it probably didn’t help. Electro-convulsive therapy is what killed him, of course, which I’ve discussed before. I’m now faced with a dilemma about abandoning or suspending my progress through Underworld to pick up the new tome, which feels somewhat compelling because my interest in DeLillo only came from running out of Wallace to read. However, there’s something to be said for savoring and delaying things, especially when they are the last of things. Once I get through The Pale King, there will be no more Wallace fiction in this lifetime.

What of apprehension, then, of surprise, of anticipation, of expectation? I have been on a new mantra lately, a big kick, something that stems from my interactions with Trudi and friends, yes, but also a longer scope of life writ large. It’s that what we can see coming is never that scary. Dental visits, deadlines, interviews, departures. We build them up in our minds to be cataclysmic moments of potential doom, but rarely does the actual moment even push the meter of our stress levels. They may not always be pleasant, may not always turn out, but not a one of them ranks as the top fifty worst days of any of our lives. It’s the surprises that count against us, the things we don’t see coming, the car accidents and sudden deaths and blindsidings and phone calls in the dead of night. There’s some relaxation and sobriety to be gained from all this, and I’m not even certain the sum of the information is reassuring. On the one hand, we’d be well served by just calming down about everything we dread. On the other, we must constantly look skyward in a more overarching dread for the calamities which may fall therefrom.

Of course the nature of surprise is that it can’t be anticipated, so the idea of this creating an overall aura of creeping dread seems silly in some ways. One could ruin every day one has remaining caught up in negative anticipation of death and I know many who do it (or would, or start whenever they come close). Some people even mistake my own hyper-awareness of mortality for this, though it’s actually the opposite – it’s a comfort with the concept designed to fuel energy into the living days, not a draining dread instead. (Incidentally, I know I keep overusing the word “dread” instead of synonyms, but it’s to hammer it home… and isn’t there an onomatopoetic beauty to the word? Does anything sound like “dread” so much as that solemn dead syllable itself?) No wonder we love surprise parties and surprise gifts and surprise whirlwind trips to the Bahamas. It corrects our vision of where the badness comes from, reminds us that positives can come from traditionally negative sources. That the clear blue sky is not just waiting to kill us, but perhaps also to elate us, that the random cacophony of wills involved in shaping our world can be on our side as well. No wonder I chose to delay telling the Rutgers team some particularly excellent news I have for them tonight so they could savor the nature of positive anticipation as well, so they could suspend their lack of faith in the notion of surprise.

Of course this last is a dual-sided sword, for in having time to anticipate so-called surprises, there is the inevitable churn of disappointment that correlates quite cleanly to the relief of surviving dreaded events. How many Christmases, birthdays, long-planned dates lived up to the expectation, the savory sweetness of mental pre-hyperbole? If someone tells you to go into a room and imagine the best thing you can, what are the odds of that getting exceeded? We are an imaginative species and capitalism trains us to be disappointed with whatever we actually have available to us in the face of what we could have. This is why we are so unhappy as a society. This is why we have drug and alcohol problems. This is why, yes, marriages so often dissolve into mailed paperwork as a replacement for one-time dreams. Reality is almost always short of our expectations, our best hopes. And it is all too easy to trade in reality for a lottery ticket, literal or figurative, suspending the idea that one’s chronic disappointment is a product of the very nature of expectation itself rather than merely unlucky circumstances that could hypothetically be changed. All too often, the unhappiest people learn far too late that it is their mindset, not their means, that have led them to disappointment.

My creative pursuits have found massive suspension against the backdrop of unexpected employment and intensified responsibility. The May 15th deadline for the fourth novel is entirely laughable at this juncture, long ago mentally erased if not literally so on my year-long plastic wall calendar. The summer arises as a possible boon to the creative and imaginative pursuits, a resurrection of quizzes and novels and the things I spend my life promising myself to do while usually getting caught up in more directly personable and interactive pursuits. Is it against my nature to sequester and write, to scribble and shun in order to communicate in a wider, broader, more explicable way? Should I be more comfortable with the 1-on-1, the 1-on-10, the small-scale but somehow attainable pursuits of change? Is this my true calling, in spite of what my ten-year-old self concluded? My ten-year-old self was sick of people, felt rejected and isolated. Every year since, with only romantic exceptions, I’ve felt more welcomed and included and inspired by the people in my life. Perhaps it is there, in iteration and not stagnant text, that I have the most to offer. Or perhaps it is a balance, as feedback rolls in from the prior two tomes of my own, perhaps there is something quality in scaling these pursuits against each other, in alternation, in the much vaunted middle ground.

I can’t even update Duck and Cover on a regular basis these days, it seems… today all but destined to be another gap in the already reduced weekday schedule. Part of this is a logistical paper problem – I’ve worn out the month of Oscar themes, but need some supplies to rejoin the regular tread of the other eleven months. Of course I feel an additional disconnect when facing the political world, however, namely an inability to relate to the events of the world around me. The US has become a hyper-militaristic state, never flinching from a conflict where anonymous bombing can destroy buildings, lives, and morality. And all the people I warned about Obama starting a war, I wrangled with about his Afghanistan comments and said he would find countries to invade in his tenure, that it’s become almost required action from each Presidential term, they can’t wait to sign up as being “in” on the Obama campaign on Facebook, can’t wait to commit to four more years of death by sky. There are no Democratic or Republican ideals, there is only a commitment to big business, big war, big money, big death. This is America’s role and influence on the world and the only hope is that someone eventually gets sick of it. But it won’t come from within, that’s increasingly clear. The next generation has been co-opted, far too susceptible to the idea that whoever America replaces bad leaders with will be better even in the face of plethoric counter-evidence everywhere in the world. The simple notion that killing can lead to progress has done more harm than any other single concept, and yet it remains close to its most pervasive at this very moment in history. Six-thousand years, no real progress. Just flashy machines and technological advancements to bring us our books from far away, our mail from law offices, our bodies to one continent or another, while our minds and emotions fail to keep up.

It’s no coincidence that the most satisfying aspects of our lives are the most ancient. Yoga, oral discussion, the warm feeling of connection to another human soul. It is at our most rooted that we are the most secure, happy, able to trust and hope. Put away the phone, unless it is really helping you communicate directly and robustly. Put away the screens, the bells, the whistles. Sit. Think. Read, maybe, or maybe just talk, even to yourself. The core of our experiences are no different than they were 6,000 years ago, or maybe longer. The best hope for progress may, in fact, be regress.

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An Opportunity to Learn

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

Part of the problem with a worldview devoted to science and the belief that everything is completely random and coincidental is that it can blind us to the pattern-seeking wisdom innate to our species. Thus people can see events transpire that, in combination, send a clear message and patently refuse to acknowledge the message under the guise of their faith in a random universe. Setting aside the inconsistency of a “random universe” having ordered and explicable laws which these people seek to define, refine, and demonstrate the consistency of, it’s just not a good use of the human brain to assume there’s nothing to be gleaned from stringing patterns together and trying to discern a communication. We are pattern-seekers for a reason and that reason is probably not to help keep us from surviving.

The pattern clearly being expressed of late is that lousy methods of power-generation are going to kill us. No, really, they are. And probably a good bit faster than the relatively glacial pace of the alleged global warming/climate change/neo ice-age/buy fluorescent bulbs movement. I’ve long considered the above to be sort of a noble lie, a bit of a fudging of things in order to get us to move away from patterns of global organization and behavior that are clearly problematic for other reasons. Basically, if Al Gore’s theology is the only reason you’re going to cut down on your waste and lobby for better energy sources, it’s better than not taking those steps at all. Except, you know, when you believe that individuals instead of corporations move the bar on these things, or when you believe that buying new things to replace old functional things is somehow the solution. But hey.

Getting back to the point. Oil will kill us. Nuclear power will kill us. Coal will kill us. Not slowly, not over time, but quickly and fiercely and with the power of a dark, choking asphyxiation. And you can sit there and say “Gee, isn’t it funny that we went through a massive phase where coal-mining cave-ins were the biggest news story on the planet, and that was almost immediately followed by a massive phase where the biggest, most devastating oil spill was the biggest news story on the planet, and that was almost immediately followed by the emerging reality of sequential nuclear meltdowns triggered by a highly predictable and common event being the biggest news story on the planet – wow that must be random.” You can say that to yourself if you want to. But if you do, with that conclusion, then, respectfully, you are an idiot. And you should think about what is making you an idiot and how you can fix that.

I’ve posted a bit (mostly on Facebook, which is starting, even for me, to steal time away from this page) about Zeitgeist lately and the accompanying movement and the three movies and all that. And while I find their dismissiveness about deeper meaning and accompanying faith in science to be in line with what I criticize above, I do at least value the movement’s general sense of urgency about the problems facing our planet and the obvious unacceptability of what so many people unthinkingly put up with on a daily basis. One of the most frustrating things about being alive on Earth at this stage of history is having to feel crazy all the time for finding the problems apparent in almost every aspect of human structures to be so obvious while everyone else thinks they’re more or less fine (or at least intractable). I’m not saying it would be easy to create Utopia tomorrow, but it does seem clear that major steps we could take in that direction are relatively simple and apparent. And they all just require that internal recognition of what’s distracting us and how to get away from it.

Of course, I can also see the extreme effectiveness of capitalism as a general system in distracting us from what’s important. Surely capitalism isn’t the only structure in place keeping us from realizing the potential we really have to improve our lot and our planet’s lot, but it’s by far the biggest and most effective at present. Discussion of creating actually sustainable forms of power that lack the ability to go awry and destroy ecosystems or small swaths of civilization (or perhaps the entire planet’s ecosystem and civilization) is waved down by the shrugging declaration that the market will somehow solve for calamity, that the invisible hand is smart enough to anticipate short- and long-term consequences that don’t involve money. It’s relatively obvious to the thoughtful that corporations will not start investing with any seriousness in sustainable forms of energy until unsustainable ones have become unprofitable. And it should be relatively obvious now that the risks associated with those more traditional forms of energy are overriding any profit gained from their use. Unfortunately, the profit motive has no slot for accounting for human welfare.

When a government is found to be oppressive, people are lauded and cheered for rebelling against that system. Why not with an economic mode of oppression as well? Here is a clear and stark demonstration of the fact that corporations, capitalism, and the system that keeps them in place as the dominant ways of conducting human affairs are going to kill us. Quickly and painfully. They will kill our animals, they will kill our people, they will kill our way of life. You know, all those things terrorists are allegedly about to do because they “hate” us. Except that capitalists are indifferent to such things, something that can prove far more devastating than hate. Hate at least acknowledges the need for value structures, emotions, prioritization of values. Indifference is lethal, is swift in its disregard. Yeah, that’s right. I said it. I fear capitalists far more than terrorists. The capitalists are actually killing us in high volume numbers, and with far less self-awareness.

So what’s the prescription? What’s the answer to watching every form of popular energy generation go haywire and cause increasing levels of disaster? What’s the answer to watching economic riots generate massive instability and upheaval that also offers the opportunity for change? It’s to embrace the change, to push it further, to take advantage of the power of examination that comes from things being difficult, to start advocating stringently and ardently for an end to the status quo. For something, anything, to replace the currently accepted standards of resource distribution and the currently accepted resources themselves. For the process by which we change these things and which we ultimately decide on to account for things like human meaning and the importance of human values and lives, not merely faith in that system itself. Devoted faith in any system, be it the scientific method, the invisible hand, the concept of randomness, or even the concept of democracy, can blind us to the flaws and failings of such systems. And as we are seeing all over the world, this yields disastrous consequences.

I pray for the people of Japan, just as I did for those on the Gulf Coast and those trapped in mines and will continue to for all the victims of our idiocy. It is not kind that this world requires death as the only antidote to stupidity, that until people start keeling over in large numbers, no one pays attention. It is perhaps the natural consequence of an overpopulated planet in a rudimentary stage of development. It will not always need to be so. But I do hope that these people and those like them can be spared to the greatest extent possible, while we still manage to learn from their suffering.

Which reminds me, before I close, about one of the last major earthquakes in Japan and what hypocrisy and myopia that one reminded me of. Since nothing really became of this poem I wrote in 1995, I might as well attach it here as another addendum about the nature of humanity and how the answers should be clear, or at least clearer. This was written on January 21, 1995, four days after the major Kobe earthquake of that year, amidst Japan initially refusing aid from the West and getting massive criticism for this decision.

SHAKEN EARTH
by Storey Clayton

The earth shakes and the World moves.

We look to Kobe
A city in Japan
We look from the western world
The world of united states and european communities
The world that is so vastly far and different
From Japan
And Kobe

We look and see a town
No a city
No a metropolis
No the seventh-largest group of humanity on our Planet
It is torn apart
By its own Earth
Ripped from its foundations
By the very Home it sits upon

Thousands die
Hundreds of thousands lose their homes
Millions feel frightened

‘Tis a frightening thing indeed
When the mere trembling of our Planet
Tears millions of children
And women
And also men
From deep within Kyoto
And Osaka
And also Kobe

We look and see humans
Different and similar
As are all humans
Different and similar
The west stares urgently upon the East
And says to its fellow Humans
“We shall help, Brothers and Sisters”

And
With vague politeness
But
Solid rejection
the Answer
is No

No Help
No help for the people of Kyoto
No help for the people of Osaka
No help for the people of Kobe
Who sit in the cold and
very Carefully
Warm their hands
to the Fire
That burns the city
through the Aftershocks
But warms their hands

that hold no food and little water

The west criticizes it’s afflicted Brothers and Sisters
And these Siblings’ government

But these people of united states and european communities
No longer say
That the people
Are equal
To their government

Perhaps they realized
That Bill Clinton
And John Major
And Helmut Kohl
Are not the perfect embodiment
Of every western human

Perhaps

Perhaps in the East
Where thousands freeze
And starve
And dehydrate

Perhaps then they thought about
The Last Time the Earth Shook

The Last Great Earthquake of this
Great Land

That one too took an unbelievable Toll
And on children and women as well as men

Perhaps the two momentous earthquakes
Of 1945
Made Japan’s leaders
Think Twice
And Twice Again
About accepting their western “siblings”

Was anyone in Kobe
in mid-January of 1995
Who had also been in
Hiroshima
or Nagasaki
50 years before?

Had they survived through
the Bombing
the Radiation
the Fallout
the Cancer
the Memories

To come to a new life
In a new city
A fresh city
Named Kobe

Had that person awoken
Five decades later
To the same morning
That had haunted the person
For their entire life?

Perhaps the person felt the Earth
that person’s own Earth
Shake
as they then felt their
Mind
Shake
Endlessly

Fifty years chased by ghosts
Phantoms of the past
Shadows in one’s eyes
Shadows blocking one’s mind
Shadows enveloping one’s body
Shadows knocking on one’s soul

And then the sixty seconds
That erase half a century of
Recovery

Perhaps

Perhaps the nation of Japan
On its several West-Pacific islands
Was not so quick to forget
The last time Japanese soil
Shook and
Crumbled and
Burned

And yet we
in our united states and european communities
Do We Understand?

Maybe

Maybe if the United States had forgotten
The thousands of
Volunteering
Trained
Military
Fighting
Men
who died instantly in the waters of Hawaii
in December of 1941

Then

Maybe

Japan could forget
The Thousands of
Unprepared
Civilian
Peaceful
Men, Women, and Children
who died both instantly
and over time
in Hiroshima and Nagasaki
from 1945-1995

But who would know?

They were “our enemies” last time
So we had a right to do what we did!??????!

Didn’t we?

Of course these United States
Have the right to
Play Creator
By making the Earth shake
With the impact of colliding plates
And a fear inspired that is
A Million Fold
Greater

Of Course

a tremor from within is the Will
or Whim
of the Planet we all must inhabit
as Humans
we have no control
none have control
we all have hope

a tremor from outside is the Will
or Whim
of another Human that few of us
really Know
let alone
Trod Upon
Daily
we have no control
some have control
we have less hope

If one has the power
To vanquish “enemies”
With the strength of
Ten-thousand
Kobe earthquakes
Why should one stop
Before that point?

After all,
it is Human Nature
to “KNOW”
that one’s enemies
are the bad ones
and the beholding Human
is good and right

So

Is Japan Justified
in not trusting a people
who fifty years ago
confused the grand people of a lost nation
with the lost emperor of a grand nation
at a cost
unspeakable and
unexperienced in
our western lands

Are they justified to let their people starve
After those United States made their people die?

A question

One for philosophers to ponder

On a well-fed night

That is chilly outside yet warm within

A question to ponder

Some night when

There is no “enemy”

There is no 1941 or 1945 in the Human records

And there is no possibility for an earthquake

From the ground or

From the air

on our Planet

the one which we all must inhabit

as Humans

Different and Similar

Tied to different parts of the World

but all Tied to the World.

by

Reset

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Pre-Trip Posts, Quick Updates, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , , , ,

I don’t know whether I find it more remarkable that I haven’t been to the Brandeis campus in nearly four years already or that I haven’t posted here in over a week. Both of them strike in the way of sudden jolts punctuated by the morbid dread of rising tides. The nature of time and its passing being capable of swallowing whole swaths of time whole and rendering an empty landscape in its wake. The cold sinking fear that one could awaken at a certain molded age unaware of how the last few epochs even transpired.

It is a good problem to have, frankly, that I have been busy enough in the last few days to not notice minutes in their flight. Compared to the endless drone of ticking seconds in agonizingly steady progression of the prior few months, a session of too-full overwhelm is precisely what everyone was prescribing. And yet filling that prescription and cashing that check has prompted quick unanticipated concerns about how much time was endured in limbo and whether sufficient long-term decisions were made there. Uncertainty is not the favored state of most beings, but I am not most beings, by definition, nor do I share much with them. In the freedom/security balance, I have always been for not only closing Gitmo, but also opening all borders. I mean this in equal measures to be about my own life and everyone else’s.

It has been a good month, the first of a new age, and I mean that in a relatively unqualified stance. It has been a great month, considering, but even a good month on its own standalone merits. Any of the recently coined measures of quality of life, the leading emotional indicators of the current existence and stance thereon, are setting record highs and aiming for new barriers ahead of any prior sketched schedule. Time is not to be thanked for any of this, of course, but circumstances, though a skeptic could surely argue that one creates the other. Time in a vaccuum, though, I will always argue, does nothing without concrete tangible changes therein. And a vaccuum is where time seems to have been going, both micro and macro.

So I relish the return to alma mater, to a drive even that I perfected with love and deftness over the course of consecutive weekends. To replace the hat I gained in 2007 on last visit and lost somewhere along the way, along the journey from a literal picture of distilled happiness to a newly wandered path with destinations unknown and even less predictable. To sit in an unpredictable living room among old cohorts of this very campus and shake one’s head in wonder at the luge-like course of echoing time, of the dictates and mandates of sequential decisions that in narrow order make sense but sum to unheralded madness. How condemnatory I am of others in such downhill flight, yet how I must shrug and smile and stick my tongue out at its reflection in my own uncontrolled trajectory. How I know the difference to be a certain moral check (perhaps this is my sled, or my sled’s possession of a rudder), but this is more to mitigate the slopes and angles and not erase them entirely. Is it sufficient to enjoy the ride and the howl of the wind of relativity in one’s hurtling escape from the mountaintop? Or should the aim be to find time to reflect and direct while amidst a breakneck decline?

I am peeking through the helmet now, just briefly, before tucking and driving into the next hairpin turn. The exhilaration of having never seen this course, never practiced this run, is both what makes the effort irreplaceable and terrifying. There are no previews, no redos, no maps or graphs. There is something to be said for milisecond decisions replacing measured observation of the same blind corner, though. Ice is ice and tunnels are tunnels and there are only so many ways a course can turn or bend or tilt. In the end, the most we can do is steer our damndest and pray that the earth will stay flat, the supports stable, and that the bottom of the course is still above water.

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Hearts and Minds

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

There is something afoot in America right now. It’s hard for me to focus on it right now, because much is going on in my life, but I can’t just overlook what’s going on out there altogether. It’s important. It’s something that all conscious Americans, no matter how besieged by personal challenges and busy schedules and the idea of holidays incoming, ought be paying at least some attention to.

Obviously, part of it relates to WikiLeaks. And part of it relates to the recent Bernie Sanders filibuster, a heroically triumphant 8-hour monologue on the state of the nation. It relates to the Obama administration uniting with the Clinton family and Republicans to decry both of these influences, to convince the American people with rhetoric centered around fear, national security, and the lowest common denominator, that Julian Assange, Bernie Sanders, and those who believe in them are out to destroy the country.

It’s easy to get excitable in a time like this. It’s easy to look at this and say that in the next few weeks and months, the way America chooses to react to these phenomena will determine the entire fate of the country and its place in history. It’s easy to say that this will make the difference between the US being a force for good, a modicum of the potential and promise it used to represent to the world and the US floundering in corporate-controlled fearmongering, drowning in a stench of its own bated breath and the terror of its own shadow.

These are exaggerations. The reality is most likely somewhere in the middle. That no matter whether we embrace Assange, Sanders, and friends, or reject them, the country will likely persist in some compromise between its better and worst aspects for some time to come. Indeed, the language of consequences and sweeping change is unlikely to ever manifest in the way that most of its advocates would represent. Nevertheless, very important things are implied by these decisions and reactions that we have to these influences, regardless of whether there are sweeping or even visible consequences or not. If nothing else, it matters for our own sake. The way we can sleep at night. The way our hearts and minds align with their better judgment, their hopes and dreams or, more often, their dreads and fears.

What Assange and Sanders and those supporting them are trying to do is to illustrate how far from reality America’s self-perception has fallen. Many would call them anti-American, and in a way they are. Because being “American” has come to imply a self-denial and a self-delusion that would make most historic figures of ego and bluster blush. Being American has transcended a belief in the spirit of working hard and espousing freedom to go all the way to believing in a divinely inspired righteousness that wipes away the logic of any potential counter-argument that dares to challenge American supremacy and impunity. Reactions to critiques on America are all too often rabid, fueled by gibberish about terrorism and people who hate us for the sake of hating us. There is no evidence that these horrific vices and threats exist, nor that they are gaining strength, nor especially that they have anything to do with the sweeping but sober critiques offered us by WikiLeaks and America’s only Socialist lawmaker. They are paper tigers, made of the same stern substance as the Communists who were about to bring down the country during McCarthyism. They are the eternal enemy that America’s corporations and conservatives use to foment jingoistic rage and anger akin to the Two-Minutes Hate.

But Assange and Sanders are not anti-American, not truly. They do not want to bring down the country, only its traditional conduct of business. Both of these people and those who espouse their values are embracing truth and rationality to try to get America’s people to reclaim the mandate long offered them, to take responsibility for their own governance and the role of their country in the rest of the world. They want Americans to stop, to read, to listen, to lengthen their attention-spans and go beyond blind acceptance of the currently popular American “values” of secrecy, wealth disparity, theft, greed, and fear. And it is important to recognize who is complicit with these values.

I’ve long debated with friends of all sorts about the role of Obama in the struggle of hearts and minds that Americans now face. I’ve talked to them about health-care and Obama’s almost immediate abandonment of the public option. I’ve talked to them about Gitmo, about the wars, about treatment of detainees and the use of robot-assassin planes. But whatever you think of all these things, Obama has made his stance clear and transparent in light of both WikiLeaks and tax breaks for the insanely rich. Obama has condemned a call to transparency in the conduct of American foreign policy. Obama has levied the most fearful of fearmongering against his own party’s members who dare to question the latest round of tax breaks for the insanely rich. He has threatened that an America under the influence of Assange and Sanders will be unable to protect itself from terrorism or the horrors of a double-dip recession. The man who stood before us two years ago and said “We are the people we have been waiting for” now seems to have no other rhetoric than “We are afraid of our own shadow and ought be lest we give in to the rhetoric and perspective of fear”.

Being this fearful and terrified about everything in America and its political spectrum carries the same problems that it does for any given individual in their own lives. Whatever values or hopes or possibilities one is hoping to protect oneself for are already lost and compromised in the process of living in this kind of terror. The goal of terrorism is not to kill people. It’s not called slaughterism or deathism. It’s to promote fear. It’s to promote such a grip of fear that people dare not do anything but blindly trust their hypocritical government to hide all possible information about its conduct from them. The terrorists, if they exist, need not initiate a single additional event for a very long time. The goal is complete and fulfilled already at the point at which we all walk around in such pervasive fear and make such extensive commitments to others in order to prolong fear.

Similarly, the perspective of fear that weighs down our economy has led people to trust the financial experts who created the disaster in the first place with every possible decision subsequent. Not only does this equate to fearing for the fate of the hens to the point where the foxes are left in charge of all caretaking of said hens, but it entitles the foxes to concoct elaborate new schemes of de-henning the surrounding counties and states. Since the initial decline of the recession, the wealthiest sector of America has made a fortune while most of the country has languished in unemployment and increasing poverty. Those who hold on to their jobs do so in the fear of losing hours, wages, or competitive advantage if they fail to work harder and longer for the same or less money. And the allegedly progressive President wants these same corporate barons who are fleecing the country and profiting to continue to avoid paying additional taxes while all Federal employees lack raises to even compete with inflation?

While I’d best not fall into the trap of exaggerating these few weeks and their role as a potential turning point, it is nonetheless an interesting test the hearts and minds of Americans are facing down. How many mirrors will meet with studied examination and sober reflection? How many will merely fall victim to a hurtling of rocks from those too angry at how they actually look to do anything other than shatter the messenger? That choice, like all choices, is up to you.

We can fear the glass like we fear our shadows and the visage of any stranger, friend or foe. We can run screaming from reality and put trust in authority figures, no matter how similar their tone becomes, because we like their particular alleged affiliation or the sound of their voice or the nationalistic rhetoric they employ. Or we can take our time, catch our breath, and ask ourselves some serious questions as prompted by those behind the glass. What exactly are we trying to get out of this life? Who precisely are we serving, and why? Is life truly intended to be a non-stop compromise of everything we claim to espouse? And if so, why do we claim to espouse those things in the first place? What role do sincerity, honesty, and being an example play, if any?

If we ignore too many would-be heroes, too many beacons against the trends of fear, we may not have forever to ask ourselves these vital questions.

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Jersey, But Briefly

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

It’s hard to believe that I’m already in the process of counting down to my longest trip to New Mexico in nearly a decade. In just a shade over a week, I’ll be winging my way westward to spend almost a month in Albuquerque and the surrounding environs, making undoubtedly endless appearances at the Frontier and Waffle House as I try to more thoroughly get my bearings on what my future looks like. Certainly I’ll be looking at Albuquerque with the new eyes of one searching for a new destination within the year to come. No doubt the place I loosely call my hometown will be on the shortlist for the future, alongside Seattle, Flagstaff, Denver, and probably a couple other cities.

Been working on a project that’s almost certainly going to come out shortly, maybe even in the next 24 hours. It’s another quiz that isn’t the Song Quiz, as I believe I alluded to a few days back. If optimally timed, the quiz would have been released in the early morning hours today, sandwiched neatly between the advent of the WikiLeaks story and what people colloquially call CyberMonday. Most of this year’s CyberMonday articles seem to be decrying the phenomenon as hype, something that never seems to be written about terrorism or national security threats. I don’t know if there’s a lot more Internet traffic today, but I do know that Romania seems to be really into the BP in the last few days. Hi, Romanians! Hope you keep enjoying the Book Quiz.

I’ve also enjoyed a lingering Facebook debate about the WikiLeaks article I wrote and about the phenomenon in general. I was sensing a sea-change in perception when I wrote the piece, but it seems I underestimated the emotional attachment of so many Americans to the sanctity of their government, no matter how far said government strays from its ideals or stated purpose. I think the debate has been robust and fair, but I am still a bit personally dismayed by the idea that almost anything pernicious could be revealed about this country and a large swath of its people would condemn the revelation rather than the initial act itself. All I can try to point people back to is that the principle behind democracy conceptually requires the informed consent of the governed. If the only way our government functions is by concealing reality, we no longer have informed consent, and thus we aren’t a democracy. It’s hard to be a beacon of democracy when one isn’t one.

Maybe I should just skip the west altogether and strike out for Ireland or the UK or something. Not that I’d ultimately wind up vastly more satisfied with those governments, but there’s at least some humility and sobriety to the general conduct of those countries. It’s probably hard to exist in modern Europe without a little more awareness of the balance of things as they really are. Then again, the last thing I need right now is further isolation. Would a small town in Ireland accept me as a novelty, a distant great-grandson come home to write and work? Probably not work – and here’s the real rub: an inability to economically sustain oneself in a place even more economically troubled than the good old USA. Probably better off building up a cache of cash first in the west.

If you like the Facebook debates, it’s a good week for debating. Monday and Wednesday feature two of our three public campus debates this semester, on green energy and vegetarianism, respectively. Basically none of you are in New Brunswick and most of you are horrendously busy, but it’s worth offering the invitation anyway. Debate tournaments aren’t especially well designed for outside observation, but both of these events will be, and there’s even cash on the line in the former one! The latter is for the hearts and minds of college students and my team is thus arguing against one of the fundamental principles of my own life. Of course, debate itself and its ability to endorse the core ideals of the enemy in a convincing way is, itself, a core value. So it’s all worth it.

Would that said core value were more broadly accepted by the American public, no? If the idea of making the case unthinkable for the sake of argument were standard practice rather than unpatriotic treason? It would be a lot harder to dismiss other rational agents as crazy, a lot harder to accept ourselves as infallible.

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