distal muse

observations, opinions, ephemera, and views


Time To Retire That Myth

I was raised never to blame anyone else for my failures.  If things didn’t work out the way I hoped or intended, well, suck it up and own it.  I didn’t follow through, work hard enough, smart enough, long enough, plan, save, do the necessary, make the sacrifice, or pay sufficient attention.  It was no one’s fault but my own if things went wrong or simply never came to fruition. Blaming someone else for your problems was the surest way to never succeed.  If it doesn’t work out this time, start over, try again, slam your head against that wall until it caves in, but don’t quit and under no circumstances complain that forces are arrayed against you.

Every time I’ve been tempted to do a rant about the unfairness of any situation, that upbringing hauls me up short and makes it difficult, even when I know for a fact my failure was not my fault.  Such things get in deep in the psyché, etch pathways, trenches, ruts that will not let me divest of the feeling of responsibility for a failure I had nothing to do with but still had to suffer.

I suspect most Americans have been infected with some version of that idea.  It has its virtues.  We work hard, we rarely quit, we harbor notions of boundless achievability.  We think highly of ourselves and everyone knows a poor self-image can be deeply damaging.  One might assume this is a component of our much-vaunted work ethic and maybe it is.

On the downside it makes us blind to real circumstances that do in fact hinder people.  Especially Other People.

Congress is about to vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act.  The senate already has.  I doubt the house will fail to follow suit.  Throughout the campaign last year we kept hearing that this was going to happen.  Yet we elected the man who said he would do it.  No no, his occasional “softening” of that position doesn’t count, because in no instance did Trump say he wouldn’t support it.  More than that, we sent back to congress all the incumbents who said they would repeal it.

“Repeal and Replace” has been the mantra, but there is no replacement.  There isn’t.  How do I know?  Because after seven years of listening to them complain we have heard nothing of such a thing.  The GOP has had seven years to get their collective heads together and devise a replacement.  Seven years.  Nothing.  Because they never intended to replace it.  They just intended to repeal it.

You might say this is another give-away to the moneyed interests, but that’s too simple.  The fact is, large segments of the health care industry have figured out how to make money under the ACA.  There are now jobs at stake as well.  It has become a substantial part of the economy.  Just repealing it will raise everyone’s costs, damage parts of a now-working industry, and raise unemployment, and that’s before throwing millions of people off their health care and letting many of them die.  This is sheerest negligence on their part.

Seven years and they could have hired experts to help them come up with a better plan.  Seven years, we could have heard proposals, but all we got was a continual vow, a screed, that they wanted to repeal this horrible law.  Seven years to devise an alternative, air it, meet with the industry that would have to work with it, get the public on their side, have a debate.  Nothing.

This is presumably the way things are supposed to work here—you see something that doesn’t work right, come up with a better idea to replace it.

So why are they voting to repeal something which they have no replacement for?  Something that actually benefits millions of Americans?

There is a video going around of a small business owner talking to Paul Ryan and defending “Obamacare” because without it he would have been dead.  Unequivocal.  Without the ACA he would have died.  Ryan just keeps smiling that vacuous smile of his, like “I hear you and I’m glad you’re alive but it’s beside the point.”

What is that point?

That business owner didn’t deserve it.

Hold on a second, that’s kind of cold.  Didn’t deserve it?

When you dig down deep into the driving myths that we use to define ourselves, yes, you find that in the mix.  It has to do with that upbringing I talked about above.  Your situation is no one else’s fault but your own.

There is no replacement for the ACA because the people voting to repeal it believe, deep down in that vast pool of American myth that informs who they think they are, that people without the means to pay for something should not have that something, whatever it is.  You don’t—ever—give people things.  It is just the nature of the universe that if they can’t find the resources within to step up and make enough money to have what they need, it is their fault, no one else’s, and therefore their situation is no one’s responsibility but their own.  “I’m sorry, Mr. Independent Business Owner Who Had Cancer, but how is your misfortune my problem?  You should have found a way to come up with the money to pay for good healthcare.”

Because blaming others for your failures is not American.

This is the only thing that makes sense.  This is the only thing that explains the visceral and programmatic opposition to any social program designed to assist the less able, the disadvantaged, the underprivileged, the marginalized, the unlucky.  They don’t want to do anything that appears to “give” something to someone who doesn’t deserve it.

Doesn’t deserve it.  What does that actually mean?

If, as many of them claim, they are christians and look to god, then by their own philosophy none of us “deserve” anything.  We should all be slowly dying in a pool of under-resourced misery.  But then, the flip side of that is the charge that the more fortunate should be charitable to the less.

It would not surprise me to learn that most of those voting to take away the ACA support numerous charities and probably do so generously.

Here’s the thing.  Charity like that, though, has never effectively addressed poverty.  Some recipients of the charity manage to clamber up out of it, but most remain dependent.

They get what they deserve, perhaps, which is always less than enough to right their circumstances.

Because their poverty is no one’s fault but their own.  They don’t deserve to be made…

To be made equal.

I’ll let that thought simmer for a while.

The bottom line is, there will be no replacement for the ACA.  Replacing it would mean they accept responsibility for your inability to make enough money to buy your own health care.  They will not accept that because doing so opens the possibility that they are responsible for a whole lot more social inequality than just low incomes and joblessness and the fact that resource manipulation is the primary tool of the wealthy.  Because admitting to that responsibility would mean that a lot of people live in situations which are not their fault.  In fact, are some one else’s fault.

That’s a can of worms they have no intention of opening, because, well, we’re Americans, and we make our own way, taking no hand-outs, accepting no one’s charity, and getting by on our own effort.  Anyone who can’t manage just isn’t trying hard enough and that’s just not our fault.  Or responsibility.

It’s a myth.  It flies in the face of reality.  And it’s time to have done with it.

For all you who voted for these people and may well lose your healthcare…well, in this case, it would seem this really was your fault.

September 23, 2015

Bernie and the Clown Car

Scott Walker has dropped out of the presidential race. Given another month, all that will remain will be Kasich, Fiorino, and Trump.  Maybe Bush, but even he’s been resorting to hired audiences.  Maybe not Kasich, either, he seems not be doing well, but I’ll address that below.

I thought I’d seen the bottom of the barrel in national politics, but this election cycle is so far bottomless in terms of pointless rhetoric, jeremiads, lies, and crappy spectacle.  I would like to say something serious about the GOP but they haven’t given us anything serious since the season premiered. I felt a bit sorry for Governor Kasich, who in the Grand Debate kept trying to bring the discussion back to policy and serious issues.  Unfortunately, he was upstaged by the Trump Train that kept running over the other clowns tied to the tracks.

What can be said of a roster of candidates who seem so dedicated to being on the wrong side of so much?

When Jeb Bush proposed Margaret Thatcher for the face of the ten dollar bill, it was indicative of so many levels of disconnect from American reality that I believed it could not get worse.  (He called her Ronald Reagan’s “partner.”  This is so revealing of so much that it’s difficult to unpack in one sitting.  In truth, I doubt Jeb really understands just how meaningful that gaff was.)  At least Trump is doing what he’s doing on purpose.

It is difficult to see much merit in the choices.

Bobby Jindal wants to be white (or so it would seem—just look at the official portrait he commissioned recently) and denies that race is an issue.  At a time in this country of surging racial tension, I can only imagine what kind of a message he thinks he’s sending.  (Did you know he took his name from the Brady Bunch?  His real name is Piyush)  This is a new level of misrepresentation, but of what I’m not sure I want to say. On policy he’s demonstrated an anti-immigration bias, but that’s in the news a lot.  Of course he’s an antichoice candidate, he couldn’t run on the GOP ticket if he weren’t, but he also backs a Constitutional amendment for a balanced federal budget.  This issue has come up from time to time.  It’s stupid.  It shows a profound misunderstanding of how government funding works.  A state can have such a law and get by because in times of catastrophe a state can depend on the federal government, but only because the federal government is not prohibited from spending outside its budgetary limits.  Put this in the Constitution and see what happens next time a flood or hurricane produces a disaster that requires federal help.  More than that, though, it would produce serious impediments to our international agreements, treaties, foreign aide programs, and all those ships, planes, and soldiers we keep at the ready in case we need to invade another country or intervene between two other powers for the benefit of the world.  Now, Jindal is actually a Rhodes Scholar, which suggests he’s smart enough to know better—know better about a lot of things—so why doesn’t he seem to get this?  I think he does, which means he misrepresenting the issues, which means he doesn’t think the voters aere smart enough to see through this nonsense, but it also means he’s relying on a base that just might be that uninformed.  And,hell, he’s been given the Duck Dynasty Seal of Approval,so maybe that’s the case.  But its disingenuous.  He’s playing to his base at the expense of the truth, which is pretty much what passes for politics in this country, regardless of party, but it appears this year the GOP has distilled itself down to the true essence of nonsense.

Then there’s the usual roster of absurdities—christians are under attack and he wants laws passed to protect them; he’s opposed t gay marriage; another one who thinks corporations are people and pay too much in taxes, despite the growing evidence that corporations of a certain size are really vampires; and he’s a climate change denier.

Of course, he’s polling at 4%, along with Rand Paul, so why pick on him?

No reason other than he, in one person, exemplifies so much that is wrong with the GOP.

Chris Christie is a vindictive man who has nothing but a gruff manner to recommend him, which is wearing thin finally.

Ted Cruz, for all his anti-immigration rhetoric, has had his own oops moment with the question of nationality.  This wouldn’t be an issue if Cruz hadn’t stoked the fires of the Birthers during his tenure in the senate.  And then that gaff where he mixed up “Keynesian” with “Kenyan.”  Cruz also, along with several of the others, wants to make the Patriot Act permanent.  I’ve already stated how this is one of my biggest disappointments with Obama.  What I will not support is another president who can’t see his (or her) way past this kind of fearmongering and sees something “necessary” in violating the Constitution and our civil rights.

But again, Cruz isn’t polling very strongly.

Carly Fiorino is another of those baffling chimeras the GOP seems to love—a former CEO who cost her companies market share and recovered by firing thousands of people and somehow has made this a virtue.  A business “leader” who is actually rather bad at what she does—unless what she think it’s all about is filling her own coffers, then, yeah, she’s great.  But also, this affection they have for business people, as if that’s any kind of recommendation for high office.  Details aside, there is one fundamental difference between government and business that puts the lie to this idea.  Business, at its base, is about beating the competition.  Governance is about accommodating competing factions.  In practice, the two things couldn’t be more different.  So every time I hear a Ross Perot or a Mitt Romney blow smoke about how their business experience has made them fit for the presidency, I first want to ask How?  And then I realize that they have the wrong idea about what government is all about.  Probably they think that once they get in office they can do something about all those annoying rules and regulations that frustrated them in business and then make it easier for businesses to siphon off resources from the public trough.  Which is pretty much what’s been happening since St. Ronnie and the era of deregulation.  I think it’s fair to say we have subsequently found ourselves in deep doo-doo because of it.

No, if Carly does well with the GOP at all it’s because of another fundamental disconnect—they think because the mood of the country seems to favor a woman for president, any woman will do.  They made that mistake with Sarah Palin and that scotched their last chance of electing a serious politician to the White House.

And what can be said of Ben Carson, who seems to think African Americans didn’t have it so bad as slaves?  No, I don’t really think he believes that, but it fell out of his mouth, so I have to wonder at the filters he has in place or what really goes on in that skull of his.  Here is a doctor, at least putatively a man of science, who thinks evolution and the Big Bang are inventions of Satan.

Trump is doing well in all this because he is an honest clown.  So far I have not heard one thing he has said that did not come first from the mouth of another GOP face, although couched in more arcane and abstruse rhetoric. He has stripped away the Newspeak  and is simply reporting what, for many people, the GOP has come to stand for.  His misogyny is in line with the voting records and speeches made in opposition to women’s rights we’ve been listening to for decades now.  His immigration remarks reflect the growing nativist sentiment of the party.  His view on the economy is completely in the fold as are his views on taxation.  He is a vulgar, selfish ideologue shouting his message in catchy phrases not quite but almost at the level of what one could find on lavatory walls in truck stops across the country.  He is an outsized, tasteless, gauche demagogue who cannot be argued with by the others on the debate platform because they believe that stuff, too, they just don’t want to say it like that.

Trump is, if he keeps going, handing the next presidency to the Democrats.

The only solution for the GOP is to clean house of all the mean-spirited, small-minded, myopic idiocy that keeps shouting down reason and common sense and find a candidate that speaks to the issues as if he or she actually has a grasp.  I mentioned Kasich.  Not my favorite guy, but he is more reasonable than the rest.  But like past also-rans (I know, he hasn’t dropped out yet, but he can’t compete with the ones fighting for the steering wheel of the clown car, he will) the one GOP candidate that might save the Party and possibly begin to steer it back toward some semblance of rationality has no chance because the screaming hordes cheering on Trump and who would have preferred a Cruz won’t—possibly can’t—listen.  They have been told for decades that the evil Democrats will destroy their country and they just can’t seem to get past that.

And the Democrats?  Most of them seem to be stuck in the “let’s just keep the ship on course and worry about where we’re going once the storm is past” mode.  They will do less damage.  They might, if there is a thorough turn-over in congress, do something worthwhile.

Right now I’m backing Bernie.  I’m too cynical to believe he win the nomination—tricks and deals and smoke-filled rooms have a way with people like him—but so far he’s saying things I find more relevant to the world than any of the others.  And who knows, he could be this century’s Andrew Jackson in terms of a populist revolution.  (No, I do not think Bernie Sanders is in any way like Jackson, just in case any of you who read this might decide I’m making any kind of policy comparison—as far as I’m concerned, the only thing Jackson did came before he took office in terms of expanding the franchise.)

And, really, I think the business-as-usual crowd should be worried—Bernie got applause at Liberty University, of all places, even while maintaining his convictions on an issue which there, of all places, one would think would get him nothing but boos.

As for the GOP, I’m watching the retrenchment of stupidity and ignorance, all because they hate—-I can think of no more accurate word—hate President Obama.  I do not understand.  These are the people who are supposed, by virtue of their election to high office, be above that, but after seven years I can conclude nothing less.  They hate him.  Institutionally.  When he’s gone, I worry that they will do something with that hate other than shed it.  What will be their next target?

Well, there are already several they seem ready to go after.  Some they already have.

Work History, Wages, and Doing The Things

The other day I was taking with friends about that pesky subject, wages. Minimum wage is in the news, a big argument, and the politics are necessarily touchy.  Comparisons were made and my own situation caused a bit of raised eyebrows and “What’s up with that” detours through personal histories.

According to some, among people who have known me a long time, I have always been seriously underpaid throughout my working life.

Before we get into that, though, I would like to reference this article, written by my boss, Jarek Steele, about the current anxiety-laden question of raising the minimum wage.  Go read this, then come back here.

First off, I would like to say that I work at a wonderful place.  Left Bank Books is now family.  As you can tell from the essay, they are thoughtful, concerned people with no small amount of brainpower and good bead on life as it is and a solid moral sense.  I’m lucky to work there.  I’ll come back to that later.

Now. Most of my adult life I have been relatively unconcerned about my wages.  I don’t know where I got this from, but I’ve always felt they were secondary to several more important factors.  Some of this is naïveté, but some of it is a result of early on making a choice between security and fulfillment. For many people, money serves as fulfillment, and for some it genuinely is.  They work to have.  I offer no judgment here, everyone is different, and it’s all a question of degree anyway, because we fall along a spectrum.

For myself, I’ve always worked to Be.

Perhaps a small difference to some, but a huge difference over time. I came out of the box, as it were, with intentions to be a certain kind of person, to do certain things, to make a crater in the world that looks a certain way, and if the pursuit of money got in the way of that, then I ignored the money.  Not consciously, because I always just assumed that somewhere along the way I would have it, mainly as a consequence of having done all the stuff that fulfilled my requirements of Being.

Now, if this all sounds a bit zen and possibly foolish, so be it. I’d be willing to bet many if not most of us have career-type dreams at some point that focus mainly of what we’re doing and not how much money we’re going to make doing it.  But this is America and identity is conflated with owning things, so it becomes very difficult to tease apart the doing from the reward.

Which brings me to my rather jagged career path, which saw me graduate high school intent on a career in photography, which I pursued as an art first and foremost and, in the end, only.  I never figured out how to make it pay.

So I worked for a major photofinishing chain, then a period as an in-house commercial photographer for a marginal advertising company, then as a delivery driver for a custom lab, and finally as the darkroom jockey of one of the best camera stores/black & white labs in town.  That last for 20 years.

I never became the photographer I thought I’d be, at least not commercially.  I did all the things.  Portraits, landscape, art and abstract, architectural.  Occasionally I did them for clients, but mainly I did them because they were cool to do and they produced images I wanted to see.  I was Doing Photography and that was the important thing. I was fulfilled.

All the while I drew my wage from my job, which supported the art and all the other stuff.

Then I picked up the writing again.  Time passed, I learned my craft, started selling stories, and then that 20 year stint of a job ended with the close of the business. Two years later I applied to and got another lab job, at which I worked for 11 years, most of them rather unhappily.

(And here the concerns over money enter in the most annoying way, because money would have been the means by which I would have been able to just write instead of having to work at something I no longer loved in order to eat.)

The story sales never added up to enough for me to quit that job.

But I was getting published.  I was fulfilled, at least in the desire to Do The Thing.

Age does force one to confront certain realities.  Looking back, I realized that I had never pushed for more money.  I never once, in all the years of “working for a living,” asked for a raise.  Somewhere in the back of my head there floated the assumption that good work brought remuneration, so if the people I worked for chose not to give a raise, then it was due to my lack of good work.  I could maintain this attitude largely because, with one exception (that first job right out of high school) I have never worked for a large corporation.  Never.  I have spent my employed life working for small local businesses, the health of which I could see, right in front of me.  They all struggled.  I was part of that struggle, so adding a burden to them was not in my nature.  I never asked for a raise.

Instead, I lived a life that fit with my earnings.  One could do that at one time.  And I did get raises, so it’s not like I’m talking about trying to scrape by on minimum wage.  (Which was, btw, right around two dollars an hour when I graduated high school, and I worked for Fox Photo over a year before they granted me a ten cent an hour raise.)  But I never asked.  I was always grateful when they came, but I never asked.  The people for whom I worked were usually close enough to the ground to show appreciation when they could.  For a while I made a decent living.

Donna and I, however, had no children.  That one fact explains a great deal about how we could opt to work for who we chose (often) and live as we pleased without overly worrying about income.  We were careful.  When we bought a house, we paid it off early.  We carry no balances on our credit cards.  We owe no bank anything.

And we realize how unusual this makes us.

But it also points up the major disconnect many people suffer in their lives in terms of employment and compensation.  I never asked for raises because, by and large, I never had to.  Had we lived a more traditional lifestyle, money would have been the single greatest driver of all our choices.

However, my comment above about being underpaid…

Several years ago an opportunity opened for me to possibly take a job as an editor at a local magazine.  I’m not familiar with the task, but I’ve always been a quick learner, so I had no doubts about my ability to come up to speed, and I could offer myself for a bit less than others might.  I went over the requirements of the position with a friend who had been in this end of the industry.  She remarked as one point that the salary would probably be X, which was low, but in a couple of years I could probably come up to standard.  I laughed and told her I’d never made that much in a year in my life.

She was flabberghasted.  How, she wondered, could someone with my abilities have been so undercompensated?

Because it had never occurred to me for a long, long time that I had been.  I’d been Doing The Things, and wasn’t that what mattered?

No.  At least it’s not the only thing.  Money is the means by which we live the kind of lives we wish to.  I want “success”—monetary success—as a writer so that I can do that and nothing else.  But I’m not good at that kind of success. I’ve never been adept at parlaying skills and artistic ability into money.  Whatever it is that allows some people to be skilled at getting compensated, I’ve never been good at it.

And the owners of corporate America know that most people are like that.  They depend on it.  The main reason unions were so important is for that reason and that most people need someone who is good at understanding that game to struggle on their behalf.  But the fact remains, most people take what they can get and then worry about the shortfall.

Because we have consistently misunderstood the relationship between, in the classic terms, labor and management.  As the economy has changed, that misunderstanding is becoming critical, because we are collectively faced with the consequences of our failure to address it.

Business knows average people aren’t either interested or especially adept at Doing Business.  That alone gives business—and I’m talking business at the disembodied corporate level here—an advantage because they take it.  They can shortchange employees because they know how and their employees don’t know they have either any power or can find the means to engage management to worker advantage.  Had we kept abreast of the changes to labor’s benefit these past 30 years when we shifted predominantly from a manufacturing economy to a service economy, then the present strained issue of raising minimum wages would not be so traumatic.  The problem of catching up is putting strain on small to mid-level businesses that they should not have had to bear.  Because we’ve been underwriting cheap product and services for decades by a disproportionate-to-reality compensation formula that treats people like parts.  Read Jarek Steele’s breakdown above.  Numbers, folks, and realities.

Drastic measures become necessary only because of indolence in the system.  As long as the numbers of people receiving poor compensation for work that has become increasingly primary were low, the problem could be ignored.  It’s not even so much that so many are trying to make full livings on minimum wage but that all wages are commensurately constrained by the growing imbalance in consumer ability to pay for what we need and want.

Then there are people like me, who frankly have never known how to care about the money.  Or at least never felt the freedom to demand it, because we keep getting sidetracked by Doing The Things.

Because Taking Care of Business consumes the one thing that art demands—time.  I loved doing photography.  I hated running a business.  I love writing.  Paying attention to marketing and sales is frankly loathesome.  I wish sometimes (lately more than ever) that it were otherwise, that I had that ability to engage promotions and negotiations, but I am who I am and do it only because if I don’t then some day I won’t be able to do the art anymore.

Which, by completely unconscious intent, has caused me to work locally, for people I see everyday and can talk to as friends more than as employers.  I think this is a good business model, but because it is not primary in this country, because people who think very much differently set the parameters of what constitutes “business practice” for so much of the country, this is not the business model that trumps treating people like parts.

We’ve been arguing about this since the founding of the Republic, since the idea of the yeoman farmer and the independent artisan was turned into a romantic myth by the privileging of corporate giants saw a massive culling early on, when it became harder and harder for the independent owner to function in the face of cheaper prices and savage competition that stripped people of their own labor by turning them into wage-slaves.  The argument went on and on, the battle raging for over a century and a half, until finally the Second World War, the Cold War, combined to usher in the era of corporate hegemony that, while not eradicating the small business managed to place the entire economy in thrall to the requirements of giants.*

Hyperbole?  Consider what happens when a large corporation closes a plant or leaves a market and dozens of smaller, local businesses—those that survived the initial arrival of that corporation, at least (mainly by learning to service it)—find their customers drying up because so many of them are unemployed.  Taxes dry up as well, so relief doesn’t stretch as far, and we no longer have an economy that will support a regrowth in a timely manner.  Towns have been abandoned due to this cycle.

Doom and gloom?  No, I think there’s enough latent ability and power in local, small business to still have a good chance at not only holding its own but of succeeding and altering the standard model.  Because there is still value in prizing Doing the Things over Making the Buck, and compensation can flow in those directions.  We’re looking at a crucial time where those kinds of choices are more important than they have been in a long time.

Which leaves me back at where I started, admitting to a kind of aphasia when it comes to this money thing and by and large, as inconvenient as it is, still not much interested in changing who I am in order to meet some mogul’s notion of success.  I work where I work and do what I do because I can decide that “career” is not a synonym for sheer acquisitiveness.

I am lucky, as I say, and do not in any way offer my life as an example of how to do this.  I might well have ended up in much worse places.  But it’s the people around me who have made the difference.  They all ought to be better off, but we’re all Doing The Things and making the world, at least around us, better off.  Meantime, I am grateful.  I can still Do The Things.

It would be good if more of us remembered or realized that that is why we work so hard.

____________________________________________________________________________

* Consider further the completely bass ackwards relationship between large corporations and local communities wherein the community is required by circumstance to bride the corporation to set up shop—a bribe done with tax money, which means the community starts off impoverishing itself for the “privilege” of hosting an entity that will then extract profits from that community to distribute among people who do not live there.  And when the latent wealth of that community has fallen sufficiently that the profits to the corporation are less than deemed desirable, they then close up shop and leave, the community having grown dependent to such a degree that, scaffolding removed, the local economy collapses, partially or completely.  What should be the case is the corporation ought to pay the community for the privilege and the relationship should be one where the community as host is a primary shareholder and gets compensated first.  Unworkable someone in the back says?  Not so.  Alaska did this will the oil companies decades ago and every Alaskan since gets a stipend from Big Oil.  Or did till recently.

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