On Reading As Travel

I have close to 6000 books in my house.

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Now, this is not a lot compared to some I know.  Harlan Ellison has over a quarter million.  Of course, he has the space for it (barely).  But for an average library, 6000 is more than respectable, and many of those are collectible (which is not why I acquired them originally, it just turned out that way).

I’ve read maybe half of them.

I’ve known for a long time that I will likely never read all the books I own. Given that, owning them seems pointless.  The trouble is, I also never know which ones I will read (or when), so divesting myself of them defeats the purpose of having them—keeping them nearby on the off chance that I’ll pick one up.

(I have a hard time using the library.  The peculiarity of my habits doesn’t fit me to read books “on schedule” or on a timetable, so borrowing them knowing I’ll have to take them back in three weeks means that two days before they’re due I might start reading them.  I’ve bought books that have sat on my shelves for years before I finally picked them up.  This frustrates Donna for a number of reasons.  But for me, also, owning a book is my symbol of personal wealth.)

I don’t lose sleep over what I’ll never read anymore.  Some time in the last four or five years I stopped fretting.  I signed onto one of those online reading pages—Goodreads—and began adding in all the books I’ve ever read and the fact is, I don’t remember at least 500 of them that I should, no doubt many more that just fell through the cracks, possibly by virtue of not being worth remembering.  My current total is over 2600, but I know that’s short, and if I add in all the partials, the magazines, individual articles, etc, then my lifetime total to date is probably over 4000, maybe 4500.

And I don’t remember over a third of them.

I do not reread.  There are a handful of books I’ve read twice, maybe four or five more than that.

For a few years I did book reviews, which forced me to read books I would otherwise not have bothered with, and this provided some great pleasures.

But the fact is, for the dedicated reader, it is impossible to read everything worthwhile, never mind everything.  So you can either stew in anxiety for all that you will miss or immerse yourself in what you can.

On FaceBook one of those lists has been going around, one I’ve seen in various forms for years, the 100 books the BBC thinks everyone should read but of which most people have only read 6.  The list has some remarkable books on it–-Les Miserables, Of Mice and Men, Middlemarch, War & Peace, etc.—but also some “huh?” moments, not so much because the choice is bad but because there are better books by the same author.  So while I could tick off 42 on the list, I could make a separate list of my own with over 200 that should have been on that list that I did read.

I read—many people read—for two purposes (three if you wish to specify that “for fun” is its own category, but I think that is implicit in my reason number two).  The first is obvious, for information.  I have a sizable reference library, many of the books of which I would never recommend as “pleasurable” reading, a good number of which I never intended to read cover-to-cover when I bought them.  But a lot of people who are not, by definition, Readers read for information.  I’ve known many people who devour technical books and the like but would never think to pick up a novel or a book of essays or short stories.  They do not read for the second, and in my opinion more important, reason.

I read to be more.

It’s nebulous stated that way.  What do I mean More?  Those who have a lifetime of deep reading behind them understand.  Reading enlarges our internal landscape, widens the horizons, gives us a sense of scope we would otherwise not have, matched possibly by the seasoned world traveler, the sort who picks up enough local language to function, and lives in a country long enough to dive into the parts not on the official tour.  By deep reading, my sense of my own Self has grown, and I apprehend more of the gestalt that is the world.

But also, the act of reading physically increases the connections in the brain, increases the brain’s capacity, not in a specified way, but in such a way that the world is both less surprising and more amazing when we encounter new things.  There is an excellent book about this that I recommend—Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf.  In it, Dr. Wolf details the physiology of reading in a way that convinced me that my long-held belief  is correct that, of all the forms of “entertainment” that affect us, reading is fundamentally different.

So it ultimately doesn’t matter how many books we end up getting through before we die.  What matters is the attention, the exposure, the fact that we read, steadily and widely, and through that become more of ourselves than we would otherwise be.  In this sense, each good book is a country we visit.  Widely traveled is still widely traveled, even if we don’t get to all of them.

Perhaps instead of talking about the books we haven’t read, we should instead talk about the books we’ve been to.  Who we have become from having visited these places is not lessened by all those places we have not and perhaps never will go to.

Coming Back

We’ve been on the east side of the Mississippi often the last few weeks.  Good friends over there, and last night we had Thanksgiving Feast at the house of some very good ones.  Smoked turkey (my favorite way to have it—frankly, I’ve always found turkey a problematic bird to east, much too dry to be really tasty, but a good carrier for other flavors, so it behooves one to stuff them creatively and add spices as necessary) Brussels sprouts, potatoes, stuffing, three kinds of desert four kinds of wine, coffee, and some excellent conversation, not to mention a large, cheerful hearth with a substantial fire…ah, it was almost a Norman Rockwell moment!

It rained and snowed most of yesterday, stopped right before we left to go over there, and had cleared up completely by the time we left, which was after midnight.  Where they live, few lights compete with the night sky, and the stars salted the dome.  We listened to Santana on the way back.  We did not overeat to the point of pain, but we were well satisfied.

This image was not shot last night, but a week ago returning from another party with some of the same folks.  Still, I thought it was worth posting—it should go with Thanksgiving.  Life should always have great beauty for us to appreciate at least once every day.  If we’re fortunate, that beauty comes mostly from the people we call friends and lovers.  But occasionally we have to notice that which serves as backdrop.  So…

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Coming home on Highway 55.

Charcoal, Stone, Water

Back to the visual.  I had forgotten that before Advance closed down and I lost access to a full lab, I’d made some 4 X 5 transparencies of my over-sized art pieces, works that simply won’t fit on my scanner.  So I found these the other day and have been turning them into digital files, so if perchance I sell the originals I now will have a record, at least, of some of my doodlings.

Here’s one I rather liked.  It’s a composite of a few images, sort of done along the lines of a steampunk aesthetic.

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I did this on a slightly textured piece of mount board with charcoal and pencil.  No title, but I often don’t title my images.  After the previous grim post, a bit of grimness of a different sort, and possibly more pleasant.  Enjoy.

Bullying

I’ve been hesitant to write about this, because the tendency to indulge self pity creeps in around the edges.  But in the past year we’ve seen a rise in attention being paid to a great human tradition—bullying.

A gay youth outed by his peers committed suicide.  Other gays under a microscope all over the country have found themselves driven to the edge.  National “movements” to deal with this problem have sprung up like mushrooms after a spring rain.  The last time we witnessed this level of discussion about bullying was after a couple of disaffected youths murdered several of their peers at their high school and then took their own lives, leaving behind ample testaments that what had driven them to do this had been years of bullying.

A recent episode of Glee dealt with the subject, the lone out gay boy in the school having come under the daily assault by an oversized pituitary case who, for no apparent reason, had decided to make life hell for the outsider.

I suppose it was this episode that prompted me to write about this.  Because it indulged some pop psychology, which I stress is not baseless, to explain the bully’s behavior—he, too, was a closeted gay who hated himself for it.  The idea being that we hate that which we are which we cannot accept in ourselves.  Rather than deal with it  in ourselves, we direct the anger outward and target the reviled trait in others.  This, of course, has much to back it up.  Some of the most rabid Nazis in the Third Reich turned out to be deeply closeted Jews.

In the most extreme cases, this passes as an explanation for bullying, and it has the charm of comforting most of us that, really, it is aberrant behavior, that the majority of us aren’t like that.

Well.  Bullshit.

Bullying is a set of behaviors a great many kids do indulge at some point.  Most grow out of it, some never do it, but to suggest that it is tied in all cases to some deep-rooted self-loathing overlooks the psychology of the playground at a fundamental level.  To see why this is true, you have only to ask two questions:

One—if the vast majority of kids are not so afflicted and are not bullies, why doesn’t the majority stop the behavior in the one or two who indulge it?  It’s not like kids don’t come together in groups to control aberrant behavior in other ways.

Two—if the vast majority of kids are not themselves bullies or at least in sympathy with the bully, why is the victim the one scorned and blamed for his or her state by everyone in the group?

There’s an old term which seems to have fallen into disuse when applied to school yard behavior—pecking order.  Humans fall into hierarchical relations naturally.  One’s position in the group is determined by a wide range of traits and behaviors, but one thing is clear—no one wants to be on the bottom of the pecking order.  Those who are receive the fewest opportunities for positive interaction with the group.  To determine who the low-rung members are, tests are performed, and one of them has to do with ones ability to deal with the rough and tumble of school yard physical confrontations.  Bullies actually perform the function of policing the group to weed out the—to use a once-common term used in these situations—wusses.  The majority will allow the behavior to see how individuals cope and whether or not their reactions merit any kind of respect.  In this sense, bullying is a function of group dynamics.

That’s the most value-free way I can describe it.  While the majority doesn’t actively encourage bullying, it does nothing to actively discourage it within the boundaries of a self-defined group.  If the behavior itself were utterly unacceptable, it could be quashed by numbers.  No bully is going to stand up five, six, or ten others banding together to end his (or her) behavior.  How can I say this?  Because bullies who cross from one group into another often are met with precisely this group response.

I’ve seen this.

Now, here’s the part where I have to be careful not get weepy about water long gone under several bridges.

I was at the bottom of the hierarchy almost from the day I entered school until I went to high school.  Eight years of being bullied—consistently, spontaneously, at one time or another by just about every member of my class.  Why?  Because they could.

Here is what the psychoanalysis seems always to miss, what perhaps we don’t want to acknowledge about Our Children.  Bullying is in its most common forms a power issue.  It’s kids flexing their muscles, lording it over others, testing boundaries, asserting dominance.  It doesn’t always appear to be bullying, because often it doesn’t take physical form, at least not the form of punching and kicking.  Often it can just be labeling and subsequent ostracization.  But the pay-off is in terms of power.  The bully gets off on it.  It is fun for them.  They are not doing this out of some hidden self-loathing—they like watching the victim cringe or cry, they like hearing the laughter of others who are watching, and they like the momentary mantle of superiority knocking someone down confers.

The good news is, this is a phase that most grow out of.  The bad news is, because we don’t want to recognize the potential for any one of our kids to indulge this behavior, it doesn’t get dealt with except on the extreme level of pathological bullies, budding sociopaths who do have other issues.

I was passed from one bully to another for eight years.  There were a couple who were consistent in their treatment of me, but in truth most of my classmates took a turn at teasing, taunting, and torturing that Tiedemann Kid who cried at the merest slap and couldn’t fight back.  Most of them only engaged in the mistreatment for a semester or even one entire school year, then it got old and they quit—but they never apologized and they never acknowledged they were wrong and they never did anything to stop it when someone else started in.

I was a perpetual outsider all through school.  In high school I stayed aloof and developed an early reputation of someone who punched back, so it simply never started, but I was rarely part of the major groups.  In grade school, however, it was eight years of misery, knowing each day I was likely to be someone’s punching bag or the brunt of a joke everyone was in on.  I could catalogue the abuses, but I won’t.  Suffice it to say that none of my peers saw me as anything other than weird and because I was physically unable at the time to defend myself effectively I was the class target.  They enjoyed it.

This is the salient fact of bullying that requires acknowledgment, because it plays into so much else that is simply accepted behavior in our society.    Let me give you one rather extreme example.

President Obama recently award the Medal of Honor to Sergeant Salvadore Giunta, who risked his life to save others.  He is, in fact, the first survivor of the action for which he is receiving the medal in recent history—most MOH winners are deceased at the time of the award.  Brian Fischer, who is “director of issue analysis” for the American Family Association, has publicly condemned the award, claiming “We have feminized the Medal of Honor.”

“So the question is this: when are we going to start awarding the Medal of Honor once again for soldiers who kill people and break things so our families can sleep safely at night?”

The only way in which this makes sense to me, coming from a so-called Christian, is in the context of the school yard, where hierarchy is everything and status is based on the willingness to hurt and inflict damage in order to keep the identity of the group consistent and outsiders consistently out.  Mr. Fischer, whatever else he may be, is a bully, and those who agree with his sentiments are the rest of the class passively approving his behavior because no one wants to be associated with the wimp.

Perhaps a stretch, but until we acknowledge that we reward and even expect such behavior even in our children—adults who tell their crying, hurt kids to “shrug it off” or “man up” and exhibit loss of respect for any child who can’t hold his or her own against arbitrary cruelty—we have little chance at dealing effectively with bullying and will have to live with “adult” manifestations of that mindset.  While there may well be some Darwinian advantage in the test of mettle involved, within the context of a society of laws it becomes a pressure cooker in which broken spirits and twisted psyches stew, waiting for a trigger that will unleash unexpected and unwanted reactions.

So while I appreciate the attempt at the public level to rationalize the phenomenon of bullying,  I believe such depictions are beside the point.  The self-loathing-as-motive has traction with certain people, there is much to be said for it, but it side-steps the broader problem, which is that bullying is a normal part of the group dynamic through which we all move.  And understanding goes only so far.

It is an unfortunate fact that bullying is most often stopped, at least on the individual level, with violence.  The day I finally belted a bully and knocked him to the floor was the day it all stopped.  All of it.  It was dramatic.  It was as if I had finally proven myself.  No one picked on me after that.

Want to talk about self-loathing?

Artistic Purity and the Real World

The writing world is a-buzz of late with the story about James Frey’s “new” marketing idea to rope writers into a contractual arrangement that makes indentured servitude look like an intern program over a summer between semesters.  The fact that some writers have actually signed these contracts is both telling and sad.  John Scalzi, over on Whatever, made the (radical!) suggestion that MFA programs (because the lion’s share of these hapless dupes come directly from them) teach a semester in the business of writing for part of the egregious sums colleges and universities charge for degrees.  This is a sensible suggestion.  In my experience, talking to writers from high school on up, one usually finds the attitude that writing is a holy calling and the business end of it is either not recognized or disdained as somehow sullying of the noble act.

A rebuttal to Scalzi was published here by Elise Blackwell, director of the MFA program at the University of South Carolina, who claims that MFA programs are there to protect young writers, to give them breathing space so they can write without worrying about anything else.  That, in fact, MFA programs are about “literature” and not business.

My personal reaction to this is: bullshit.  If you’re that concerned to coddle delicate artistic sensibilities, put the business semester in their last year, presumably when they’ve got what chops they’re going to get.  I can appreciate and sympathize with the belief that concerns over money can be deadly to creativity.  While working on the book, outside concerns not directly related to the art can distract and sometimes destroy the flow.  Desperation can be hugely debilitating.

But sending someone out into the world of publishing unarmed almost guarantees years of exactly that kind of desperation.  The reason to be savvy about the business is so you can protect yourself over time, learn how to not be raped by people without MFAs but rather with MBAs whose job it is to get the work from you without paying you what it’s worth.  As they say, knowledge is power, and to defend a refusal to teach what is necessary at the place where such things naturally ought to be taught is questionable ethics at best, criminal neglect at worst.

A lot of this comes down to the old dichotomy between Art (capital A) and Commerce.  Frankly, I think it’s a false dichotomy.  It’s a nonsense wall erected between two fields that are inextricably linked in the real world.  You want your art to be widely distributed, recognized, appreciate by many and, more importantly, survive your death?  Then you had better sell a lot of it.  Plant your meme in the social consciousness like a stake in the heart of a vampire (which is a more pertinent metaphor than you might at first imagine) and work that network for all it’s worth.  Nothing is guaranteed, so becoming a bestselling author does not automatically bring immortality (whatever that means), but it does mean you can continue to do what you presumably love to do.

(Not even oblivion is guaranteed for not working the system.  The famous example—and, I think, a fatal one to bring up to young writers—is Moby Dick, which sold abominably by any standards and resulted in Herman Melville eventually giving up and working the rest of his life in a customs house, but the book somehow refused to die and is now heralded as a Great American Classic.  True, this can happen, but it didn’t get Melville anything he could use during his lifetime.)

I sympathize with writers who turn their noses up at the business.  I hate it myself.  I want to write stories, not worry over spreadsheets and marketing campaigns.  I am not good at that end of it and we all play to our strengths when allowed.  But I have paid for my negligence.  Like it or not, the writers who do consistently well are those who promote, who understand contracts, who know how to say No to a bad deal, who work hard to get their books the best exposure, which means dealing with the business.  Many of them, true, have signed with agents or lawyers who dine regularly on the livers of publishers and distributors and who walk into the fray as part of their 15%.  But that doesn’t mean the writer shouldn’t know some of what’s going on.

From time to time I have had conversation with students in MFA programs or who have been through them.  To be fair, most of them really had no long term desire to be a writer.  It faded.  One of the benefits of something like Clarion is that in short order you can find out if this is really what you want to do.  Not always, but it helps.  No doubt most people who enter MFA programs are sincere in their love of their chosen art, but that doesn’t always translate into career ambitions once the actual slog begins.  Still, you would think certain basic ideas would be common coin in environments purporting to teach a life skill.  I have always been dismayed by what these folks have not been taught, not least being the business end of the writing life.

However, part of what I wanted to talk about here is this notion that somehow there is a vast chasm between true art and commercial fiction.  This is a post-Marxist critique of economics that has badly infected the academy.  In high school once I got into a heady argument with my art teacher (I only took one year of art) who extolled the brilliance of Van Gogh.  Now, I admit here I’m in a tiny minority in this, but frankly I’ve never seen that brilliance.  To me Van Gogh is on par with a…well, I find nothing to love in his work.  It strikes my eye as ugly.  Learning that his brother was unable to sell his canvasses during his lifetime leads me to believe that his contemporaries displayed more honest reactions than our hagiographic reappraisals of someone whose present fame did him no good while he was alive.  So, being the bigmouth I was (and still often am), I challenged that notion.  He asked who I considered a great artist.  “Norman Rockwell,” I said.  He sneered.  Of all the things he might have said that would have been educational on the topic of art itself, what he did say dismayed me then and angers me now.  “Rockwell is a capitalist.”

Huh?  What does that have to do with his ability?

I see now what he meant—that Rockwell’s concern with money led him to paint what the market wanted and not, possibly, what he wanted.  And by contrast that Van Gogh’s singular vision ignored what the market wanted so he produced only what his “singular vision” dictated.

I think Van Gogh would have loved to have had half the popular success Norman Rockwell enjoyed.

Either way, it’s a bullshit answer.  While we make the art in our heads, alone, in garret, hovel, basement, office, or studio, the other part, the thing that makes it whole, is its dissemination.  People have to see it, read it, hear it for it to complete itself.  The greatest artist in history may be a hermit on a mountain in central Asia, but no will ever know, nor will he/she because the Other Half doesn’t happen.

Like it or not, we all do art with the public in mind, because it is the public—that vast country of human interaction and creation that we come from and live in—that feeds us the ideas, the inspirations, the causes, consequences, and catastrophes against which or with which we react.  That reaction prompts the impulse and the work of interpretation begins and we shape our vision of the stuff that world out there gives us.  If we do it well and true, it speaks back to that world.  To condemn that world in terms of commercialism is to miss the whole connection, ignore the cycle.

It is also true that works wholly tailored to some momentary notion of What The Public Wants are almost always doomed to be ephemeral, often crass, betrayals of any higher value that might transcend trend and fad.

So you work at it.  That what you do.  Find the truth in the thing and tell it (but tell it slant…)

That in no way means you have to be ignorant of contracts.  On the contrary, if you want it Out There in the best way possible, you better know contracts very well.

So to the MFA programs that insist on putting up that wall between the real world and the artist’s tender psyche—-get over it.  You’re handicapping your students, sending them out to be victims of the James Freys of the world.  Believe me, they are not ignorant.

Rubble

There are several things in politics that I could write about.  I did post a screed yesterday over on Dangerous Intersection, so I think I’ll do something a bit more personal and, um, artistic here.  Of course, metaphorically, the theme sort of carries.  Ruin, rubble, the crumbling of ancient temples.  The overturned and broken remnants of an Aztec pyramid perhaps?

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It was fun to play with some of the values in this image, make it more epic than it already was.  Of course, this is nowhere near Mexico.  It’s an old, abandoned mine down in Bon Terre.  A Kodachrome original, though, and I must admit I’m still getting some of the best transfers from those.

Back to rabid political screelings on another day.

Steel Flag…Some Post Election Observations

I’m calming down.  People go through periodic spasms of irrationality born out of frustration, fear, incomprehension, anger, or some combination thereof.  So, too, do communities, and by extension, countries.  Spreading it out across a wider base tends to mitigate some of the worse aspects of these spasms, but not all.

First, an image:

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I shot that some time in the late 70s, a stack of automobile frames on a railroad car.  I shot it precisely because it looked like a waving flag and at the time I thought something along the lines of “this would be a more appropriately national symbol.”

So the tone is set.  It’s questionable if our much-vaunted industrial might is any longer our primary strength.  In fact, it seems to be slipping into the realm of myth.  The nation that manufactured the arsenal that brought victory in WWII and gave us here the highest standard of living in history has moved on and we no longer make all that neat stuff anymore.  Some of it and our capacity is still nothing to underestimate, but really, is steel the image for our country anymore?  Maybe it should be a ledger.

Which would be historically appropriate, because America—the United States—is where the capitalist system flowered into perfection.  All that we have has been the result of the material wealth and subsequent comfort zone of our embrace of capitalism.  An embrace that has from time to time nearly destroyed us.

What can be drawn from this recent election that speaks to that America?

To listen to the bombast, this election is all about money.  Who has it, where it comes from, what it’s to be spent on, when to cut it off.  An angry electorate looking at massive job loss and all that that implies tossed out the previous majority in Congress over money.  This is not difficult to understand.  People are frightened that they will no longer be able to pay their bills, keep their homes, send their children to college.  Basic stuff.  Two years into the current regime and foreclosures are still high, unemployment still high, fear level still high, and the only bright spot concerns people who are seemingly so far removed from such worries as to be on another plain of existence.  The stock market has been steadily recovering over the last two years.  Which means the economy is growing.

Slowly.  Economic forecasters talking on the radio go on and on about the speed of the recovery and what it means for jobs.

Out of the other end of the media machine, concern over illegal immigrants and outsourcing are two halves of the same worry.  Jobs are going overseas, and those that are left are being filled by people who don’t even belong here.  The government has done nothing about either—except in Arizona, where a law just short of a kind of fascism has been passed, and everyone else has been ganging up on that state, telling them how awful they are.  And of course seemingly offering nothing in place of a law that, for it’s monumental flaws, still is something.

Throw into this mix the new healthcare law, which has as one its most unpopular features that everyone will be required to buy policies.  Among people who are already scrambling to pay inflated mortgages and don’t know if they’ll still have a job next week, this is salt in the wound.  How dare the federal government burden me with essentially a new tax and then do nothing—nothing—to fix my economic situation!

On top of that are complaints about both the TARP program and the stimulus package, the former of which carries more than a little appearance of gross unfairness, the latter of which is purported not to have worked.

And finally, the Supreme Court overturned decades-long precedent that barred unlimited spending by corporations in political campaigns, declaring that, well, we can’t see any difference between a corporation and an individual and to restrict the presumed rights of one is to do so to the other.  Whether you agree with that decision or not makes no difference, it is still the same issue—money.

There were other, non-monetary issues that drove voters—same-sex marriage, possibly Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the state of education.  If you work at it you can connect those to money as well, but for most people I think it’s fair to say that at first glance the connection is dubious at best.

So.  Establishing the chief cause of the recent election, what can we learn from it?

Mainly, that people will vote on that basis and then apparently refuse to consider the ramifications of the problem.  With a clear track record of pro-business support, the Republican Party appears to be the least likely to do anything on behalf of working people that does not also feed the coffers of Big Business.

Consider: health care costs have been spiraling out of control for decades.  Partly, this is a consequence of technology and the expansion of choice.  Medically, we can do more now than ever before, so logically people expect it.  They expect it regardless of cost.  They make a demand on the industry based on (loosely) moral grounds—I have a right to the best shot at a longer, healthier life, and no one has a right to deny it to me—that must then find a way to provide these services based on financial realities.  As the price goes up, people fall out of the program because they can’t afford it.  Businesses also stagger under the weight of increased premiums, because the demand on the industry doesn’t automatically go down just because people can’t pay.  This is one industry where by law the services must be provided regardless of circumstance.  If you stagger into an emergency room, bleeding freely, they have to take care of you.  The cost gets shifted to those who can pay, hence premiums keep going up.  Not only that, but hospitals place leins on families under circumstances where there is clearly a source for payment.

Of course, if you’re in a plan, the insurer can negotiate with the providers to get the costs down, but that just shifts things around again.  It has become a continual game of Peter-and-Paul and no one is happy.  More and more people drop their insurance because they can’t afford it, fewer and fewer young, healthy people buy policies, so the shortfall has to be made up from those who can pay, and hence the spiral.

One can complain about the pricing practices of big pharma, etc, but that doesn’t mean the problem of smaller and smaller pools of paying customers supporting an industry that keeps growing isn’t real and basic.

Okay, so we need a solution.  The simplest would be to somehow turn everyone into a customer, which, expanding the pool of payment, would lower the cost per person.  But in order to do that, conformity to a standard must exist, which suggests that either the entire industry sit down at the table and come up with a single method, or some outside entity imposes the method.  What might that be?  Well, the only that can is the federal government.

Simple.  So-called single payer.

Except.  The common sense solution is met with massive resistance that casts the problem in terms of national identity.  We can’t take choice away from individuals.  (Even though it is taken away by the current system simply by pricing people out of the pool.  They then have two choices—be sick or go to emergency rooms.)  We can’t take away the autonomy of the Market.  (Despite the fact that in this instance the Market has demonstrated a persistent inability to address this problem, since the driving force of the Market is maximizing profits.  Change only happens when a method is shown to be counterproductive to that goal.  In other words, broken.)  We must not abandon the myths of autonomy from which we draw our common sense of identity (in spite of the fact that such myths are exactly that and even in those instances where substance can be found it is substance based on conditions long out of date and largely inapplicable to present reality).

So the solution was compromised by an insistence that nothing change, even in those matters where for any solution to work change is the only way.  The insurance lobby, in the person of spokesperson Karen Ignani, argued, cajoled, threatened all through the debate to guarantee that Washington would not set price controls, that Washington would not offer a single-payer option, that government would end up doing nothing but guarantee more customers for private insurers.  Obama and his people caved in just to get a bill, which is the currency of politics, and when the smoke cleared from the battlefield no one was happy, even though most people did not even know what was in the bill.

So again, the issue was money.

The irony of the vote is that while everyone recognizes that the issues all in one way or another come down to money—whose and how much and what will it be spent on—that recognition did not translate to a rational outcome.   Instead of insisting that the government stand up to the money interests, voters condemned government for getting in their way, as if somehow Washington standing up to Big Business is exactly the same as oppressing people who have to hold a job.  The masterful propagandistic coup on the part of Big Money in the last couple of decades is impressive.  One can admire it on rthe level of achievement to purpose.

But what has been played on here comes down to a betrayal of everything about us that is not—at least, in our individual view—tied up with money.  The United States has been one of the most cooperative communities on the planet.  We have a rich history of coming together to solve problems, stand up for rights, and work together, even when the work demands that we change our fundamental view of ourselves.  Yet a significant number of us have been convinced that in this climate to cooperate is to somehow betray ourselves.  We have been convinced that the only thing that will work is to allowed to stand alone.  We have been told that cooperation on these issues leads to a political condition which will undermine our fundamental identity.

An identity we barely understand in any cogent fashion anymore.

In desperation we have been driven to defend myths and reject solutions.  Of course this has happened before, but never so egregiously.

One of the myths is that the individual states and can do these things better than a Washington-based effort.  The problem with that is that it has no basis in fact.  Maybe states would be better at managing their own affairs and finding solutions, but the fact is that for the really big ones the states almost never have tried.  They have retrenched, defended the status quo, and resisted solutions.

The solution for slavery would have been for states to pass laws abolishing it.  They did not.  When pressed, they seceded.  Emancipation was imposed by Washington.  No doubt there were mistakes made along the way, but when the choice was to leave everything alone or free people, the states failed.

The solution for female enfranchisement would have been for the states to begin granting the vote, but with one or two exceptions they refused.  A national solution in the form of a Constitutional amendment was required and Washington has had to police it ever since. The same with general enfranchisement where individual states, in order to maintain the power structures as they were refused to do anything about voter oppression.
The solution for segregation and the mindless bigotry that resulted was for states to start implementing desegregation on their own, perhaps county by county.  They refused.  Washington forced the issue.

In order to compete in the world, educational standards had to be brought up to a national level.  States cherry-picked what they wanted in the classroom.  Actions that redressed shortfalls came out of Washington.

We are still fighting equal pay arguments.  Now we have issues with outsourcing that is ruining local economies and robbing us of good-paying jobs.  Does anyone honestly believe that states will do anything to force businesses to conform to local hiring standards?  No, that will smack of fascism if the state begins telling business who to hire.  Yet there are many national solutions that can be brought to bear to make it more feasible for businesses to hire local which will not be addressed because everyone is so terribly frightened of a Washington solution that might actually work.

I do not for a minute suggest that even int he above list Washington has done a wonderful job, but I do not buy the argument that if left alone states will do the necessary work of taking care of citizens who live below certain income levels.

It comes back to the money.

When America was the biggest and most capable player on the global scene in manufacturing and distribution, when the rest of the world looked upon our manufacturing engineering with envy and our capacity to create goods and ship them anywhere, many of these issues did not rise to the surface.  Back then the steel flag would have been a symbol without irony, representative of a nation capable of creating, working, and supporting a major global position that floated the majority of its citizens up to comfortable levels of income and security.  That’s no long the case.  The rest of the world is catching up.  We’ve been helping it.  But the industries that once made most of their profits by the handiwork of their factories are now making it by the dexterity of their procurement and distribution and much of that is no longer here.  They are competing with global competitors that can do the job pretty well, which means we no longer have a lock on expertise and can no longer depend on a situation-normal attitude to maintain ourselves.

But that does not mean the methods by which American companies continual increase their quarterly profits at the expense of the American middle class are inevitable or desirable.

Not all companies are like this, but we have allowed to come into existence a savagely predatory environment that feeds cannibalistically on itself whereby companies must have the higher possible profit margin or risk dismemberment.  We have, even while apparently rejecting evolution emotionally, embraced a discredited form of social Darwinism that condemns us to self-immolation.  This recent election reveals an impulsive dependency on the stories of the lone gunman and the industrial captain that we all would like to believe in at least a little bit.

The Republican—or should I more properly say the Conservative—approach these days seems to be to privatize everything.  This is American.  This is Who We Are.

Really?  Or is it more like handing the keys to the town over to Billy the Kid and abandoning any notion that civil society requires civic controls?

We have some large problems.  They require large solutions.  It might be a good idea to stop thinking impulsively and stop using the same old cookie cutter metrics to judge every proposal.  But based on November 2nd, 2010, we don’t yet seem ready to do that.

There’s just too much money at stake.

(cue Joel Gray and that Kurt Weill number.)

Reaction

I should probably wait a few days or weeks before writing my reaction to last night’s national insanity exhibition.  But I doubt I’ll “level out” on what has happened.

First off, what part of Mr. Obama’s  “fixing this will take a long time” did people not understand?  Did anyone seriously expect all this mess to be cleaned up in two years?  Or is it really just that people are only concerned about their own situation and everyone else can just—well, worry about their own situation?

Let me say this slowly, so there can be no misunderstanding:  we have been digging this hole for 30 years.  It will take a bit longer than two years to climb out of it.

Thirty years, that’s right.  Since Reagan.  Dear Ronnie, so classically American in so many ways.  Carter began the deregulation frenzy with oil, hoping the oil companies would plow their new profits into development of American resources in the aftermath of the first major OPEC embargo.  Reagan was surrounded by the rest of the business community, who whispered into his ear, sweetly, oh so sweetly, “Take the restraints off, Ronnie, and we will build you that shining city on the hill all those Moral Majority types are going on about.”  So he did.  And that started it.

(Unlike others, I am inclined to believe that Reagan was naive about this.  I think he was from that generation that actually trusted people of a certain stature, relied on native patriotism, and so was completely blindsided by the corporate vampires who talked him into deregulating damn near everything.  I think he expected them to reinvest in America, not start the whole ugly off-shore account boom and the outsourcing of American jobs.  Inclined, I say, but not willing to give him a complete pass.  Because along with that, Reagan oversaw the foreign take over of hundreds of American businesses, many of which were involved in basic research and development and manufactured things vital to our national interest.  Throughout the 80s, one company after another was bought by Japanese, British, German, French, and occasionally Korean interests and the result was a serious hemorrhage of expertise, know-how, and manufacturing capacity, not to mention the loss of good-paying, high-tech jobs as those businesses were all moved out of the United States and to their new host countries.  Why did he do this?  Because Reagan was a traditional conservative who believed government should have nothing to do with  private sector business, either pro or con, and he refused to establish an “industrial policy” that would have protected these businesses.  At the time there was a tremendous wave of sentiment opposed to protectionism, which smacked of a “liberal” or at least Democratic program, but in hind sight clearly was all about keeping international boundaries as open as possible for the multinationals that have presided over the disemboweling of our economy.)

Deregulation has been the culture in Washington ever since.  And while that has been the case, we have been through bubble after bubble after bubble.  Most people may be forgiven for not understanding what exactly is going on—after all, in the case of derivatives, even the people who write them admit they don’t understand how some of them work—but basically we have permitted large financial institutions to use more and more of the money with which they are entrusted—yours, in other words—to make bets on the rising and falling of markets, which generate virtual dollars.

Now, virtual dollars don’t actually damage anything unless you try to turn them into real dollars—by, for instance, taking your paper profits from such instruments and using them as if they are real and buy into other instruments.  Or just by removing what the stock market says is yours and putting it into a regular bank account (protected by FDIC).  Now you are removing real money from the economy upon which the bets are placed.  Taking it out of play that way means more virtual money must come into existence to fill the void and keep the markets up.

Someone has to actually pay real money into this at some point and that’s where the bubbles run into problems, because in real terms there isn’t enough actual capital—in the form of products or real estate—sufficient to cover the bets.  The bets are all made on credit and when the interest on the loan can’t be met, real money has to be brought in to bolster the bubble—hence liquidations occur, foreclosures occur, inflation occurs, defaults happen.  Defaults are the worst because it is an admission by one or more players that they know the money isn’t there.  Panic ensues, more and more players try to turn their virtual money into real money, but the only place they can get real money is out of the accounts made up of real things—other peoples’ homes, bank accounts, businesses, jobs…

Sounds silly expressed this way, but this is what has been going on for 30 years, and the continual growth and sapping of the economy has left us ragged.  It can’t be sustained now.

One might complain that we oughtn’t to have done all that betting in the first place, but that doesn’t get you far.  We did it.  Why?  Because we could.  From the top all the way down to the bottom.  Gambling.

Not just the big banks, although the damage done by their gambling is the most visible and sweeping, but really they couldn’t have done it had it not been the national pasttime on the individual level.  Young graduate gets his (expensive) degree with loans he has to repay.  Out the door and into the wilderness, he snags a job that pays a salary his father or grandfather would have found unimaginable at the same time in their lives.  But they likely didn’t have the same debts to service from day one, they, or their parents, had to shell out money from savings to get them through college or they themselves worked to put themselves through semester by semester, paying as they went.  That is, if they went to college at all, which has itself become a symptom of the new era because the preceding generations fueled the notion that their children would not have to work with their hands and would have degrees.  (We have a dearth of tool and dye makers, machinists, practical engineers, carpenters, etc because of this sincere and short-sighted dream, which has in turn made us less competitive in a world where actually making things is still necessary.)  But does the newly-minted grad work to pay off his existing debt?

No.  He gets married, buys a house, two cars, maybe a boat, they have a couple of kids and start their college funds.  All on credit.  Now on top of the student loans, he adds all this, so he goes to his new boss and says “I need a raise” and because thousands of these people are doing this, companies start going into overdrive to (a) cover the expenses and (b) find ways to cut costs to remain profitable.  And while all this is going on, health care costs rise, competition becomes more cut throat, forcing companies to load on more debt to make them unattractive to larger companies seeking to buy them and gut them.  But the extra debt means they then have to cut more expenses and the new grad gets fired in a wave of cut-backs.

And on and on.  The simple truth is, you cannot have everything right away, but we have convinced ourselves we can and, more than that, it is our right.

The overburdened system, staggering under the load, collapses when the financial market goes into one of its periodic fluctuations and the people with real money at the top pull out to wait for “an adjustment” and cause the ruination of marginal enterprises…

I could go on.  All this is the result of the government being stripped of its power to say No to the betting.  The predators at the top are the worst because they know exactly how this works and always walk away intact, leaving a trail of debris behind them, looking for the next bubble.

Yet people seem not to understand that the problem isn’t that companies can’t make enough money but that they can’t finance the virtual economy and survive.  They can’t gamble.  They can’t do what they’re supposed to do in the financial equivalent of Dodge City.  Where there is no law there is chaos.  And chaos is what we have.

So the Democrats failed to fix a three-decade-old problem in two years and the voters threw them out of power in a fit of pique.

Of course, this was after a roughly 41% voter turnout nationwide.  Had the turnout been the same as 2008, which topped 60%, we might not be looking at an insane outcome.  Once more, we do not so much have majority rule as minority veto.  Given how close some of the races were, this means Republicans have won with a bit more than 20% of the eligible vote.

Twenty percent.

It is tempting to do a Pilate and walk away.  What is it with Americans and their aversion to participate in their own destiny?  A question perhaps never to be answered.

But maybe this is a good thing.  I’ll look at it that way.  This crop of Republicans has two years to prove they can do this better than the Democrats.  (And believe me, I don’t think much of the Democrats, but at least they were trying to spend the money where it mattered—here in the country.)  Maybe after they fail, they’ll be tossed out on their ear again.

Not, however, for the right reasons.  It will be once more an exhibition of the only true national party—the Where’s Mine? Party.  Because that’s all this was.  People pissed that Happy Days aren’t here after waiting two whole years!  Wahhhh!

If the Republicans manage to roll back the new regulations and head us back into the economic environment conducive the great betting game that produces virtual money, we will be…I can’t honestly think of a clearer image, so forgive me…fucked royally.  The gap between rich and poor has been the direct result of power brokers throwing dice with the personal goals and lives and dreams of millions of people who do not have the power or the savvy to tell them no.

I guess you can tell how I feel about this election.  The monkeys are back in charge of the zoo and it’s bananas for everyone.  Don’t like bananas?  Tough.