Social Security…Isn’t


Often,  when my unemployed state threatens my  spirit, I bake bread.  Enormous swelling mounds of sourdough or pumpernickel.  The yeast, the texture, the molasses remind me that wealth depends on the right  ingredients,  a practiced  touch and a will to create something good.  At least,  that’s the hope.

Yesterday —  a damp, gray day  —  as I  wrestled with 15 cups of white flour, 6 cups of wheat  and 10 cups of rye,  an elderly   man knocked on my door.

“Do you own a German Short Hair?” he asked.

“Excuse me?”  I replied, wiping flour down the front of my  pants and sweater.   “A what?”

“A German Short Hair,”  he answered.  “The Town  received a complaint about a German Short Hair dog running loose at  this address.”

He leaned a bit heavily against the door frame and when I opened the door wide, he favored his knees crossing the threshold. After too short a visit,  he realized he’d been given wrong information and turned stiffly,  prepared  to visit the rest of the houses in the neighborhood.

“I don’t envy you your job,”  I apologized.  No matter my own state of affairs, it was an honest statement.

“It’s the bottom of the pits,”  he nodded.  “I’m 75 years old. My  wife and sister are home  with Alzheimer’s.  I take care of them  and this is how I stretch my monthly check.  You play the cards you’re dealt, right?  What else is there to do?”

As I watched him pick his way through the snow — on to the next house — my own knees gave out and   I crouched there on the back stoop, overwhelmed by hatred and impotent fury.

How many more groups can we join on Facebook that demand Congress give up its health care?

How many more petitions can we sign demanding a legitimate jobs bill for America’s workers?

How many more of our families must supplement their meals with dog food?

How many more of our children must graduate high school as functional illiterates?

How many more years must we spend more to incarcerate our youth than to educate them?

How much more will  America’s workers swallow before we  call a national strike?

How many more corporate bailouts will we suffer before we pitch our tents  and outrage on the National Mall?

More frequently than I like to admit, I’m struck dumb and inert by the evil that steals through the halls of Congress.  By  leaders who toss pennies to the working poor and billions to their cronies in crime.

I don’t know what to do.  I and countless others send out resumes day after day.  We circle and circle possible jobs in the paper.  We scroll through endless job search engines.

Each morning we swallow the mounting sense of hopelessness and smile unconvincingly at our children.  They’ve never been through this before.  They take their cues from us.

Tomorrow, I’ll give thanks for the likes of Mayor Tillman in DISH, TexasJosh Fox’ award-winning  Gasland and Joel Tyner in Dutchess County.

Tomorrow,  I’ll  get back to work with Mary and Bernie Handler,  Bruce Ferguson and Victoria Lesser as we prepare for  Mayor Tillman’s visit to Callicoon this Saturday.

Tomorrow,  I’ll  be grateful for the  water  we’re delivering to Dimock, Pennsylvania.

Tomorrow,  I’ll  work to rid myself of futile rage.

Tonight,  I’ll  curl in on myself,  grieving for a nation  that’s lost its way;  that cares little for its elders, its youth and its workers.

Tom Paxton’s We Didn’t Know


(The first time I  heard this, the Vietnam War was raging.  It was sung either by The Kingston Trio or The Chad Mitchell Trio.  It requires no imagination to substitute words like, “I guess we’ve  gotta’  drop those bombs if we wanna’  keep Iraqis and Afghanis  free.”  Or,  “Torturing prisoners is an Al Qaeda game and you can bet they’re doing the same.”    Citizens and policy makers  who stand in the way of  a just reckoning for those who ordered torture  are writing   verses for all our children, grandchildren and theirs.)

We didn’t know said the Burgomeister,
About the camps on the edge of town.
It was Hitler and his crew,
That tore the German nation down.
We saw the cattle cars it’s true,
And maybe they carried a Jew or two.
They woke us up as they rattled through,
But what did you expect me to do?

[Cho:]
We didn’t know at all,
We didn’t see a thing.
You can’t hold us to blame,
What could we do?
It was a terrible shame,
But we can’t bear the blame.
Oh no, not us, we didn’t know.

We didn’t know said the congregation,
Singing a hymn in a church of white.
The Press was full lf lies about us,
Preacher told us we were right.
The outside agitators came.
They burned some churches and put the blame,
On decent southern people’s names,
To set our colored people aflame.
And maybe some of our boys got hot,
And a couple of niggers and reds got shot,
They should have stayed where they belong,
And preacher would’ve told us if we’d done wrong.

[Cho:]

We didn’t know said the puzzled voter,
Watching the President on TV.
I guess we’ve got to drop those bombs,
If we’re gonna keep South Asia free.
The President’s such a peaceful man,
I guess he’s got some kind of plan.
They say we’re torturing prisoners of war,
But I don’t believe that stuff no more.
Torturing prisoners is a communist game,
And You can bet they’re doing the same.
I wish this war was over and through,
But what do you expect me to do?

Words and Music by Tom Paxton

Economy: Fixing a Broken Heart


The magical art of economics makes sense to me  only in real-life analogies.  I know some of the jargon and find it nearly as fascinating as the art itself.  High practitioners possess a comprehensive, pragmatic and effective understanding of (1)  where we are in history;  (2)  what the future holds;  (3) what we’ll need to bridge the gap;  and (4)  what  the probability is  that particular events will effect  our forward outcomes.  The last one calculates a dizzying array of  data and impressions from climate change and famine to  sonograms and pancreatic cancer.  Economics is the Buddhism of  the Magical Arts.  In fact, this blog could have been entitled, “Breathing is Economics.”

If a patient’s heart stops,  it needs a big  jolt to act as if it’s  alive. That initial jolt is a pretense:  whether we’re re-starting a heart, a battery or an economy,  the initial stimulus is a  second chance, not a fix.  Without fuel  to keep the engine charged,  another shut down is  inevitable.  (If a mixed metaphor works, then what do we care? It’s the gestalt we’re getting at here.)

The current inside-the-bubble  discussion is about whether  Obama’s Stimulus  creates enough jobs  OR  if it’s a wish list of  forward-looking investments.  (This is the basis of the stock market which predicts which  products will get us from here to there.)  The real question should be:  does it create or save enough jobs to give us confidence in the future  AND  does it anticipate building the educational and technological bridges  that will support a recovery?  In other words and to reference an Obama quote,  “Can we walk and chew gum at the same time?”

The economic stimulus has to to be big enough to  convince us that an innovative, smart economy is  in the offing.  Of necessity,  an  economic growth package has to create  sustainable manufacturing and service sectors.  So, we must invest in education and the  body politic (arts, humanities, science and technology).  We must stimulate  new economies and continuing education that  green the planet,  generate  well-health care and build local communities.

Both the stimulus and growth plans must prove our commitment to ethics and  to a workforce that  values and can afford  to buy what it produces.  Our decision making and its process must  prove we’re commited to a republic not an oligarchy.

On my birthday (January 27th) Jon Stewart suggested a stimulus plan that would eradicate our consumer debt (including mortgages) and inject  lending institutions with capital.  The  simple beauty of his plan lacks details and leaves much  to  debate, but it pinpoints the vital starting point:  worker-consumers.  As long as we’re afraid that  debt and job losses are going to drag us  over a cliff, we’ll buy only  necessities.  Demand for products will continue to slide and it’s ridiculous to invest  in companies whose products won’t be bought.   Combined with very little credit to grease the gears,  the world economy is grinding to a halt.    While Jim Cramer waxed  poetic about recession-resistant stocks like Johnson & Johnson and Colgate Palmolive, we were buying generics at the dollar stores. Our real lives are moving  faster toward pragmatism than the stock market can anticipate or pundits in a bubble can predict. Luxury and impulse buying are gone.   We’re cleaning  our own houses, cutting our own hair, plowing our own drives, mowing our own lawns, making our own yogurt and bread,  fixing our own plumbing and  growing  our own veggies.   (See  the  Foxfire Books. A Foxfire Christmas is particularly cool, I think.)  We’ve wakened from our consumptive coma  and we’re haunting  second hand shops and  buying toilet paper for  Just-A-Buck.  (If you’re new to this, find an old hippy who still looks like an old hippy and find out where s/he got her/his clothes, food and that nifty snowblower.  Also,  check out  Freecycle.  It’s an astonishing source of  free stuff.)

Sorry.  Back to Jon Stewart’s economic stimulus.

He’s  proposed  a new place to begin and called the scheme  “trickle up.”   Months ago, I suggested a direct infusion of funds to   local employers in order to stem job losses.  Both that idea and Stewart’s  shore up  the foundation of the  pyramid and frankly, as long as we jolt the core and build from the foundation, I don’t much care how we do it.

There are a blizzard of details to sort through of which these are just a few:

Regulators and  people facing foreclosure may not know which caballic entity holds their mortgage debt today,  but  consumers know which bank and loan officer  approved it. Do we give the money to the originating bank who may have issued a lousy loan?  Remember, the patient’s heading for complete cardiac arrest.  We don’t  have time to worry about which arteries messed us up; we need to jump start the  heart.  Some greedy consumers and banks will be rewarded.   It’s an unfortunate consequence that common sense suggests we must swallow.

Would every consumer get $15,000 to pay down or eliminate non-mortgage debt?   Would we modify corporate debt?  Or,  would we  limit debt cancellation to  locally-owned and/or  -operated businesses  with healthy, symbiotic relationships to their workers and communities?  (Nirvana, that and probably  fraught with legal challenges.  Not to mention how few locally-owned and/or operated businesses are surviving the early carnage.)

Which mortgage debt do we wipe out?  Do we subsidize all properties that have lost  value since purchase  or only property holders  who’ve lost or are in danger of losing the property?  Do we include only the primary home or do  we help the  retiree who bought a vacation home as a retirement investment?  Do we consider residential and commercial mortgages?  Do we have time to look at the community-at-large?  Can we afford not to?

We don’t have time to re-value each mortgage and  credit card so we might  have to pick a pay-back  percentage  which all parties  accept as whole.  If  we  owe the credit card company  $10,000, the company has to agree that  $1,000 (10 cents on the dollar) makes them whole.  Then,  Linens & Things and  Circuit City (the bankrupt companies where we bought our towels and computers) have  to accept $5 for a $50 bed sheet and  $100 for the $1,000 computer  they sold.  (I’m not saying it’s a bad deal, but  part of the equation is that when franchise retailers go out of business,  we lose the  under-compensated jobs many of us have been “educated” to fill.)

It’s gnarly; but so is the idea of a trillion dollars going directly to banks in hopes they’ll get around to re-financing  our debt.  They won’t.  Not just because they’re greedily waiting to scoop up the weaklings, but because they’d  be crazy to lend money in a sliding economy without substantial government investment in the future.

Increasingly violent hurricanes, floods, crop destruction,  water pollution and  water wars are events that threaten our basic food supply  and our economic forecast.  They  demand  resources for fixing rather than prevention.

Our transportation and electric grids are so  unreliable  that year-round, millions of people are left for weeks without heat/air conditioning, electric and water  in the wake of  storms.  When our transportation arteries aren’t flooded, they’re rendered impassible by ice.  They’re pocked with axle-busting potholes and our bridges are crumbling.  “Bird strikes” pose a known and unpredictable threat to our air transport, for cryin’ out loud.

We’ve got plenty of work to do–plenty of valuable jobs to fill.  If  an economic plan includes a large enough jolt and forward-thinking investments,  then it stands a chance of  succeeding.  (See:  House Bill and Senate Bill at Thomas.gov.)

A small note on “Sin Taxes.” Many of  us can’t afford the pleasures of  vacations, monthly trips to the movies or fresh fruits & veggies,  so we cling to our cheap substitutes:  fast-fat-sweet-salty-food,  cigarettes,  dope and  beer).  It isn’t a pretty picture (especially for the children) but if we’re going to tax sin,  then we need to think of it in terms of  a population that can’t afford  regular trips to a therapist.