Friday, February 29, 2008

The Politics of Testicular Fortitude

Does anyone else out there think that our political process suffers from testosterone toxicity?  I am getting heartily sick of the would-be Presidents trying to out macho each other.  Whenever the sound bites stray too far from the terrorism and who has the 'equipment' to deal with that oh-so-dangerous world out there,  someone or something directs it back.  I keep remembering that funny little scene from "Animal House" where the Delta boy swaggered up the the older woman in the supermarket, picked up a very large cucumber, and told her 'mine is bigger than this."  He sheepishly backed off when she informed him that the Dean of the college was her husband and asked if he really wanted to show her his 'cucumber.'  

Each and every candidate assures us that they each one are tough enough to deal with the crazies out there; and that they and they alone are 'man' enough for the job.  Unfortunately, in my mind at least, they are coming after the 'man' who lied us into a war and then asked us to prove our patriotism by going shopping.  

I can understand McCain emphasizing his 'manliness.'  What else has he to offer?  But Clinton?  It is a sad commentary on our political situation that a woman running to replace the macho man who pushed this country into major quicksand on all levels feels she has to prove she has the biggest balls to win.  And Obama?  What kind of change can we expect when he poses the same argument that got the 'man' he wants to replace re-elected four years ago: that he is macho enough to stand up to terrorists?  No matter where the argument starts (economy, jobs, social security, what ever)  it always seems to end in the same place: which one has the testicular fortitude.  Now I will go throw up--again.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Audacity of Hopeful Optimism

I started this some time ago and between computer problems and other things simply didn't get back to it.  Perhaps that is just as well since many of the thoughts I had earlier have become clearer of late.

I am glad the primary season has finally take off. The results so far are not much of a surprise. I never liked the Republican offerings much. Unfortunately, my first two choices among the Democrats are gone. Now I am left with what is  the choice between Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton, and, although I didn't think so when Edwards and Kucinich dropped out, I am not so sure that their exits were a bad thing. What had been disquietingly nebulous in my mind has chrystalized. I have been growing more discontented and uneasy over the last years and had not been quite sure of what has been the problem. The feeling has intensified during this present administration, but it began much earlier.  I feel disconnected by almost all that has come out of Washington and Wall Street.

Let's start with the most obvious 800 pound gorilla given today's political environment--the War on Terror.  I have never felt as threatened by 'terrorists' as I have felt threatened by the actions of this government to allegedly protect me and my fellow Americans from the threat of terrorism.  But I was never convinced that there was a significant probability that I would fall victim in the same way those in New York and Washington did.  Of the 300 million odd people in this country a few less than 3000 died in the attack.  You do the math.  I had about much chance of being hit by lightening.  

But in response to this attack the Bush administration has pushed through the Patriot Act, has the FBI issuing 'national security letters' demanding librarians turn over patrons' reading lists, the establishment of a 'Homeland' Security Agency (shades of the Hitlerian Fatherland) sucking up money and resources to questionable ends, and a seemingly endless war in Iraq founded on lies and cherry picked intelligence.  Bush and his minions promise to make us safe and all we have to do is suspend our reason and morals, and give up cherished freedoms (and perhaps even our identity as a free people.)  This progression continues with the all for 'secure' ids (federally specified drivers licenses) without which people will not be able to enter a government building or board an airplane;  new Social Security cards with photos, bar codes and implanted chip; a Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act establishing (Joe) MacCarthy-esque committees that can go around the country compelling testimony from anyone on the slightest suspicion and accepting whatever evidence (even hearsay) they decide to accept.  This country has gone from 'the land of the free and home of the brave' to "land of the voluntarily shackled and home of the chicken shit."

Now lets go on to the 700 pound gorilla-the economy.  We have become a country of people selling goods made in other countries to other people selling goods made in other countries to other people... until you are ready to vomit.  Seventy percent of the economy is 'consumer' driven.  What happens if the consumer can't consume any more?  I have been asking this for the last 10 years.  Even today with the mortgage mess still melting down, the credit card crisis just beginning, and the worst Christmas retail season in recent memory, NO ONE is seriously asking or answering this question.  What has passed for economic discussion would be a joke if it weren't so pathetic.  Bush proposed a 'rebate' to jump start the economy.  One economic pundit likened it, massive though it sounds, to dumping a glass of water in the ocean and expecting it to make a difference.  Not likely.  He balked like a stubborn, largely unintelligent mule at the notion of extending food stamp programs and unemployment, programs that would provide more lasting help to those at the lowest end of the economy and in the most need.  He has shown a very limited range on the economy: tax cuts skewed to the upper income groups, absolving corporations of any liability for their actions and products,  and gutting the programs the most vulnerable of us depend on in the name of individual responsibility, fiscal conservatism and capitalism.  When he ran in 2000 as a 'compassionate conservative' I said that it was an oxymoron.  He has proven me right.

Although the economy is largely consumer driven, more and more people have lost or are losing the ability to consume.  Here is where we enter a truly unreal and surreal landscape.  For the last ten years the unemployment rate has been below 5%.  Yet there has been hardly one week in which I haven't heard about layoffs, firings, downsizing, or whatever you want to call it.  Often these stories involved large employers shedding thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of jobs many of which paid better than average.   Coupled with the stories of layoffs were stories of the tens of thousands and sometimes hundreds of thousands of jobs 'created' in the economy.  I usually greet these stories with two related questions.  "Where are all of those who are laid off from good paying jobs with benefits and pensions going to go for work?" And, "Where are the goddamn jobs that have been supposedly created, how much do they pay, and do they offer benefits?"  When 9/11 happened I was studying for a new career I had chosen partly on what I thought was a good fit with my personality and strengths, and partly because it looked like an expanding field.  For the year before 9/11 the local newspapers ran columns and sometimes full pages of ads for job openings in that field.  The week after 9/11 the volume fell to maybe a column and a half.  It never recovered.  Nowadays, maybe, on a good day, there are half a dozen ads.  I can tell you who is still hiring: the fast food joints and the local supermarket.  Low pay, no benefits.  I once figured out that it would take three of those jobs to make a living wage.  In other words, I would have to work 60 to 80 hours a week and still would not have anything to save for retirement and no health care.  I understand why some people would rather rob banks.

None of the usual remedies will work here.  Getting training in a new field, or even advanced training in your current career, seems a waste of effort when the jobs, if they are at all well compensated, are most likely to have gone overseas by the time you finish the training.  Worse, somehow that training has to be paid for.  Most, to this time, have financed their training (I hesitate to call it education) by government sponsored and guaranteed loans which have to be repaid.  The student gets out with a mortgage sized loan payment and a dicey job market.  

Those are the two major sized gorillas in our national life.  So where am I going with this?  We need change and we need it badly.  None of the Republicans will provide it or even try for it.  The status quo for their constituents is working.  McCain lost me when he decided to support the debacle in Iraq and even echoes Bush's claims that we may 'have' to be there for the next decade.  The hell we do.  We can see where the Republicans' hearts lie with the disaster of Post-Katrina relief, the resistance to extending unemployment and food stamps, the willingness to forgive corporate and individual malfeasance so long as corporate profits are maintained.  I have seen nothing about McCain that makes me think he will do anything, even as little as give lip service to economic and social problems.  And it makes me sick to see the continuation, in somewhat milder form, of the Bush fear mongering.

Edwards and Kucinich seemed to me the most likely to try to restore some balance in our social and economic affairs.  They are out and what is left are Obama and Clinton.  There is much in favor of Clinton.  She has tried before to introduce healthcare reform.  She seems to have an appreciation of what the lower half of the socio-economic pyramid deals with.  I am suspicious, however, of her vote for the Iraq authorization and the original FISA authorization.  I am also not sold on her managerial, technocratic style.  It failed in the face of strong ideological opposition before and there is no reason to think that the opposition is any less ideologically driven now.

That leaves Obama.  Interestingly the reason I am tending toward him is precisely the reason one commentator on Barbara Ehrenreich's recent blog entry doesn't.  She said that if she wanted a sermon she would go to church.  I don't say we need sermons.  But I think we need a president who can use what Theodore Roosevelt called a 'bully pulpit.'  We need someone who can exhort, mobilize, encourage and harangue.  We need someone who can make us see the possibility and hope of change and make us enthusiastic about it.  Bush has made us see darkness all around us and encouraged our fear.   Maybe Obama will rekindle our optimism and courage.