Monday, April 25, 2011

We Need More Foxes!

Once upon a time, in a tale attributed to Aesop, a monkey walked beside a clever fox. As the pair passed a cemetery, the monkey boasted that the finest tombstones, monuments, and mausoleums had been built to honor his ancestors who were, when alive, free citizens of some renown. In reply, the fox observed that the monkey had chosen wisely when staking his claim because none of the ancestors could object or set the record straight.

Oh, if only there were more foxes among us. Instead we are beset with elephants, buffoons, and asses, all behaving as monkeys, full of bombast and bluster:

• We must do something today to bring down the national debt, to reign in government spending.
• No, we should not raise the debt ceiling even if this causes Wall Street to quake and brings lenders to our shores.
• If these budget constraints cause people to lose their jobs, so be it.
• We can no longer afford to keep our promises to those who have paid into State pension funds, teacher retirement accounts, Social Security, and Medicare.
• We cannot heal the sick, clothe the needy, or feed the hungry.
• We cannot afford to fix our roads--not at this time, during this crisis.
• We cannot afford to catch up with Europe by investing in high-speed rail and wind power in order to free ourselves from our dependency upon oil--not at this time, during this crisis.
• How dare you, sir, suggest that my taxes should pay for someone else’s health care!
• No, nada, nyet. Can’t be done!
• And, oh, by the way, the other guy is to blame.

Where were those nay-sayers and doomsday prophets when the debt began to climb long before 2008 when bundled home loans and usurious interest rates threatened to sink us all, when our debt was 64% of our GDP--before bailouts and stimuli.

Even early in our nation’s history, the United States was deeply, dangerously in debt. The first incident was after the Revolutionary War. The federal government acted quickly to pay off this debt, and as the nation grew, its economy was sound--until the Civil War. Again, at the end of five long, bloody years, the federal government acted to bring down the nation’s indebtedness.

Are you sensing a theme here? Can we afford to make war? The simple and only answer is no. The cost in lives lost and dollars spent to provide every necessary resource to win the war is enormous, unaffordable, a luxury we cannot charge on the credit card. No wonder the Iraq war was “off the books,” not tallied into the budget, until 2010.

During WWII, the debt climbed to 122% of GDP, but celebrities and ordinary citizens bought war bonds to help the nation recover. In other words, we all pulled together--big earners and the little guy--to stabilize this nation, and in 1980, our national debt was 33% of GDP.

The year of 1980 also brought us Reagan, Trickle-down Economics, and the Laffer Curve or as candidate George H. W. Bush called it, Voodoo Economics. Yet, the future 41st President of the United States failed to achieve the nomination, becoming Reagan’s vice-presidential candidate instead and thus, a defender of what he had once called voodoo. As Reagan took office and the Laffer Curve became the model for economic policy, the debt began to rise higher, above 33% to 64% at the end of the 1980s, a decade in which the U. S. did not wage war. This time, this decade, the debt rose because of a shift in thinking: from taxation or bonds to retire our debt by providing revenue to decreased taxation to provide jobs.

The Clinton decade, the 1990s, brought another shift away from tax cuts to a renewed emphasis upon balancing the budget, even at the cost of shutting down government in order to bring about a compromise. The debt percentage of GDP fell 7%, but by 2008, in spite of five years of budget surpluses, we took in .4 trillion dollars less than we spent. We borrowed the rest from other countries or as we have for 30 years, from Social Security funds which have had surpluses all that time.

Let me repeat that fact for you: the federal government used employee and employer Social Security funds for other stuff. They did not save or invest that money for the rainy day when Baby Boomers arrived at retirement’s door. They spent, spent, spent. Now the monkeys cry “Wolf, wolf at the door! Run.” Now the monkeys want you to believe that Social Security is bankrupting this nation, and sadly, there are no foxes with a bark loud enough, a mind critical enough, or a will strong enough to call the monkeys out.

According to I.O.U.S.A, a documentary (for a Byte-Size 30-minute version, see and a resource for the data used in this post, by 2017, Social Security will not be able to pay according to promises made years and payroll deductions long past. Others project that Social Security will remain sound until 2026, nine years further down the road. But let us not panic like little piggies on the other side of a flimsy door standing between us and the wolf. Let us remember that citizens paid in to the system as was their duty. Government failed to keep its hands out of the cookie jar. We must work together to make this right, to honor our promises both foreign and domestic. The wage-earner should not suffer alone as a result.

Yet we cut revenue again in December 2010. Everyone celebrated this compromise as a victory, but what did we actually gain? We gained a peace on earth for all men while Congress is not in session. The elephants stopped jeering at the asses, and the buffoons stopped condemning the elephants and the asses.

Did we gain jobs? No. Did we find our way to bear the cost of promises made? No. Did we make the rich richer and the poor poorer? Yes.

Should we continue to cut revenue and hope that the economy improves? No. Consider the changes in jobs and the economy since trickle-down economics began. Corporate profits have risen and jobs have been created, but most of them are overseas because of the tax advantages and cheaper labor forces outside the United States. The American worker has not seen an improved quality of life. Since 1980, tax cut after tax cut has simply proved that the rich become richer and the poor become poorer.

Some people think that’s grand. Some people believe that capitalism--the rule of the marketplace--the Ayn Randian philosophy--is a god to which we must all bow down. These people wish you well in your endeavors to become wealthy. They celebrate the entrepreneurial spirit, but they usually do not share. They simply look upon the poor, needy and sick beatifically, hoping that the meek will get some spine and work their way out of poverty, need and disease.

I prefer those who have the courage to understand that I and they are but one terminal diagnosis, one colossal Katrina failure in will and insurance, one tsunami, or one misjudgment by the Army Corps of Engineers or GE’s nuclear plant design from poverty, need, and disease. There but for the Grace of a divine and geography go I. There but for the Grace of a divine and geography go they.

All that I possess is a fox-like capacity for critical thinking. All that I gain from critical thinking is empathy, and that, I believe, is worth more than wealth. I also gain a willingness to work with rich and poor in order to solve the debt crisis. Won’t you join me? Perhaps we should all buy bonds again. Are there any celebrities who will lead the way? George Clooney, where do you stand? I think you’re with us. Can you gather your resources, make those phone calls, and lead us? Our elected officials are surely not.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Lessons from April 19

Tomorrow, April 19, we remember the sorrowful day in 1995 when domestic terrorism struck upon U. S. soil, killing 168 men, women, and children. Tim McVeigh, aided by Terry Nichols and at least three others, constructed a mighty bomb to strike a blow at innocent people who just happened to be in an Oklahoma City federal building. Misinformation, paranoia, suspicion, and some twisted sense of rebellion fueled McVeigh’s scheme to kill people who had no blood on their hands. They were not perpetrators of injustice except in the minds of their slayers, and in taking their lives, McVeigh made a mockery of Patriot’s Day, April 19, commemorating the first battles of the American Revolutionary war.

From 1882 through 1968, a different form of domestic terrorism known as Jim Crow racism slaughtered 4,000 citizens of this nation, most lynched at the hands of other U. S. citizens. Osama bin Laden’s blow against the World Trade Towers felled 2,977, some 1,023 precious lives fewer than were lynched. As I have said before in this blog, domestic terrorism—that is, terrorism designed and carried out by U. S. citizens against other citizens—has claimed more lives than a foreign invader.

Indeed, twelve years ago, on April 20, 1999, two sullen, angry teens shot to death 13 at Columbine High School in Colorado. Another disturbed young man, acting alone on January 8, 2011 in Phoenix, AZ, took a high-powered weapon to a public forum where people could exercise their First Amendment rights and gain access to their Congresswoman in the House of Representatives. That young man killed seven; his victims spanned the ages from a small girl just beginning to realize she had a voice in this nation to senior citizens and public servants with decades of experience voicing their opinions.

The past 50 years have been stained and spattered with single disturbed assassins harboring grudges and madness. They were also armed with high-powered rifles or hand guns to strike down powerful voices, including those of President John F. Kennedy and Medgar Evers in 1963, Malcolm X in 1965, and in 1968, presidential candidate Robert Kennedy and Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Several of these victims had security to protect them, but even the highly trained Secret Service is no match for the lone gunman, anonymous in the crowd. Presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford were within inches of the same fate as both Kennedys.

According to statistics from 2009, 9,136 citizens died as a result of gun homicide in this nation. These 9,136 represent 67% of the total number of homicides: 13,636 homicides from all causes; in other words, most homicides in this nation are committed with a firearm.

The Second Amendment, according to the latest Supreme Court ruling, gives individual citizens the right to own and carry weapons. But it appears that we are unworthy of this right. In fact, 41% of those firearm homicides were committed during the height of passion; in other words, at moments when men and women were terribly jealous, enraged, or desperate. In these moments of heightened emotion, the perpetrators reached for a gun and used it against an opponent. Most often the opponent is a family member, friend or close acquaintance. In fact, 54% of homicides by gun death is committed by someone whom the victim knows and perhaps loves. That is the sort of person who will aim and fire the fatal bullet.

In 2009 alone, 13,636 murders occurred, and most of those were committed by people known to the victim. From 1882 through 1968, 4,000 African-American citizens were murdered by rope; more often than note, the perpetrators were the victims’ neighbors. Bin Laden’s death toll of 2,977 is such a small number when stacked up against these other figures.

All life is precious. No life is more or less significant than another. No manner of death is more or less momentous, but have the courage to stop fearing the foreign invader, be he here illegally or legally. Have the courage to reject xenophobia, paranoia, and scapegoating.

Do not encourage by sins of omission or acts of aggression the harming of any life, and do not trick yourself into believing that those who are different from you are the most dangerous. It’s just not true.

You, I and we are dangerous, especially if we have access to firearms, cannot think critically, and become angry. We are our own worst enemies.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Unsung Heroes

One of my all-time favorite movies, Hope Floats, stars Sandra Bullock as Birdee Pruitt and Gena Rowlands as Birdee’s quirky mother, Ramona Calvert. Both roles, as written and acted, celebrate motherhood, a common condition in that many, many women play the same part. But motherhood, especially single motherhood, done well, demands raw courage and empathy that exceeds every expectation. Birdee and Ramona have both--although Birdee, in particular, must walk a long trail of tears before she can pick up the hero’s crown.

The most heart-wrenching scene stars little Bernice, Birdee’s daughter, played powerfully by Mae Whitman, currently convincing viewers as Amber on NBC’s Parenthood. In the 1998 film, Hope Floats, Bernice struggles to defend her mother from all suitors and herself from total collapse after her narcissistic father allows his new love to humiliate Birdee on national television and abandons his family in order to start anew. He fails to write a note or even console his daughter. Birdee does that, pretending to be the man her daughter needs by constructing a fond farewell and tucking it away where Bernice will surely find it.

The note, written with good intentions, becomes a cruel gesture because Bernice clings to the idea that her mother invented, the idea that her father wants her, misses her, and needs her. Thus, when Daddy finally comes to Texas to mourn his former mother-in-law's passing, Bernice expects to go home with him. This time, Birdee refuses to pretend that her soon-to-be ex-husband is a good man, husband, and father, and she cannot shield Bernice from his self-absorption. She watches stoically as Bernice hurriedly packs and tries to climb into the car. Birdee waits for her daughter’s inevitable return once this man who fathered a child fails to resemble a father. He denies his daughter pleas, even locking the car doors against her.

Little Bernice moves from desperation and disbelief to complete heartbreak. She stands on the sidewalk as the car disappears, sobbing and shrieking “Daddy” and “You want me.” Birdee carries her back into the house that is now their only home.

I cry as Birdee listens to her daughter’s need. I cry for Bernice’s grief, the sorrows of every human who longs to rewrite the truth, spinning it to a different, happier ending. Birdee, overcoming her own grief at the loss of a marriage, her mother, and a future she desired, quells her own tears to dry her daughter’s. She even sustains the lie when Bernice asks why Birdee created the note, signing “Daddy,” not “Mommy.”

Birdee refuses to be seduced by bitterness. She does not say, “Because your daddy is a thoughtless, selfish prick who did not think about how you must be feeling. He failed to provide for us and for our emotional needs. I will never forgive him for failing you--never!” Instead, Birdee allows Bernice to cling to one shred of a dream that once her daddy loved her enough to write a note. One day, she can still dream, perhaps he will write again.

Countless single mothers and fathers are as selfless and brave as the fictional Birdee. Every day they hold their tongues and sigh away their bitter breath. They allow their children to believe because hope, as Emily Dickinson suggested, is fragile. It is a creature with feathers that rises from the depths of despair and carries us higher than our present. Heroic parents let hope live while stitching invisible safety nets to catch their children when they must fall--and they will. We all fall, more than once, yet we wake each morning, hoping for a better day.

Monday, April 4, 2011

History of the World, Part 1 Reconsidered

Borrowing from Mel Brooks’ irreverent satire, History of the World, Part I (1981), for the title of this post, I hereby offer a thumbnail sketch of the history of the Western world, as I see it. Like Mr. Brooks, I think the class divide is at the heart of mankind’s story, and my hunch is that Mr. Brooks also believes, as I fervently do, that the world moves at glacier speed toward good.

Once upon a time, long, long ago, a small number of people in the world enjoyed power and wealth, often as a result of birthright, but attainable by bullying and/or conquering folks who did not put up much of a fight. These kings and conquerors did not think of themselves as tyrants, bullies, terrorists, or despots. They thought of themselves as godly. They had enough humility to believe that someone had put them at the top of the food chain, thereby stamping abstract ideas such as Divine Right and Manifest Destiny with the label: Truth.

As a consequence, the Western world’s population could be divided into two unequal halves, those with and those without. Those with power, wealth, and opportunity were very, very few in number. Those without voice, means, access or even shelter and sufficient food were legion. They endured, in part because the religious arm of mankind’s clout told them to be obedient and servile, to suffer the long indignities of filth, cold, hunger, and disease while laboring to please the “overlords” in order to gain access into an eternal life quite different.

Another reason the class divide endured is the little guy’s efforts to change his lot in life often ended horribly. William the Conqueror, he who united disparate Anglo-Saxons and Viking warriors under one government and one church, declared great swaths of land and all animal life thereon to belong to him. A poor, hungry man, desperate to feed his family, could only salivate at the sight of healthy deer on the King’s lands. If he were caught sating his hunger with one of the King’s deer, he would most likely be maimed in some way, his missing limb serving as a deterrent to other hungry poachers. The thief could also be slaughtered, and no one would come to his defense. In brief, the common man lacked organization, unity, and strength to fight an armed foe with greater resources. And again, the Church’s messages helped keep the peace. Men, including peasants who shoveled dung to servants who wiped the king’s arse, were taught that their places in the universe, no matter how miserable, were God’s will; thus, to try to change one’s circumstance was to sin and endure the pangs of Hell for all eternity.

One more reason for a delay in altering the class divide is the presumption that anyone born poor was, by God’s design, unequal, and this judgment extended to anyone different. Non-whites and non-Christians were but a small step above animals such as cattle or swine, but they were certainly not quite human in the same way that kings, queens, church officials, and those graced with the king’s favor were. Commoners could be worked to death, starved, and left to die without compromising the heavenly path the more powerful trod.

Certainly, those in various states of want did not need an education either. No one truly believed that the poor and women of all classes were capable of complex thought and analysis. Therefore, readers, writers, and calculators had the edge in disseminating information.

But ideas cannot be suppressed forever. They have a way of weaving their way into the hearts and minds of men. One of the earliest codified ideas is the Magna Carta, a document that many consider to be a precursor to the U. S. Constitution, both of which grant rights to men deemed free. It is this idea--freedom--that has spurred the unrest, revolution, protest, and challenges in the Middle East. It is an idea that invaded the Middle East through the Internet and social media. Freedom has also sent thousands to Milwaukee just as it incited labor, in earlier decades, to organize against repressive practices in the work place, practices that included long hours, locked doors, unhealthy conditions, unsafe machinery, and low wages, prohibiting the men or women on the production line from purchasing the very product they had a stake in making.

The history of the (Western) world suggests that oppression on the basis of birthright or wealth cannot endure. People overturn tyrants, bullies, terrorists, and despots because history shows us that men and women yearn to be free. History also informs us that education fosters revolution, both the bloodless and bloody types.

Education empowers the poor, disenfranchised, and weak, and therefore, must never be reserved for a privileged few. Education must be absolutely equal for all classes for it is a path to enlightenment regarding all those complicated, sticky, controversial, divisive issues of the day, and its best delivery system is open, frank discussion. It is the way to make people healthy and wise, drip and drop by drop. It must not be forsaken, underestimated, or gutted, and it must be entrusted into the knowing hands of those who care about children and the future, not ideologies and class for we are in real danger of returning to the old, old ways when all wealth and power were in the hands of a very few while the majority of the population fails to thrive.

We must not withdraw the freedom to shape our futures by withdrawing the opportunity to bargain collectively. We must not retreat from the evolutionary progress already made. We must, each of us, summon the courage to make a stand for equality and education. If we do, we will insure our own and our brothers’ freedom.