To Cut Or Not To Cut

Congress is about to tackle a new tax reform battle. The assertion hotly debated currently is over the corporate tax rate. It stands at 35%, down from its historic highs in the 1950s of over 50%. It should be noted that during the postwar years of the late 1940s through Eisenhower’s administration, growth of GDP was close to 4% on average. During most of the 2000s, enjoying the lower tax rate, growth has average 1.8%.  That number is deceptive in a few ways, but for our purposes just one is important. GDP—national growth—has been sluggish according to some yet corporate profits have been historically high. Corporations on average are making far higher profits than might be expected from a “sluggish” economy.  Here is a more detailed analysis from the Economic Policy Institute.  Basically, what this suggests is that corporate income tax rates have little or no bearing on either profitability or national growth.  This is a talking point that sounds impressive but is essentially beside any point.

The usual pro-tax cut rhetoric has been deployed once more, basically that cutting corporate tax rates will make money available to corporations for reinvestment and by extension jobs growth.  We have heard this many, many times, and since 1980 it has become a strained, threadbare assertion with no relation to what actually happens.  It makes perfect sense on the surface, but again reality is not so simple.

We have one fundamental problem:  who exactly will buy all the new manufactures who aren’t buying them now?

The Great Depression taught us a few things (which we seem hell-bent on forgetting), one of which was that productivity was not the problem. Accommodation was. Corporations had no trouble making what they were in business to make, productive capacity had reached epic heights, but the availability of all those manufactures had outstripped available credit. With no one able to buy any of it, the corporations drowned themselves in product. Relief programs designed to provide said credit were fought tool-and-nail by conservatives afraid that “give-aways” would sap our moral strength, which resulted in short-sighted policies based on outdated economic and social models which left thirty million Americans unemployed and, worse, largely unemployable. The economy—read, The Market—adjusted quickly to function without them. Without large infusions of money from government and then, later, the adrenalized demands of World War II, those people would have starved.

What will actually happen to all that so-called “extra” money freed up by another tax cut will not go into reinvestment. Some may, but not at the level all the starry-eyed tax reformers want. Most of it will go into dividend payments and bonuses to people who are already doing fine. Once distributed, it will then be absorbed in investment portfolios with global holdings and not spent here, at least not at the level hoped for in order to spur the kind of growth this proposal is touted to spur.  A few people might get raises, but frankly—and I am being a bit of a cynic here—what new jobs have not already been created in an environment of historically high profits will not be created just because those profits are raised even higher. The corporate strategies which seem to work well now will not be changed. Few large corporations are champing at the bit for that money in order to build new factories to make the things they likely will not pay high enough wages to permit purchase in large enough quantity to justify the reinvestment.

What is being discussed a bit more openly is all the money locked away in tax havens.  It is suggested that reducing tax penalties will induce corporations to bring that money back into the United States. But why should it?  If they needed it for growth, they would find a way to use it. They don’t need it.  These are war chests, basically, and reserves to balance economic controls across borders to the benefit of the depositors.

What might be more effective is a bottom up plan that puts that money directly in the pockets of working class and middle class people. Directly. Before we create a permanent dependent class that will never have quite enough and will, in hard times, serve as the seed bed of anarchist sentiment aimed at destruction.  It may be time finally to talk seriously about a guaranteed basic income.

Any rejection of this based on misplaced notions of fairness must take into account the fact that as things are configured now, a certain class enjoys exactly such a thing. What do you think dividends are? One might claim that they are not guaranteed, but they are as reliable as can be.  Any cursory perusal of reputable investment fund performance over the last fifty years shows almost no risk for investors, and with the continued emphasis on tax cuts for corporations, which result in even higher profitability in aggregate, there is certainly a public monetary element involved—where do you think those cuts end up?  And the money itself originates from the communities now being asked to credit these entities with even larger sums, usually at their longterm expense.

 

 

Difficult Books

Change of angst.

I saw one of those clickbait surveys, 200 “difficult” books, that challenge you by offering titles to select and then rating your score. I took it because it’s amusing to see what the zeitgeist thinks is worthwhile literature, and this one was better than some, but several of the titles gave me pause, thinking, that’s a difficult book?

I wonder what criteria are being used, other than perhaps page count and venerable authors.  Also, what do they mean by “difficult”—conceptually challenging or just a slog?  I mean, certainly Atlas Shrugged is a “difficult” book, but not the same way Ulysses is, or even the same way Oliver Twist is.  Ulysses requires some intellectual acumen on the part of a reader, some familiarity with history and literature, a bit of theology, and an ability to recognize human foible in any of dozens of various guises.  Atlas Shrugged merely requires a strong stomach and a lot of patience. Being tone deaf to good literature would help as well. And of course what the latter has to say about the human condition vis a vis economics is meaningless drivel compared to the portrayal of class abuse in Oliver Twist.  Telling the difference and knowing why the one doesn’t stack up to the other would be a good start to determining what qualifications one is using for “difficult” reads.

But it’s a good question, what qualifies as a difficult—in this case, read a challenging—book.  And by challenging I mean a work that forces you to think about the text and risk change by having read it deeply and honestly.

Admittedly, there are some novels which are merely difficult through obscurantism. They’re hard because the writer didn’t have much to say but didn’t want to admit that.  They usually don’t last past the life of the author. Sometimes they don’t last past the initial print run.  But the difficulty of the structure and the sentences and the fog of pseudointellectual posturing is in these instances little more than a guarantee of early extinction.

The problem is, sometimes a really good work bears some resemblance to such work. It becomes easy to overlook the real virtues of such novels because audience for them is harder to find.

Take Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Disclaimer: I do not care for this novel. I find it difficult to enjoy the sentences. When someone pointed out to me that it has really funny parts, I was surprised.  The torture of the sentences prevented my ever seeing that, but I was willing to be shown. I’ve been through again, recently, and I’m prepared to admit that it is a Great Novel.  But it is seriously difficult.  And part of the difficulty is that Melville loaded his sentences with multiple meanings, subtext, and unpleasant reality.  It is difficult because what it has to say is difficult to say in such a way that the meaning will get past the innate cultural barriers to recognition.

But it survived because that recognition is to be found and eventually people found it and the impact was enormous.

It bears multiple readings.  Unpacking it takes time. Such a book demands the two things modern readers seem to lack the most:  time and patience.

But going through that list of 200 “difficult” books what I found mainly were books that are long and involved and in some instances convoluted (Gravity’s Rainbow, Infinite Jest) and books with Reputations. The latter are the kinds of books you might find on readers’ shelves, but rarely read.  They know somehow they should read them, but they just haven’t.  And may never.  Because…well, they’re hard.  They reward patience, necessitate experience, require a bit of preparation, and yield nothing to casual taste.

It put me in mind of some of our recent teacup typhoons in science fiction.  Why struggle to understand something that makes the brain sweat when all the thrills and reassurance that you are smart can be found in the shallower waters of quicker reads?

Well, the answer is unsatisfying to a particular kind of reader.  You read the hard books because they make you more.

I won’t say “better” because I don’t know quite what that means in this context (or whether that sort of judgment has any place in talking about literature), but the expansion of the psyché is a real thing and it is only achieved by constantly taking on the difficult.  Only by doing so do you reach a point where you can discern the real difference between something like Atlas Shrugged (dense but superficial, and in many ways fraudulent) and a Gravity’s Rainbow (dense but meaningful, expansive and revelatory).  But more to the point, a book like Atlas Shrugged will not change you—if you are open to its message, all it will do is pacify your doubts and reinforce your prejudices, without ever challenging you to think about people or history in a different way, while the Pynchon cannot help but call into question pat beliefs and unsettle comfortable preconceptions.

So when such lists are constructed, it’s worth asking: how will these books make me different or new?  How well do they tell the truth?  How much do they expose about self-deception, deceit, and the lies of the world?  That’s where the “difficult” part is.

A thousand pages of froth changes nothing.  It just takes a long time to get through.

Annual Pose

Okay, so maybe this is going to be a thing. I think I put my vanity in a box and on a shelf because I don’t wish to be vain. I am, somewhat. I am saved from being an ass about it by being basically too lazy to really  attend to it, at least to the extent of making myself an object of derision. But it’s there, I admit it.

Most of my vanity has to do with the interior. I want to be a certain kind of person. I wish people to see the kind of person I’m trying to be. And I want what they see to be genuine. Maybe “vanity” is the wrong word, since too often it attaches to matters of surface only. And maybe I use that word to caution myself to pay attention to what matters.

In any case, I work at maintaining certain standards, both physically and mentally. I am not as successful at any of it as I would like to be, but it’s the journey, right? Whatever.

I turned 63 this year. I cannot quite get my head around that. In another generation I would be two years from falling into an actuarial expectation of being dead.  I would be spent, replete with health problems, fading.  When I was a child, 65 was the age at which people died.  Today?

But that’s not even the weirdest part.  The weird part is the history that I have personally lived through, knowing it as history, and being in a position to represent some of that history.  The other weird part is that, intellectually, I still see myself as somewhere around the mid to late 30s.

As I say, weird.  However, I’ve been posting annual updates like this–not as regularly as perhaps I should, but I see now that it might be a useful thing.

So. This morning, after coming home from the gym, I asked Donna to take a couple of pictures.

 

 

I’m weighing in at round 160.  I no longer bother getting on a scale.  I go by how well my clothes fit and how out-of-breath I get running down the street.  (Yes, I occasionally break into a sprint when I’m walking the dog, just because.  I can still do three blocks at a good run.)

The hair is thinner, grayer, the wrinkles a bit deeper, especially when I’m facing into the sun.

I feel tired a great deal of the time.

But aside from working out regularly, I work a full-time job, still play music, and I’m still trying to make the best-seller lists.

And chores.  Don’t forget chores.

But–most importantly–I still feel like I have options.  “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

A writer.

A photographer.

A musician.

A friend.

Someone people might possibly be glad to know.

 

The thing is, how to know when or if any of that is achieved?  I have to be comfortable in my own skin first.  And my skin is…

Well, not, perhaps, for me to say.  But I have every intention of sticking around long enough to find out.

So this is 63.

Let me post another photograph, to follow, of something maybe a little more interesting.  (Remember, one of the things I want to be is  photographer…?)  And leave off with something more abstract to contemplate.

Thank you all for putting up with me all this time.

 

 

 

A Picture Instead

The last several weeks have been alternately nerve-wracking, inspirational, depressing, too-cool-for-school, enervating, elating, and disappointing. The drain on resources has left me unable to judge overall.  Consequently, I’m being very chary what I write here.  So I’m going to put what energy I have into some fiction.

In the meantime, here’s a new picture.  Enjoy.

 

Cops

The protests in St. Louis over the vindication of yet another cop in a seriously questionable shooting have been dealt with by outrageous police tactics. Protests are met, broken up, people are arrested and abused, and the justification is some broken windows, most of which the vendors suffering the damage have come out to say has been worth it to support the point being made.

So the question is—since the people the police claim to be protecting are repudiating that protection when it entails martial-law-style crackdowns—just what is it the police are serving?

I think this is thoroughly misunderstood. You see emblazoned on police cars, held up as motto, proudly owned by the men and women in blue:  To Serve and Protect.

But when the majority of a community is in profound disagreement over what its police do, just what does that mean?

It means what it has always meant. The police exist to protect and preserve one thing:  Order.

Often, even usually, protecting the public and serving the people is congruent with preserving order. You can’t, usually, have any kind of peace of mind when order breaks down.  You can’t defend something in the midst of riot.

But when the issue involves political and judicial incompetence, corruption, or malfeasance, the police are put in a quandary. What are they defending and protecting against what? They can’t take sides.  So the default is—order.

Now, whose definition of order I will let you figure out.  Obviously there are distinctions.  A bunch of sports fans trashing cars after a Big Game doesn’t get the same kind of crackdown as a phalanx of peaceful protestors clogging a street. (Hint: the fans aren’t challenging authority.)

Get people off the streets, reestablish the appearance of normality, make it easier for the police to seem to do what everyone thinks they’re supposed to do (which they often, even usually, do).  But when it comes to a break-point over principle, as in this case, as in the case of Ferguson, as in so many cases of late, they will default to establishing and preserving Order.

I point this out so there can be less failure to interpret actions that defy expectations.

Holding the police department up to ridicule, recording them doing clearly unjustified if not illegal things in pursuit of this function, further erodes their mission—to preserve ORDER. Respect or at least fear is essential for that, because if no one believes the police are working for them, why should anyone do what they say?

On the other side is the gross mishandling of cases like this one where prosecutors aimed for an impossible target.  I’m not saying the charges brought against Stockley were wrong, only that, on a practical level, they were not achievable.  (The Justice Department—Obama’s Justice Department—knew this and decided not to prosecute.  Frustrating, but there it is.)  First degree murder is difficult to prove and get convictions on at the best of times.  With an officer-involved-shooting, you might as well send  Bilbo into the case without a ring and nothing but a slingshot.  The lesser charge brought, Armed Criminal Action, was more likely, but since they were bundled together the judge was able to vacate both at once.

But even before this, there seems to be a dearth of more ground-level legal actions that ought to take place before something  like this blows up into a media circus.  Something simpler, seemingly innocuous, something that might get a lot of folks to say “Well, what the hell does that do?”

Like passing an ordnance requiring police to apologize when they get something wrong.

Yeah, I know, doesn’t sound like much.  But it would begin to lay the foundation of a kind of community-responsive accountability that would eventually lead to a healthier relationship between the community and its police.  Because when they bash in the wrong door, arrest the wrong person, abuse someone illegally, without an apology we tell them that they’re doing what we want them to do.  When some cop shoots someone’s dog “just because” and no apology is forthcoming, we tell the police they are above civility. Outside community.

The second thing I think should be done is reinstate the requirement that cops must live in the community they serve.  Allowing them to live elsewhere severs connection and ultimately accountability. You might as well call them what they are, then: hired guns.

These smaller things may not seem as significant as convicting a cop who steps so far over the mark that it makes national news, but without them, going for the gold ring with a murder conviction is made to fail and bring out the divisions on the street and promote the ugliness of realizing, if we did not already know, that the police, at the end of the day, are not there to serve Joe Smith.  They serve The People. But what does that mean?  Its means a vast aggregate that is faceless, unindividuated, impersonal, something that once you are separated from it and become an individual, you no longer are the subject of their service.  The People is a useless concept on the street, because The People aren’t there when the shit goes down—just some poor human being and an armed representative whose basic mission is and always has been to preserve ORDER.

Which kind of makes a community into a giant classroom and the citizens students who are required to sit quietly at their desks and maintain the illusion of conformity so the teacher can appear to be doing a Good Job.

 

The Persistence of Civilization

I wanted to get this down before the thoughts and feelings of yesterday fade and I start to over-intellectualize everything.

Civilization did not end yesterday. Just in case anyone failed to notice. Nibiru did not slam into the Earth as some predicted. We did not throw down to North Korea (yet). And there remains football.

And though here in my hometown, the local politics have of late been strained, to say the least, we are not descending into mindless brutality.

Let me offer the picture of two throngs of people gathered to make cultural statements.

Yesterday the first of what we all hope will be an annual event occurred in the Central West End of St. Louis.  Bookfest.  A section of one street was closed off, there were vendors on the street, a stage where live music was performed all day, and author events held in a number of local establishments. The whole thing got started Friday night with a presentation by Sherman Alexie at the Sheldon Theater in our theater district. It continued then with events for kids, teens, and adults of all ages, featuring over forty of the best writers currently working. Poets, novelists, essayists, we had them all.

And people came.

Hundreds. Venues were filled to listen, to partake, to soak in the rarefied and uplifting gestalt of written arts, performance, and conversation.

We unveiled a new commemorative statue in front of Left Bank Books to William S. Burroughs, completing the four-star authors corner which already included Kate Chopin, Tennessee Williams, and T.S. Eliot.

People came to hear writers talk about craft and content, tell stories, read from their work, engage in the carpentry of culture.

In other words, Making Civilization.

It was amazing.

In other parts of the metropolitan area, others gathered, as they have been gathering since last week, to protest injustice. The response has been considerably different, and some people see this as evidence of the end of our civilization. Maybe not totally, but protest to them is viewed as cracks in the dam, as if civilization is a pool that must be contained by thick walls and held in place, immobile. Immaculate.

I humbly suggest that the protests and our gathering to celebrate the literary arts are manifestations of the same work—making civilization.

Gathering decorously to listen to speakers and then sagely nod, basking in the gloaming of nuanced cultural expression is fundamentally part of angry protest condemning abuse of power and a demand for justice. You cannot, ultimately, have one without the other—that is, Civilization without Justice—and you can have neither of those if people will not show up to build them.

I participated in yesterday’s festivities, I was on the agenda as a writer, but I also work for Left Bank Books and spent a good part of the day doing the business of facilitating the events.  I am now adding what I can to the holism that must be felt and recognized in order for our civilization to grow and become better and richer.

It is easy to watch the news and perhaps think maybe fleeing to the country, stockpiling for the coming Dark Age, fearing the people two blocks over who we’ve never met are all rational responses to a process of inevitable decay.  It’s a very myopic response.  Because while the one goes on, the other things continue and grow and make us better. We are not one thing, even if  we are all in this together, and when someone says we have a right to assemble to buy books, listen to music, and enjoy the arts but not to condemn injustice, then a major truth is being overlooked.

Or never recognized in the first place.

I was part of the discussion on science fiction.  My copanelists—Charlies Jane Anders, Ann Leckie, Annalee Newitz—all spoke to the life-affirming, onward-building, ever-optimistic nature of science fiction, which says tomorrow Will Be and more often than not Will Be Better.  But it’s not just SF—it’s the fact that people came to drink from the font of art all day long. That people showed up who not only knew who Sherman Alexie is but also who William S. Burroughs was and who responded to the resonance we all create by the work we do.

The world is not going to end.  We’re in an awkward, in many ways ugly and incomprehensible period right now, but in the mix we have light and joy and deep connection.

Celebrate.

What Happened?

Hillary Clinton has a new book coming out. It discusses what went wrong in the 2016 election.  Already it’s stirring the ashes, raising ires, resparking blame-laden conversations.

One thing I recall. It was a vague disquiet during one of the debates. I had a sudden sense of foreboding, watching the match.  For a couple of minutes I kept thinking “She’s going to lose.”

Why? Because she was talking policy.

As I watched, listening, I saw one candidate fully prepared to step into the office ready to do the job and explaining that fact in clear, lucid, surprisingly informative terms. I have rarely seen a candidate hold forth in one of these at this level.  The other candidate had no plan, didn’t care, and wasn’t about to engage in a policy discussion on any level.

I had a creeping sense of doom, watching that.  Because I knew then that the only way Hillary was going to win would be if voter turnout was high. Very high.  Otherwise he was going to win. (Later, I erased that impression, because it was unbearable, and I found myself reassuring people who apparently had experienced the same sense of dread, but what is it they say about initial impressions?)

In retrospect this seems absurd.  She was dealing with the realities of the office, laying out her programs, displaying an astute grasp of the issues, the problems, and showing that she understood how all this works and could do the job.  All he did was hammer on “We’re gonna do things” and “She’s a nasty woman.”

He appealed directly do people who (a) were never going to vote for Hillary to begin with, (b) had no fucking idea what she was talking about because, frankly, they neither care nor have taken any time to educate themselves about such things, and therefore (c) saw her as an elitist snob talking down to them.  All this plays well in a traditional political theater.  It’s not the first time.  In modern history, pretty much the same thing happened to Adlai Stevenson.

Who?  He ran against Eisenhower in 1952.  He was a technocrat, a highly educated man, a career public servant, and he had more brains than the next five people in any room.

But he lost because he refused to play the game according to the demands of the audience.  Truman kept telling him to stop sounding so high and mighty and educated, but Stevenson maintained a persistent faith in the savvy and comprehension of the average American.  He refused to “dumb down” his message because he thought it would be insulting to voters.

He didn’t stand a chance against “I Like Ike.”

So while most people probably agreed with Stevenson, they voted for Eisenhower.

Now, as far as I’m concerned, this is not the fault of the candidates.  This is symptomatic of people who have been taught to want a cheerleader instead of an administrator.  This is the fault of people who don’t really give much of a damn about the details of policy or the intransigence of global politics or the intricacies of an  ever-shifting landscape.  This is the fault of people who have been raised, by various means, to mistrust intellectuals.

They are not in the majority, but there are enough of them that, in the hurly-burly and tumble of national elections, they have an impact all out of proportion to what is really true of the general population.

We have gerrymandering, we have niche news sourcing, and we have an economic environment that keeps people off-balance.  Added to that we now seem to have had a huge influx of foreign “fake” news that lit a fire under a near-boiling pot.

When Bill Clinton ran, the motto of his campaign was “It’s the economy, stupid!” And he spoke to that.  His people spoke to that.  Perversely, given everything that’s happened since then, George H.W. Bush looked like the elitist intellectual by comparison.

A telling lesson.

I do not believe the majority of American voters are in the camp that responds to the kind of simplistic breast-beating Trump voters did.  But many of those Americans did not vote.

But there in the debates we saw one of the chief problems:  Hillary mopped the stage with him, won all three debates hands down…and lost the election.

Yes, she garnered more popular votes, but in the electoral races it was the other camp that dictated where those votes would go.  And they don’t like smart people.  It was too close a race for nuance and intellect to overcome carnival showmanship.

I’d like to be wrong.  I put this out there purely as one idea.  But during those debates I saw it—the power of dumb trumping brains.