Wednesday, September 12, 2012

You And I and the Parking Lot Mendicant

How does she recline on this delible day

In those ribbons of bruise      her back

Creased by the vertex of car sandwich tiers

These stacked slabs of slots--the periodic

Numbered accommodations of this year's

Motto of mobility?     She runs down

Done in outside the locus of brand royalty

Awaiting the accumulation of lunchtime.

Whatever else I'm not

     Am I not as her as me?

          I pray to doubt.

I can't find the space to leave     to lose

These roots     to tender the truth about me

I try     this is not me     I try again

Is it nothing     again     breaking outward

Dispersed     with the crucible suspended

Whole on hot tongues?     Remind me

How my consequences funnel light.

Hold up these fire-worn branches

     Know the unsung numbers

          Of our secrets through this soil.    

Give us back  


Monday, September 3, 2012

Is Your Newsroom Breeding Fuckweasels?

There’s an infestation plaguing the newsrooms, publishing houses and web-feeds of America. The minds of many of the people we all rely upon to provide reporting, information and perspective on the events that affect both our lives and our future have been severely compromised by one of the most diabolical threats we’ve ever faced as a nation. They are succumbing in droves to the ruthless onslaught of ravenous, mind-mulching fuckweasels.

The fuckweasel is an invasive species purpose-built to devour reason and excrete confusion and nonsense; to sniff out our fears, consume and consolidate them, then bind them selectively to the most sensible and helpful ideas on offer. They subsist—nay, thrive—on a steady diet of seed-corn, scrambled brains, and fear. To make matters worse, the cognitive viruses these malignant memes carry induce hallucinations that paint horrifying death's-heads on those who think and act out of compassion for their fellow human beings while elevating the avatars of avarice, whose ends they serve, to the status of heroes and royalty. Their sole function in the world is to recycle unwary brains for someone else's profit.

If you’re like most Americans, you probably feel like things have slipped for you pretty badly over the past few years, but you’re still holding onto a fairly sizable reserve of hope. Hey, this is capitalism, you might be thinking; they’ll sort it all out for us sharpish just as soon as the smoke clears! Yet maybe you’ve also noticed that this sorting and re-sorting has been going on for some time now, and that somehow you keep getting shifted further and further from any arrangement you might consider reasonably “sorted” in each round. At the same time, a tiny subset of citizens—the very people who were best situated to begin with—just keep finding themselves levitated higher and faster every time you look. It’s like somebody keeps handing them winning lottery tickets every day of their charmed lives!

The wires and the WiFi are awash with explanations for why you’ve pitched up at this sorry turn. Many of these voices will instruct you to believe that it was inevitable, or that your government is preventing the winners from coming to your aid—or even that it’s your own damned fault. Narratives like these are pressed into service on behalf of a set of institutions and interests that political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson refer to as “organized money.” The mouthpieces of organized money often speak of even the most meager concessions to any reasonable idea of equality with the kind of contempt normally reserved only for the most scurrilous and contemptible of scandals. But these aren’t “evil” people; rather, they are profoundly ill. Their systems of thought have been compromised, corrupted by fiendishly sophisticated malware that subverts or disables their capacity for sustained contextual analysis and sound ethical reasoning. That is to say, their meme-space is infested with fuckweasels. Consequently, they consistently confuse excuses with explanations, rationalization with ratiocination, and emotionally-charged assertion with telling evidence. And the longer these scripts run against their brains—their wetware, if you will—the more extensively the wetware gets rewired, and the more susceptible they become to more comprehensive infiltration. It’s a rabidly vicious cycle.

There are rules, of course. To do its job properly our fuckweasel has to summon your inner lizard: that gallingly primitive security system deep in your brain that handles threat detection, sirens, klaxons, flashing red lights, and of course soiling your undergarments. Therefore, these pernicious chunks of viral code don’t carry out their destructive hacks by way of clever reasoning, or by any other legitimate means of rational suasion; instead, they accomplish these feats by gate-crashing your cognitive party under the guise of opinion or thoughtful commentary, then taking to the trees. Once inside, they brachiate1 gleefully through the dendritic branches in your lush, unguarded brainforest, chopping away meaningful associations; cross-wiring2 your lizard-class limbic alarm system; suppressing the paths to those pesky critical thinking circuits in the neocortex; and generally reducing every complex, multivalent issue to a simplistic, bivalent schema of right versus wrong, good versus bad, pro- versus anti-everything-that-matters.

This last, reductive feature is perhaps the most insidiously effective function of fuckweasel code. Under the gentle ministrations of our work-a-day fuckweasels, every sophisticated proposition (or even any targeted feature of a larger proposal) gets mashed down, its useful complexity bitten away, until—like a simple, household toaster—it admits of only two states: right on, or way off; toasty warm and safe, or chillingly cold and terrifying to the point of incontinence. They don’t even bother to say why in any coherent or compelling way; they just grab our complex issues, chew them up, shape the resulting bolus into these ridiculous wank-toasters, then trot them out on the evening news and flog them like they’re the only mental products that any right-thinking person must judge indispensable. And lo, they’re selling like gold-plated love-batteries with a lifetime guarantee! How do the fuckweasels accomplish this? Branding and labeling, dear reader—and exhaustive repetition.

Another crucial point to bear in mind is that the fuckweasel isn’t designed to be viewed straight-on; rather, it uses misdirection to induce you to haul your head sideways and let it hump your ear. Because the minute you start passing notes to your cortex or making like you’re actually trying to rationally understand something, those little contacts that it has clipped into your fear circuitry start to lose their purchase and the lone fuckweasel begins to lose its mojo. In fact, once properly comprehended, this tiny, doomed blighter will simply explode (or “pop,” if you must…) in a diminutive puff of applied horse-sense. For this reason, they seldom undertake solo operations at all, but are nearly always to be found in roving packs of close-knit family members. 

For example, have you noticed that a woeful lack of both meaningful regulation and reliable enforcement has rendered our economy dangerously fragile and brittle, permitting fraud to permeate the world of finance to the point where even the most powerful institutions in the sector are now regularly complicit in gaming the global system in ways that sabotage its future sustainability and threaten the very credibility of its present foundations? Wait, did you just say that out loud? Heaven forfend—already I fear I detect the patter of tiny paws, the gnashing of razor-sharp incisors ravenous for the rending of reason! Oh dear, here they are, and right on schedule...

“You wretched, job-crushing cretin—why, you’re anti-business! Regulation Bad! How dare you offend the tender ears of our innocent citizens with your anti-employment heresy! Pipe down for God’s sake; you’re scaring the job-creators!”

But wait, you protest, if a practice is unfair, fraudulent, anti-competitive and unethical—resulting, say, in the elimination of quality jobs and the looting of hard-earned pensions—and done merely for the short-term gain of unscrupulous investors, how is making it against the law anything other than necessary? After all, if it’s legal then those who do engage in the unethical practice gain an unfair market advantage over their competitors who suffer the inconvenience of a conscience! I’m only opposed to certain particular, unrestricted applications of business practice, which are actually themselves bad for business! And by the way, what are you even talking about? All I’m saying is…

“Oh we hear you loud and clear: 'Elimination of quality jobs!', 'Opposed to ... business practice!' and 'Bad for business!' (See, you’re doing this to yourself!) Market scold! Business-hater! Job-killer! Nanny-state socialist! (We’ve got a million of ‘em—what are you still doing here?) If markets want regulating, they’ll send us a memo with their next prezzie!”

You see? How can a calm, coherent and carefully-reasoned argument ever hold a candle to an incendiary label that’s engineered to simply scare the pickled bejeezus out of anyone who might be tempted to listen to you? You can’t dispatch them with cogent counterargument. These little vermin burrow and cling with deer-tick tenacity. Their notional content is crafted in advance and hard-coded. Any effort at earnest sense-making is likely to be futile; the fuckweasels' carriers will just keep methodically lobbing the same resonant, focus group-tested, semiotically-charged word-bombs and catch-phrases into your rebuttals—often through distracting interruptions—until your own bemused weariness and incredulity begins to seem more and more like resignation, like concession to the implacable logic of their strident abuse. That’s the genius of this malware: fuckweasel code doesn’t have to “think”; it just has to prevent anybody else from thinking. It often does so by preventing them from even finishing their sentences.

While some random fuckweasels are born in the wild, so to speak—on some factually-challenged blog, say, or in a newspaper column by one of the usual stable of "Fair and Balanced" meme-ponies, or occasionally on one of those “analysis” shows that feature a motley collection of blowhards talking shit at each other at the top of their lungs—that’s not where most of the heavy lifting in this highly selective breeding process gets done. Many of the most brutally effective specimens are in fact carefully designed, decanted and tested in the specialized laboratories I alluded to above, called (apparently without irony) “focus groups,” which often reside in (wait for it…) “think tanks.” These dedicated environments are like wind-tunnels for the professional streamlining of industrial-grade fuckweasels for optimal assimilation by the thinking impaired—usually people whose wetware has already been invaded and "softened" by virtual armadas of the bristling varmints well in advance. Because that’s the demographic that offers the most powerful vector, reproducing and propagating these lovingly-crafted strings of organized and highly viral irrationality to the broadest possible audience, and repeating them ad nauseam until they acquire the familiar texture of common knowledge.

Take the “Job Creator” fuckweasel—please! This one is widely deployed and swimmingly successful (never let it be said that there are no amphibious versions available). Its frustrated detractors often refer to it as a myth—and like many myths of old, it contains a grain of truth. That’s one of its strengths as a first-rate scrambler of brains. Tennyson once wrote that a “lie which is half a truth is ever the blackest of lies.” But myths also generally contained moral guidance: tropes and themes that signaled strength of character and nobility of mind. This “Job Creator” fuckweasel is no myth; there’s nothing ennobling about the way it lays waste to any meaningful discourse about power, privilege, income inequality, or the current structure of our economy. Sure, wealthy individuals generally have more people employed under them in the hierarchy than above—hence the term ‘hierarchy’—and they are also the ones who often make the decision to take on more labor as it becomes expedient to do so; but that doesn’t mean they got there by increasing hires (the opposite is often true). Nor does it mean jobs would decrease if you added to their tax responsibility (this is the fraternal fuckweasel that usually arrives in tandem with the “Job Creator” type). Indeed, empirically, the opposite is generally true!  The wealthy do not "create jobs"; demand for goods and services creates the expediency of hiring more labor to meet that demand. Paying customers create jobs. The idea that even slightly increased taxes on the wealthy might somehow make that fact less true is not a legitimate point raised for thoughtful consideration; it’s just the knobby, lofted middle finger of our super-rich prima donnas raised in unconcealed contempt for their supporting cast. Period.

Or how about that exceptionally vicious fuckweasel that maintains that massive income and wealth inequality is the result—and not the enemy—of freedom; or its sibling that suggests that this is a country of equal opportunity, not equality of means? Hate to piss on your fireworks, boss, but if you’re actually blissfully unaware that nearly all of the examples that are summoned to mind when we speak of “opportunity” in this country are profoundly mediated by money, that is, by financial means, then there are almost certainly a number of doorknobs in your immediate vicinity with a more formidable intellectual endowment than your own. In fact, the one you just used to enter the room is probably twisting in a fit of pique at the comparison. This kind of dishonesty is hardly worth dignifying with a proper rebuttal. But, thankfully, very thorough and rigorous refutations have been made (e.g.), and they are quite unanswerable.

One of the sillier companions to the two rodents of irrationality mentioned in the foregoing paragraph is the idea that people who argue for greater socioeconomic equality are merely jealous of the “success” of the obscenely wealthy: the recently popular “Don’t Hate Us Because We’re so Goddamn Awesome” fuckweasel. This is a critter that fairly howls with imbecilic risibility. As if, had you an ounce of initiative, you too could have contrived to be born into a family with a lifetime ticket on the gravy train. It’s not their fault that they entered the world pedigreed with multiple generations of power, privilege, influence and entitlement in their silk-lined pockets. You think it’s easy carrying a wallet that heavy? Show some compassion! Uh-huh. Nobody hates them because they’re rich; we may, however, think they (or more to the point, their besotted courtiers) are rather tedious fools for denying the countless lifetimes of grueling labor on the part of those in the strata beneath them that were required to place them where they are. The tragedy here is not coveted wealth but mind-numbing stupidity.

But it gets worse. You can’t donate your head to the care and feeding of fuckweasels for very long before you begin to lose your mooring in the rational and observable world. You lose the ability to make—or even acknowledge the significance or validity of—crucial distinctions. And you lose the capacity to reliably apprehend the empirical domain. Like the Bush operative in that classic Ron Suskind piece who proudly spoke of creating reality in their new, high-powered “culture of assertion” while contemptuously dismissing the apparently outmoded “reality-based community.” Like Romney pollster Neil Newhouse, who recently waved aside those who noted absurd fabrications in their campaign copy by sneering “we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.” Or how about that amazing sub-three hour marathon that Paul Ryan never ran? Apparently facts are such impossibly stubborn things that some candidates have entirely given up trying to work with them. Imagine feeling so besieged by—or disdainful of—reality that your last line of defense is to downplay the very idea of facticity. There’s a creepy thread of unhinged solipsism at work in their bizzaro positions—the notion that the hacked, ad hoc version of reality between a partisan’s ears is somehow preferable to any version that insists on recourse to observation or rational critique. It’s a thread that begins to unravel in a frayed tangle of beleaguered identity at the first off-hand tug.

Yes, it’s so much more exciting to be afraid than to be informed. That’s the principle fuckweasels operate on. So they dig away at the core of our identities and plant explosive fecal matter at the foundations. They tell us that who we are is being stolen by who somebody else is. They whisper that heterosexual marriage is being burgled by "the gays," and that if we don’t stand up and graffiti our constitution with bigotry, they’ll abscond with the very meaning of our sacred family union. They shriek that Muslims are making off with our “way of life,” whatever that means, and warn us that if we aren’t prepared to defend it, by force of arms if necessary (oh, and it will be!), we’ll all wake up one morning way-of-lifeless—which apparently is a pretty big deal to any life-ectomy survivor who actually believes it. So maybe you do wake up on the wrong side of the bed one morning before that fateful day, with one of these nattering monsters in your ear, and decide to give your soul the day off. Maybe you determine it’s finally time to round up your all-too-easily-acquired assortment of necessary firearms, nip off to the public space of your choosing and start pumping projectiles into anybody who’s committed the inexcusable indignity of failing to be you. Hell, maybe you get on a real tear and even decide to take out the one guy present who got that right in the end. You just can’t be too careful these days, as any self-respecting fuckweasel will tell you. Because these things are about fear, and fear controls; fear rationalizes; fear makes the senseless appear sensible—even necessary. But most importantly, fear drives us to the polls, to vote for the party that stands the best chance of keeping it alive.

A couple of final notes:

Fuckweasels are flexible travelers. Primary distribution usually takes place via cable television, radio and Internet; but after infecting their initial carriers they can easily be transported with no loss of potency via sneakernet to the bar-stool nearest you. They are commonly found in densest proliferation on the systems of people who can’t be bothered to wrangle their hapless rummage sale of ideas into any semblance of coherence or consistency. These meme-beasties thrive on intellectual laziness. And though fuckweasels may sound fairly innocuous—or even patently stupid—when first encountered, they acquire considerable strength through repetition. They also crash every system they compromise, converting them into mindless relayers—a kind of crowd-sourced bandwidth for the transmission of bullshit on behalf of the well-heeled saboteurs who pay their makers.

Don’t ever let them intimidate you! When confronted with even the most casual interrogation, they crack like a cheap pair of shoes. While fuckweasels are not always easy to identify, it helps to keep your eyes skinned and your ears tuned for simplistic buzzwords and phrases—strings of words that sound too glib and facile to actually explain anything, but which are suddenly too ubiquitous to ignore. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can kill them with anger or by force. They can only be deactivated through careful, calm reasoning and well-formed questions—and even then, only if you're dealing with a relatively intact mind of sufficient breadth and complexity to compute the contradictions. Keep in mind that some mental systems are simply too small to hold both the fuckweasels and their effective countermeasures. Don’t let that get to you; just let them go—because man, they’re gone.

So, in closing, be careful: don’t let the fuckweasels in. Don’t entertain them as guests and don’t let your kids keep them as pets. They’ve done enough damage already. But don't blame their victims either; they ain't mad atcha, they're just scared out of their minds. Literally.

1. Yes, the wily fuckweasel, once inside your wetware, displays an almost preternaturally superb adaptation to neural brachiation. Some have even suggested changing the taxonomical designation to “fuckmonkey.” This would accord nicely with the defining question that currently guides GOP policy and debate: “What Would Rhesus Do?” But no, too many other features militate in favor of the fuckweasel classification, rodentia bohica (from the U.S. Armed Services acronymic vernacular “Bend Over, Here It Comes Again!”).

2. Most likely by jacking your amygdala with your subcortical auditory and visual processing circuits using pre-primed linguistic and visual input.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Terminal Freedom

You know America's collective bad trip has taken a turn for the surreal when it dawns on you that a sizable gaggle of your compatriots have taken that decisive, "one-too-many" pull from the Big Brother bong and are now convinced that the delusional crackpot in the front yard--that guy in the sandwich boards, standing on the violets and muttering insults at the host--is the most enlightened soul at the party. Our political system here is now so broken, so polarized and so ethically bankrupt that, for a large and growing chunk of our electorate, even extreme and alarmingly simplistic libertarian ideas have begun increasingly to seem like a welcome improvement.

Of all of the bizarre characters that have held our attention during this Republican primary season, libertarian Texas congressman Ron Paul is perhaps the most peculiar. Reedy and resolute, "Dr. No" maintained the same positions he's held throughout his entire political career in every debate. In a sea of makeovers, pandering and closely-supervised molding of public identity, this personage stands alone as a singular island of unyielding public consistency. The man is immutable. In the interests of his personal vision of "Freedom," his stated aims never vary: slash taxes at every opportunity; return to the gold standard; kill any market regulation that still breathes; physically secure all borders and coastlines; dramatically reduce defense spending (a lovely idea if he'd agree to use that vital revenue to create new jobs, but alas...); end the Fed and the IRS--in fact, eliminate any federal agency big enough to draw a bead on (Education, Interior, Commerce, Energy, FEMA, and HUD, to name a few disfavorites). His idea of freeing America is to balkanize it: in short, to give states maximal sovereignty while stripping away the overwhelming majority of the already fraught connective tissue of defining national institutions and oversight that permits us to cohere as as a "united" entity. In Ron Paul's America, the federal government has no business being anywhere near your life, not even to set minimal standards for your health care,  your safety, or your education--and certainly not to maintain the stability of our national economy. The man is honestly trying to work himself out of a job.

While I've always been impressed with Mr. Paul's ability to hold the same views on an astonishing range of issues year after year, and to vote accordingly, I'm not at all impressed with the actual views themselves. The fact that he hasn't bothered to update these opinions in light of all the new data and exceptionally cogent analysis that has emerged in the interim is shamefully tragic. As Emerson once noted, "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." If Paul could legitimately plead ignorance, I'd be inclined to view him more charitably. The fact is, he made up his mind forty years ago about how the world works, and he hasn't considered a single compelling counterargument since. During that time, his spartan economic ideology has not merely been disputed, it has been roundly and irretrievably refuted. From a few simplistic notions of narrowly-defined responsibility, individual liberty and minimal government, he has fashioned a single tool--one that does few things at all well, and breaks far more meaningful freedoms than it builds. This is a classic example of Maslow's "Golden Hammer" ("I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail."). Building and maintaining a complex, modern society is a bit more sophisticated than just banging the lumber together. That kind of constructive work wants all the tools you can get your paws on. But you won't get far with any single one of them--especially not one designed for demolition.

The libertarians' concept of freedom--both their popular rallying cry and their intellectual albatross--is hopelessly impoverished. It is impossible to sustain even a minimally coherent contention of equal freedom in a country where (1) every option to exercise this putative endowment, from the minimal necessities of subsistence to the most absurd extremes of extravagance, is mediated by money; and (2) both the allocation of this medium and the disposition of opportunity for its acquisition are vastly and increasingly unequal among individuals at the outset. Without the means to exercise a claim of freedom in any given situation, or even the viable opportunity to acquire the means, that claim is a cruel lie. Yet whenever anybody publicly disapproves of the extreme inequality in America they are immediately set upon by these faux freedom fighters, who dutifully remind them that it's not the job of government to ensure equality of outcome, only equality of opportunity. But this assertion takes as its implicit premise the assumption that equality of opportunity is actually a current feature of American life. This popular misconception is not only laughably preposterous, it's also deeply insulting. Opportunity is an empty word without the means to use it, and true equality of opportunity requires that such necessary means be equally shared. But "education isn't a right," Dr. No insists, "medical care isn't a right--these are things you have to earn!" Indeed. Presumably the children of affluence "earn" their enviable privileges by the simple, repetitive act of continually hoisting their hands to accept the proffered bounty.

While simply increasing government funding for the poor won't meet the challenge alone, that's not an argument against it; in fact, it's a point in favor of much more than mere dollars. There is some legitimacy to the claim that merely providing financial assistance can create dependence on the part of recipients over time, though this objection should apply with equal validity to the much more substantial assistance supplied by the wealthy to their own dreamy little write-offs. If you want to see what real "entitlement" looks like, have a quick peek at that end of the financial spectrum. (You're gonna want to tip your head back all the way--that's right--and use this spotting scope. No worries bruv, just doin our job...) See, we don't simply need a more refined sense of noblesse oblige. Quality education must be a right enjoyed by every citizen if the process of democracy is to move beyond the mere servicing of moneyed interests, punctuated by shallow seasonal pageants. Without a decent baseline of both knowledge and opportunity, a little sympathy bump in spending once in awhile provides little more than a dollop of salve on the festering wound of social injustice and a cheap analgesic to dull that brief prick of vestigial conscience in our elected representation while they leg it out of the projects to collect their gold star. It preserves the existing structures that created the problem while permitting a hollow claim of remedial effort. The deferential affirmation of privilege is woven into the fabric of our institutions and our identities. Without a dramatic increase in both the quantity and quality of available jobs, and a matching increase in educational investment, our democracy will run aground on its own insecurity, ignorance and paranoia.

We've done better in the past. The time of this country's longest longest interval of broadly-based prosperity, from the end of WWII into the Seventies, was also the time when it was most deeply regulated economically and most vigorously taxed at the top end--a libertarian's gooseflesh nightmare. Since the seventies, our economy has become increasingly libertarian and deregulated, and also insanely unequal. In fact, the graph of household income for each percentile of our population increases fairly gradually until the last decile, then approximates a freakishly climbing power law distribution that approaches vertical near the top end. The wealth distribution curve is even more extreme, and at both ends: a full quarter of us have zero or negative net worth This isn't because anybody in those last fractional percentiles is working correspondingly harder or doing anything significantly better; it's simply an artifact of the way our economy and our financial system is set up. Those who are already ahead get further ahead, and faster, than those behind them--even the nearest lagging players whose wealth is increasing in the same way.

Of course, the wizards of Wall Street have crafted instruments to insure canny investors against downside risk. But the rollback of the meaningful regulations (in the name of "Freedom!") that served to prevent broader systemic risk created a situation in which even those devices were not sufficient to prevent disaster. And as we recently discovered, at that level of play the scale of the conflagration was so great, the potential fallout so dire, that the very government that let them write their own rules had to summon every lowly, unwashed, tax-paying hand in the country to man the fire brigade.

So what did we do then, change the building codes? Oh go on! No self-respecting believer in the sanctity of markets could ever agree to such an abridgment of "Freedom"--and organized money was spot on point to make sure no seriously relevant or binding changes occurred. We let them rebuild everything pretty much just like it was. Moral hazard? Check... Perverse incentive? Check... Systemic risk? Check...

Blank check? Check.

They're flush again now (in truth they were never not) and they can afford all of the shrewd political machinations and the brilliant campaigns of disinformation that may be required to defeat you should you disagree with the wisdom of their regime. When life gave them lemons, they promptly had them bronzed and stitched them into their scrotums. Yet even these luminous beings are not the most exalted spirits in the heavens; they are mere avatars of ethereal powers beyond accounting in the transcendent logos of logo. The names and potent sigils of these ineffable effers adorn every available surface of their earthly places of worship, every official letterhead, and every object fashioned in their interest. And praise be to their holy names, they're more efficient now than ever!

But no, you protest, these are just names and symbols that identify, you know, like, official sources of goods and services. T'yeah, no--not after the Citizens United decision entered holy writ. In conferring personhood on these branded interests, the stunted souls of SCOTUS have deprecated the very meaning of that term beyond recognition, robbing it of its last essential breath of empathic entailment. Gone is the element of sentience as sine qua non; gone is the assumption of discrete and uniquely experienced identity; gone is the implied responsibility of a living agent among living peers--the conscience of consciousness--or even the merest presumption of sane fellow-feeling. These newly-naturalized, titanic toddlers exist in a domain beyond feeling, and know only one overriding directive: the infinitive of grow. We've even given them voices--the loudest ones in the country, by all accounts--in the only language they know.

That wage-slave job you humped at week in and week out for ten years to prop them up? Silly camel, that was never your job--it was theirs all along! And they gave it to some other poor sod even worse off than your luckless self, in a country that won't complain if it kills them, for an annual salary you couldn't live on for a fortnight. Only the misplaced loyalty and confidence you brought to that work was your own--an overvalued product of marginal futility. It'll happen to your successor too if the numbers look right--this isn't a popularity contest. And your struggle isn't special; it's just another used-to-work-a-day externality for this freshly-minted being, on the path to some optimal market nirvana. They're the very Gods of job genesis--don't you dream of causing them to knit their figurative brows at the prospect of an insulting increase in tax responsibility, or a more respectful relationship with the labor that allows them to persist. It was your staggering good fortune to have them smile upon you for that enchanted, sweat-filled decade--you're so welcome!--but, mercifully, your services are no longer required. Just don't let's think they've "terminated your employment" or "fired you"--that kind of frankness is for defeatists and disgruntled former associates. No, they've simply "let you go." Did'ja catch that?--the script, she is flipped! You've lost nothing, poor thing; they did you a solid. You've been liberated from the cruel shackles of your meager means. The discarded world is now your oyster. Henceforward you can arise proudly each morning from your gifted blankets, bedizened with still-moist pearls bestowed by generous pigeons and perfumed with the invigorating redolence of rat spoor, secure in the knowledge that you are now officially, utterly and deliriously free. Welcome to WTF-istan. Don't take any wooden nickels...

Friday, March 9, 2012

Unequal by Design

In case you just beamed in from Mars, there's an awful lot of bad blood about right now between Americans and their government. While the reasons for this are varied, one major factor is that we have a shocking number of decent citizens who have played by the rules and worked hard, who now find themselves either without a job or working their fingers to the bone in dead-end employment for a smaller and smaller piece of the American pie. These people can't help but notice that this pie is actually growing very quickly once again, but that that growth is almost entirely reserved for others who are better connected or less ethical than they are. Consequently, and not without some justification, many blame their government. But very few of those who are hurting most have any real sense of the root cause of this disease at the heart of our political system. To compound the problem, those who have zeroed in on the diagnosis are being accused of waging "class war," or trying to kill jobs or undermine the freedoms of "ordinary Americans." The reality is that they're merely trying to win back opportunities for these very Americans and to rebuild a system of responsibility, accountability and broadly shared prosperity that has been systematically dismantled over the past thirty years.

The entities that have brought about this massive unraveling claim to be operating on behalf of businesses and commerce at all levels, but the changes their influence has wrought have channelled an accelerating majority of our growth, in increasing wealth, advantage and preferential treatment, to those at the very top of the income distribution. The parties that expend the most resources on framing our national narrative are well aware that if you say something loudly enough, and repeat it sufficiently often, it can very easily achieve the status of truth among a passive electorate—even if truth bears no relation to it at all. Today, we find huge and angry swaths of the society who have been convinced that the very government programs that are keeping them afloat—and that could, if wisely built upon, help them move beyond mere subsistence—are actually their worst enemies. In a grotesque parody of thoughtful protest, many of these citizens now get themselves up in colonial garb, fasten disposable beverage infusers to their clothing and accessories, and take to the streets to declaim their bizarre received wisdom of indignant slogans and nostrums: sentiments that undermine the few remaining features of their social architecture that actually redound to their benefit.

When we say that we live in a nation of laws, we're essentially paying lip service to the fundamental constitutional principle inspired by John Locke (whom our framers rightly admired a great deal), namely that the individual is free to do anything except what's forbidden by law. Any complex contract or legal system can be gamed; all you need is a sharp eye for holes you can shovel money or unfair advantage through, and a regular dose of bad faith. But once these holes are identified, they should be closed. That's one of the most important and under-appreciated roles of the legislative branch.

Our financial royalty currently spends (literally "untold") billions on lobbying, both to keep existing holes open—called "policy drift"—and to create new holes. This spending constitutes their most successful investment to date in terms of their bottom line. Often, these new holes are ostensibly promoted for other reasons that seem unexceptionable at first glance, but on closer inspection it becomes apparent that they license behavior that rigs the framework to the advantage of those who promote them. These loopholes pay massive dividends to the people who spend the money to create them or keep them in place, but they also undermine the social contract in insidious ways. When both your threadbare framework of rules and your lax regimen of enforcement preferentially rewards "legal cheaters," what message does that send to those who are trying to play fair? I think we can sum it up in one word: "Suckers..." It doesn't take a Nobel Prize-winning economist to point this out, but few seem to listen even when they do.

As citizens, our job is to do our homework and keep close tabs on this process, then use the ballot box to make sure the grifters don't take over our country. But who has the time, the education or the discipline for that task when we're too busy working overtime to keep our families healthy and fed? The tiny minority that the game actually favors can afford to pay handsome salaries and benefits to the professionals who tilt the table on their behalf. And we have more pressing matters to address in our discretionary time—like figuring out who the Antichrist *really* is, or discovering where Lindsay is blowing lines this week, or making reproductive decisions for women we've never met. Genius, I tells ya...

The question of whether or not we can retrieve our country from the clutches of organized money remains very much up in the air at the moment. The dollar is a powerful reinforcer; it's not easy to find public servants who are resistant to its allure. It will very much depend on our willingness to tear ourselves away from our trivial entertainment for long enough to fulfill our own civic responsibility to hold our elected representatives to account for whom their legislation legitimately represents. If the framers of our constitution are to be believed, that was supposed to be us. And the people waging class warfare are the ones trying to destroy this compact, not the people trying to uphold it—that's the critical difference. It's time for the latter voices to find a thoughtful audience. You can help make that happen.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Nanny and the Freeloaders

All of this teabag-smoking, pea-poddy, pity party talk of liberals getting all "redistributy" with other people's money while the indignant-but-longsuffering conservatives try to reel them in (so as to let them keep a little more of "their own hard-earned money," we're told) is a hilarious little pant-load of pungent poo. The red states are the undisputed Welfare Queens of the United States of America. The blue states "redistribute" billions of their tax dollars to these states every year just so they can squeak by; yet the recipients are continually wringing their hands in poutrage and whinging about how unfair and "socialist" America is—all while raking in these massive handouts from their malevolent "big government" benefactors. They owe their very subsistence to redistribution from the blue states, and they're so irrepressibly grateful that they all put their fiercely independent little heads together every other day to cut us these lovely, broken records of cheeky abuse. We have to wear earplugs now when they hit us up for cash just to preserve our dignity when we capitulate.

And speaking of "illiquid and insolvent," some of these states are actually our equivalent of Greece! But not to worry, the blue state "nannies" have always got their backs, because that musty old scrap of parchment—the one that noted (among other things) the reasons our country was actually "constituted" back when Adams wore knee breeches—listed things like "to form a more perfect union" and "promote the general welfare" and "insure domestic tranquility," and some of us are foolishly convinced that those reasons still matter. Maybe they've read it, these states that are perennially in the red? Yeah, I doubt it too. In fact, non-partisan publications like the UK's Financial Times have speculated that the only way Greece is going to be able to stay afloat as part of the eurozone is if the EU adopts structural measures similar to those of the U.S. and agrees to start treating it like we treat some of our red states. I shit you not.

No, seriously, "Reds," don't mention it. In fact, nanny thinks maybe you could use a little time-out. Yeah, we're gonna need you to just stop talking until you have something intelligible to say—like "thank you!" or "we're not worthy!" or "golly, this socialism sure tastes mighty fine!" ...Or until you can sink your own stop signs, patch your own roads and fight your own goddamn fires without the hitherto uncomplaining largess of the blue states. Maybe take a break from Fucks' News and do a little homework? Seriously, there's a reason why those "fairly unbalanced" drama queens can't tell their heads from their asses; it's because the two are concentric. There are bags of pounding tools with more formidable reasoning skills—and better manners. What was that old line you used to give us, "God helps those who help themselves?" You thought that was in the Bible somewhere—I believe that was in the book of Tracheotomy, if memory serves... Well I'm not sure "help yourself!" means what you think it means here. You see, some of us know that the minute we let your vaunted "Lazy Fairies" begin working the invisible hand without adult supervision, it starts digging graves—and it starts with yours. Yes, even with all of the flaming ordure you pile on our doorstep year in and year out, and despite the parasitic relationship you've carved out with us, we still have a hard time viewing your destruction as "creative."  Lucky you.

What? Oh nothin', never mind—nanny was just venting (I suppose you could say she's in a "blue state." No, no, stop, that's not... that's just not funny at all). Go back to sleep. The check is in the mail again, per usual. Yeah, just whistle us that Chet Baker song while you drift off—you know the one: "Everything-depends-baybay . . . awn yeeew!" (And don't we just know it.)


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

License to Fail

We're beginning to hear a lot more cheek of late from the anti-regulation circus. The rhetoric pretty much all centers around a fundamental error of bivalent thinking: "Regulation bad! Freedom good!" As if that were a reality-based dichotomy.... This post will serve as a kind of final pass through that territory for me, with maybe a couple of asides, before I try to put it down for awhile.

Before the the financial system got wrapped around the axle of the global economy, this kind of naïveté might have been understandable, given the money and effort that was sunk into the propaganda organ of deregulation's beneficiaries, but not today. What most people didn't seem to remember before the crisis--and still seem to have difficulty getting their heads around now--is that in order to have a robust and sustainable economy, you need both a sensible rulebook and a consistent, reliable system of enforcement. We hadn't been bitten this hard since the thirties, so people had forgotten how bad it could get. (Many were also apparently laboring under the impression that their social security, medicare and medicaid assistance were brought to them via the beneficence of some kind of heaven-sent, currency-laying waterfowl, so maybe that's not such a surprising lapse.) There seemed to be no appreciation of the concept that if something is not forbidden by law, then it's permitted here (thank you John Locke); and if people can make money at it, they'll be lining up to do the hell out of it--even if it torpedoes the system that underpins their livelihood. But hasn't that lesson been duly delivered by now?

To take just one well-known example, The Banking Act (Glass-Steagal), which passed in 1933, was put in place for good reason. The financial system had just taken a dump on America's dinner table, and people had understandably lost their appetites. Among the smarter things that legislation did was to erect a barrier between commercial and investment banks. Customers who deposit money in their trusty Main Street bank don't want it jeopardized by, say, the activity of crack-fueled speculation in Manhattan. And since the FDIC wasn't designed to cover the bets of the casino capitalists, guess who catches the tab when we drop that fence and those yutses scramble in and start breaking things? A clue: not them. The capital gains tax is still at a measly 15%. And on top of that, the serious royalty can afford to retain small armies of well-compensated tax and finance lawyers (preferably poached from the IRS) to find creative ways to exploit the loopholes their lobbyists have thoughtfully purchased for them with the coin they banked from their last tax "rescue."

Not so awfully long ago, we lived in a country where the more successful among us were contributing back to the system that made that success possible at a level at least *arguably* commensurate with the up-tick in their (still briskly increasing) fortunes. That allowed others to come up from below and emulate their inspiring example. Not this time. They've pulled the ladders up after themselves over the past couple of decades, so they can sit in their penthouses and smoke the spliffs they've rolled with the social contract.

The repeal of Glass-Steagal in '99 was indeed part of what did us down, but that was just one of the more visible pieces of a huge, unprecedented and astonishingly well-funded campaign to roll back vast swaths of safeguards and protections. This effort wasn't launched to secure any additional or substantive freedoms for you or me, whatever the rhetoric may have sounded like at the time, and it certainly hasn't done so. What it did accomplish was the consolidation of financial--and consequently political--power among a much smaller and wealthier cohort and solidify already challenging barriers between socioeconomic strata. Of course, it also supplied that much-needed little boost of confidence for the small minority of nervous winners whose fortunes were already climbing so quickly they had to yawn every thirty seconds to equalize the pressure in their ears. That's where the benefits of this new-found freedom went and continues to go. Real wages have been stagnant or decreasing for most Americans for decades, and social mobility is a receding dream to anybody who cares to run the numbers.

Poor lending standards and lax enforcement were also a big part of the dumfuquerie that compounded our vulnerabilities leading up to this recent shitshow. But think about where that "anything goes" climate blew down from. What do you tell the suits upstairs when they need more paper for their mortgage Cuisinart (it slices, it dices, it wipes away risk...). "Don't you worry your little pomaded pompadour about the niggling trivia of employment or credit history--when Wall Street sees the ribbons and wrapping paper our rating agencies are gonna slap on this stuff, they'll be stepping on their dicks to get a piece!" Turns out that's exactly what happened.

And if you mumbled unseemly dissent while that pipe was making the rounds you were promptly disinvited to the party. Nobody likes a buzzkill. Come on, show some perverse incentive...

Smart legislation provides both the structure and immune system of a healthy economy, much in the way that the sensible bits of the rest of our legal framework protect, say, our bodies, our voices, and our right to feed and exercise our personal beliefs unmolested by pitchfork-wielding heretics who think we're the Antichrist--or worse still, socialists! Like the immune system, regulation has to keep pace with threats to the health and integrity of the economy. Like the immune system, misplaced or excessive regulation can deprive an economy of its vitality. But smart regulation fosters robust and healthy competition, innovation and broadly shared rewards. Strip it out and you get what we enjoy today: runaway systemic risk, anti-competitive practices, frozen socio-economic strata and astronomical rewards shared by a tiny sliver of the productive population while the rest of the country withers on the vine. That ain't even a little bit ethical. Maybe we're ready for another round of vaccinations....

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Head Like a Hole

In today's NYTimes, Friedman goes all "Bad News Bear" on U.S. job prospects. He buttresses his argument with an approving quote from Sunday's Times Magazine on the superiority of the MadeInChina:
Apple had redesigned the iPhone’s screen at the last minute, forcing an assembly-line overhaul. New screens began arriving at the [Chinese] plant near midnight. A foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company’s dormitories, according to the executive. Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was producing over 10,000 iPhones a day. ‘The speed and flexibility is breathtaking,’ the executive said. ‘There’s no American plant that can match that.’
As a commenter points out, The Guardian also has a new piece on the MadeInChina. It kicks off this way:
The man's hand is twisted into a claw, crushed, he says by a metal press at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, where Apple's luxury electronics are assembled. He is looking at an iPad – he has never seen one switched on. His mangled hand strokes the screen, bringing it to life.

Back at the factory, where the buildings are swathed in nets after 12 workers committed suicides in a single year, a young girl emerges from the gates. Her job is to clean the iPhone screens before they are packaged. She says she is 13.
And here's another bit from a recent NY Times article on Apple's Chinese labor:
Two years ago, 137 workers at an Apple supplier in eastern China were injured after they were ordered to use a poisonous chemical to clean iPhone screens. Within seven months last year, two explosions at iPad factories, including in Chengdu, killed four people and injured 77. Before those blasts, Apple had been alerted to hazardous conditions inside the Chengdu plant, according to a Chinese group that published that warning.

“If Apple was warned, and didn’t act, that’s reprehensible,” said Nicholas Ashford, a former chairman of the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health, a group that advises the United States Labor Department. “But what’s morally repugnant in one country is accepted business practices in another, and companies take advantage of that.”
“Apple never cared about anything other than increasing product quality and decreasing production cost,” said Li Mingqi, who until April worked in management at Foxconn Technology, one of Apple’s most important manufacturing partners. Mr. Li, who is suing Foxconn over his dismissal, helped manage the Chengdu factory where the explosion occurred.

“Workers’ welfare has nothing to do with their interests,” he said.
Bottom line is one thing; perspective is everything. Puts me in mind of one of Reznor's Nine Inch Nails songs – as a lot of things do of late:
God money's not looking for the cure.
God money's not concerned about the sick among the pure.
God money let's go dancing on the backs of the bruised.
God money's not one to choose.
You know who you are.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Pimping Our Huddled Masses

When a pimp turns out a new sex slave, the common practice is first to get their victim hooked on something powerfully addictive.  The next step usually involves saddling them with a mountain of debt at larcenous rates, sometimes just for the basic necessities of day-to-day living such as room and board, or the fraudulent arrangements by which they've managed to transport them from their familiar environment in the first place; but always for the addiction. Finally the pimp coerces the victim, with both misleading monetary inducements  and threats to themselves and their families, to demean themselves at the whims of men with sufficient financial means to pay a minimal sum for their services. And they do this for the duration of their victim's capacity to do the work. Years of fun for all involved—minus one. There's an analogy here if I could just get my finger on it...

The next year will be a critical one for both our country and the world. I don't think any of us can afford to be mere spectators during this next election. There are things that need saying clearly and forcefully, and we owe it to ourselves to try. Social welfare is an essential component in any sensible national survival kit. You can't call "home" a truly representative democracy without it. Yet even the laughable framework we've had in place here in the U.S. is gasping for breath in the current political arena. We're quickly becoming a nation of "have it alls" (a tiny fraction of a percent of us) and ''have nothings', where the former buys the legislation that keeps them having more, the middle class continues to slip through the cracks, and 15.1 percent (and growing) of America now huddles under the floorboards below poverty line. That's not the country I was born in. The legal framework that lets this happen has been hammered together with billions of dollars in political persuasion and a formidable army of well organized lobbyists and operatives over the past thirty years—and they've gotten amazing returns on that investment. If you can buy the privilege to swoop in whenever you like and jump the line, you can take home a lot of cake. But that's a nasty little game—some might even say uncivilized! So maybe it wants some talking about.

Politics turns out to be a very reliable transducer for the conversion of money into legislation. All too often, through the meretricious alliances it engenders, it despoils the soul in the process. Over the next few months, we need to both emphasize the purpose and necessity of smart progressive taxation in maintaining the polis (Nobel Prize-winning economist Peter Diamond and his colleage Emmanuel Saez currently argue for a top rate of 73%), and also to decisively counter the dangerous and virulently anti-tax kleptocrat narrative that has gained traction with the ascent of the extreme right-wing media Juggernaut. And of course, we'll have to draw attention to the hideously skewed economic baseline that results from the pollution of the political dialogue with money.

Executive pay is one interesting index of the absurdity of our spendthrift financial aristocracy that has gained mainstream media attention over the past few years—though perhaps the most interesting thing about this attention is that it has accomplished sweet fuck-all in terms of putting an end to that insanity. The pay-without-performance "compensation" packages that have become customary at the top are surreal even by the standards of obscene avarice. In 2007 Home Depot's CEO Bob Nardelli skated with $210 Million while HD's stock tanked. Stanley O'Neal famously peaced at Merril Lynch with "no severance pay" while his company was plummeting through the basement. Not so famously, he left with 161.5 million and an executive assistant, gratis, for the next three years. What more they could conceivably have stuffed into his vest upon departure in the name of "severance" is a question too ridiculous to contemplate. Countrywide's Angelo Mozilo split with $120 million in compensation and stock sales—and we know all about Countrywide financial. The list grows longer and loonier by the day.

So how does this nonsense even happen? Well, it depends on whom you ask—and whether they've done their homework. If you ask the Wall Street cognoscenti, you'll meet with the usual suffering shibboleths and duck-billed platitudes about the free market, about the right of shareholders to pay their royalty whatever they feel like paying them, or about the increasing value of the CEO in today's world and the increasingly competitive process for acquiring star performers. What you won't likely hear about (given that most of the "cognoscenti" know next-to-nothing about it) is the wildly imbalanced bidding wars where the execs hold all the high cards. Nor will you hear much about the perversely distorted system of corporate governance that lets CEOs ratchet up their own pay.

The financial system has been hacked from the inside, and it's hemorrhaging from thousands of massive holes—into the pockets of those who payed for the job. The tide has gone their way for decades now, and it will be a hard dynamic to shift. They've gotten used to getting-over; it's hard to get over getting used to getting-over.

Nearly all of us recognize that progressive taxation is the fairest way to ensure that the social contract remains intact. But how many of us noticed when Baby Bush knocked a hole in the capital gains tax that you could drive a tanker through—and that the beneficiaries of this largesse have been frantically shipping mountains of money through ever since. How many of us noticed the way the wealthy (and corporations like GE and Google) finesse the regulatory shell game to shift billions of dollars in profits offshore, presumably to await another "tax holiday" when they can sneak it home under the radar of public opinion—though even that is now an almost quaint idea: the U.S. is "home" to these entities only in the most abstract and strained sense of that word.

57% of Americans believe wealth should be more evenly distributed. Seven in ten Democrats think government should address this by increasing taxes on the wealthy. About the same percentage of Republicans think it shouldn't. The way government in general—and the issue of taxation in particular—has been increasingly framed over the past twenty years is surely a major factor. Taxation has been viciously demonized as oppressive and punitive, with little emphasis on what it gives back to the citizen. The remaining 43% could be forgiven for supposing that all of the government programs they take for granted (social security, medicare, financial aid for college, etc.) are simply a product of our God-given rights rather than the result of legislation that courageous lawmakers fought for tooth and nail against furious and well-funded opposition. The list of pejorative terms popular on the right for these programs, along with all of the rest of our anemic attempts to do right by our citizenry, could go on for several lines, but they could much more accurately and succinctly by described as "mildly giving a rosy rat's ass about your fellow human being." 

Opinions in the absence of relevant information are more an indication of who is winning the struggle to frame these issues than of how important the issues actually are, or what should be done to protect our investment in them. For example, there's plenty of compelling research on the devastating impact of extreme inequality on everything from mental health to violence to infant mortality. But few people have any real sense of how extreme the inequality actually is. A surprising percentage of poll respondents in the U.S. actually believe the middle class is growing. The percent of all people living in poverty has increased from 11.3% to 15.1% between 2000 and 2010. This is not a problem solves itself if we all sit on our hands and wait for the magic of markets save the day. Markets don't even work that way. The incentives markets operate under consist largely of variations on the theme of “return on investment,” not social stability or security in our twilight years—or any of the other indices of a healthy nation. For that conversation, we would need to begin a deep and persistent inquiry into, say, what benefits and advantages derive from various investments; to whom these advantages accrue; and how these benefits enhance or erode the fabric of a “free and just” society. Profit doesn't care.  That's our job.

Former Texas Senator Phil Gramm, champion of deregulation and lobbyist for Swiss Bank USB, can rhapsodize all he likes about Wall Street as a “holy place” while the middle class is sacrificed before the Sacred Bull, but only because he knows who butters his toast. He dares not utter the name of his True God in polite company. The founder of the religion to which Gramm's adopted party pays lip service had his own ideas about people messing about with money in a “holy place.” The phrase “den of thieves” derives its origin from that narrative. It's right there in the New Testament—four times: in all three synoptic Gospels, as well as the book of John. I suppose it could be important. Jesus is also reported to have said things like "it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." And "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." Apparently, God only knows what that means. Somehow it never seemed dreadfully ambiguous to me, but there must be a loophole somewhere, what with all of these God-bothering fuckwits in our political system soaking the "chosen" for their last thin dime while they legislate against the interests and trust of these goodly people—and sleep like babes at night with women other than their wives.

Of course Rand Paul would have you believe there's "no such thing as the rich." Indeed, those we call "the rich" and "the poor" have ever so much in common: lo, they're both carbon-based, they both breathe oxygen, and they're all well over six inches tall! As usual, the venal tools of our oily overclass equivocate most on matters of degree (as in "order of magnitude") when degree matters most of all.

Newsflash: the percentage of even middle income families in Cali just dipped below fifty—that's down from over 60% in 1980. Income in the poorest families—who can least afford the hit—dropped more than 21% since just 2007.

In fact, 146.4 million Americans—a full 48% of us—are now "Low Income" (defined as people earning between 100% and 199% of poverty level) or below—up four million from 2009. Sadly, those with the most thoughtful ideas are seldom the ones most motivated to whip up catchy slogans. "We are the 99%" may be a step in the right direction (and I'm not complaining abouut that), but where's their plan? I think they're helpful in drawing broader attention to the problem, but what we need are jobs, jobs, jobs to make up the terrible gap in our basic coverage of necessities for a huge and growing number of Americans.

We need dramatically increased spending on infrastructure (which is circling the drain all over the country); we need massive new educational investment and increased investment in science and technology; we need tax incentives that reward *actual* job creation, especially for small businesses, rather than mere tax breaks for a demographic lazily labeled "job creators" by their hardly-disinterested mouthpieces. We need dramatically higher tax rates on the highest incomes. We need to deny the ilk of the laughable Laffer all access to the halls of power unless they're carrying a mop or a broom (thank you Charles Pierce). We can't fight our way out of this slump by squeezing government spending and crushing the slumpin' proletariat indiscriminately. It's about Keynesian multipliers. They work. And when the private sector can't—or won't—do that spending, the public sector needs to step in and pick up the slack. If we want growth in the near term, we're going to have to increase internal demand, and that means jobs, not deficit reduction, must be our first priority. Not a single economist in my acquaintance at Treasury, the Fed, or the IMF disagrees on this point.

The number of Americans living in poverty is simply mind-boggling for a country that pretends to any measure of decency. The percentage dipped respectably during the Clinton administration after a fairly long and persistent climb. For this we should set aside a little love for Pappy Bush, for having the courage, after a smart peep at the numbers, to break his "No New Taxes" promise—to the eternal consternation of his party purists. But the figure has been rising ever since.

For the celestially well-to-do, it's been a different game. They've been steadily hauled up by their Burberry hats past the tippy-top of Jack's magic beanstock. Nowadays, most of the country couldn't see these people's bottom lines on a clear day, with a pair of astronomy binoculars and a neck ache.

Of course it's just plain goofy to hate somebody merely because they happen to be rich. But it's just as pathetic to heap scorn and derision on the less well-off simply because they correctly point out that their government—and consequently their economy—is rigged to keep them there. If you massacred every one of the poor tonight and quietly buried them away from polite society, there would only be more of them in a year. The legal and regulatory framework that girds (or ungirds, really) our current flavor of capitalism produces them in droves. It's not a bug, it's a feature. It has always been thus to some extent, but never, ever to this degree.

Now that reasoned critique has been rebranded as class warfare, optimism for the near term is a little naive. Even with the best of outcomes next November, we're still in for a bone-jarring ride. Why is it so hard for those at the helm to see America as family, rather than as marks in some sordid con? The impact of big money on policy is a matter of public record, and it is not a pretty one. When you can effectively buy the passage or blockage of legislation, then good government merely means "good for you."

But the structure and functioning of our political system has also evolved to make it even more resistant to change—e.g. just note the way the use of the filibuster has risen over the past couple of decades. This means that policy can no longer keep pace with economic exigencies, creating what Walter Lippmann called "drift," which militates in favor of the status quo and exacerbates existing inequality. (See Lippmann's flawed but seminal volume "Drift and Mastery," an influential attempt to get to grips with similar unrest in this country back in 1914.) Also note that if one party chooses not to play the filibuster game—say, in the interest of fair play or good faith—this creates a ratchet effect in the direction of the policies of the side that does use this stifling tool. So: polarization and impasse—or "the Divided States of America."

We need to get the word out. What we are up against is organized money, and what that money buys them is a lot of noise—noise that conflates sentimentality with compassion, and rationalization with reason. Organized money is remarkably proficient in using institutionalized irrationality to sway vast armies of religious fundamentalists—no one is more susceptible to simplistic zealotry and sophistry than people whose minds are so peculiarly constituted as to both expect and enjoy its deployment. I hasten to add that these are often very decent people; they are not to be scorned for being they way they are. The distinctive modes of mass delusion and specious reasoning to which they are accustomed are the product of very sophisticated and pernicious memeplexes that have been evolving resistance to rational scrutiny for hundreds—and sometimes thousands—of years. These modes of non-thinking are baked into the wetware from a very early age, and nothing will ever shift them once those habits of mind have annealed in that configuration.

But there's hope for the rest of us—the young and the passionately curious of all ages and stripes. And here's the bottom line: there are more of us than there are of them, and we know something. We know that social justice isn't just a good idea; it's also the smart money strategy for sustainability in complex iterated games—particularly where the relevant agents are these "human being" thingies. That means we also know that if they win, everybody loses; that species survival may well depend on the triumph of curiosity over dogma, and of empathy over narcissism. Perhaps most importantly, we know that the only hell we need fear is the one we build for ourselves, or allow to be constructed in our name.

So let's get to fucking work. There's simply too much lo lose to justify passivity.