A Straight Shot of Politics

A blog from a gentleman of the Liberal political persuasion dedicated to right reason, clear thinking, cogent argument, and the public good.

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Location: Columbus, Ohio, United States

I have returned from darkness and quiet. I used to style myself as "Joe Claus", Santa Claus’ younger brother because that is what I still look like. I wrote my heart out about liberal politics until June of 2006, when all that could be said had been said. I wrote until I could write no more and I wrote what I best liked to read when I was young and hopeful: the short familiar essays in Engish and American periodicals of 50 to 100 years ago. The archetype of them were those of G.K. Chesterton, written in newspapers and gathered into numerous small books. I am ready to write them again. I am ready to write about life as seen by the impoverished, by the mentally ill, by the thirty years and more of American Buddhist converts, and by the sharp eyed people [so few now in number] with the watcher's disease, the people who watch and watch and watch. I am all of these.

Monday, February 28, 2005

What is so Well Done as a Day in March?

March 1st here looks to be done so exceeding brown roast partridge is nothing to it; plenty of snow, steadily falling and accumulating. Snow is so quiet, and makes everything else so quiet. It is wonderful to be out in, not the least of reasons being that everybody else who doesn't have to be out in it, generally stays in.

The heavy falls in my region generally come in from the Southeast, just like the hurricane rains. The front line funnels up the moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and makes utterly sodden low hanging clouds, first of rain, then of sleet and freezing rain, then of snow, as the front slowly pushes through, fighting the prevailing westerly winds.

When the Alberta Clippers blow in from the Northwest, the snow is dryer, usually drawn up from the Great Lakes, the accumulation less, and the cold slams through hard, like a fast freight.

Sometimes both hit at once and the result can be a doozy--lots of accumulation and bitter cold--the storm is still uncertain, but exactly this might be coming our way. If so, people will be really holing up--Level Emergencies, school closings, and so forth.

I'm looking forward to it. I love weather. Two of the places I've been happiest are on our seacoasts--either the Atlantic, with the constantly growling undertow on its rocky bottom, or the Pacific, with its smooth, drumlike rolls, loud in storms, soft in calms, but even and smooth in all cases. Weather is movement of air, genuine fluctuations of air pressure, and variety in winds. Columbus seldom has weather, Columbus has climate.

In fact, Columbus has climate in the way that some people have attitude. Actually it has climate the way some people have an attitude problem. We have stagnant air inversions, even in the Winter, for heaven's sake! Despite regular visits by the Alberta Clippers! I need more weather, and so does my town.

Maybe they could bottle me some weather. Wait a minute, this is America! Maybe I should bottle it, sell it, and make myself Big Bucks. And get the economy moving in consequence.

That sounds like a plan. Since you have a little extra cash from the President's tax cuts, and you soon will have private Social Security accounts to invest, can you, by any chance, float me some venture capital?

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Sunday, February 27, 2005

Dudley Do-Right To The Rescue!

I have been having a high old time posting comments on some my favorite blogs. This practice allows me a far richer field for the exercise of pithy and compressed irony and the deflation of overblown foolishness than my own blog posting. For one thing, it's really very, very hard to deflate your own overblown foolishness, of which I have plenty. This usually requires far more self-insight and self-criticism than I am able to muster.

I can only take comfort in the fact that nobody else in the blogosphere seems to be able to generate any more self-insight and self-criticism than I can. Witness what La Shawn Barber writes, and how I reply, about her tolerance of gays:

“For instance, I don’t accept homosexuality as normal, but I’m 'tolerant' of homosexuals’ freedom to do whatever they want with whomever they want as long as they’re consenting adults. I have neither the right nor desire to force homosexuals to stop doing anything.”

Except marrying or adopting children, right?

The disingenousness of this is that Conservatism is a political movement. Politics is about making policy and laws. Policy and laws, more often than not, are about “stopping people from doing things".You are not merely a witness to your faith. You are an advocate for specific laws which ultimately set limits to the actions of those who do not believe as you do. I see no reason to hide from the essential hostility it implies to the actions of the people on the other end of the laws.

Gays are to be prevented from marrying because they are gay. Period. They are to be prevented from raising children because they are gay. Period. It would further the discussion considerably if the people who advocate these things would simply come out and admit it, rather than hiding behind the claptrap of the “sacredness” of marriage.

Insofar as that word has any meaning, only Roman Catholics and the Orthodox have the right to use it–for, dogmatically, they call marriage a “sacrament", and they call it so only in the case where both married parties have received Christian baptism. Protestants, who seem to make up at least the most vociferous segment of “social conservatism” are simply talking theological nonsense when they are defending the “sacredness” of all marriages.The issue is about being gay, and its time we all stopped evading it.

Then there is the invaluable Wretchard, over at Belmont Club, who always seems to discover the apocalyptic decline of Western Civilization in any mouse that comes out of the mountain, like the University of Colorado brouhaha over the intellectual dwarf named Ward Churchill:

"Neville Chamberlain's Foreign Minister, Lord Halifax, argued against opposing the Nazi aggression by asking "was any useful purpose served by treading on the landslide and being carried along with it"? Another Churchill, unrelated to Ward, counterargued that the danger lay entirely the other way: that capitulation mean stepping onto a "slippery slope" every bit as perilous as Halifax's metaphorical landslide; how each moment of procrastination increased the awfulness of the inevitable clash. The case, on smaller scale, describes CU's dilemma. From Hoffman's [the UC president] point of view, it is resisting Ward Churchill that is dangerous; from another standpoint it is not resisting him that constitutes the threat."

It would be nice if the poster and the commenters knew a little more about universities. University employment is a relation of contract and it is not a matter of employment at will, as in the private sector. Far before "political correctness" almost all Universities placed explicit strictures in their own internal rules about dismissing people for their opinions, no matter how odious they may be. Because of this, if the University does so, they are in the legal wrong due to breach of contract, and they will likely lose in court.

By using this issue to grandstand for political advantage (and this is all that they are doing, as any fool can see) the Republican legislators and the Governor are providing Churchill with overwhelming circumstantial evidence that his firing is for his opinions and no other reason. The University's legal well has been totally poisoned in consequence.

This has nothing to to with "leftist protection", or even with the dismissal of the man himself, and has everything to do with the irrelevant political agendas of Churchill's elected critics, who are willing to hang the University of Colorado out to dry, legally, merely to get a soundbite or a few column inches in the Rocky Mountain News. For I can assure you, from direct experience in Universities, that those same elected officials know perfectly well how a University works legally, and don't really need to be told by its President that they are hanging it out to dry.

Moreover, I think President Hoffman is far less afraid of personal lawsuits than she makes out. The limits of personal liability in such cases are well known. What she wants out of the situation is for the hullabaloo to end. Faculty have considerable collective power in a University which they are normally too distracted to use. If they get exercised enough about this, they can easily make it impossible for President Hoffman to run the place comfortably.

She is bluffing the legislators with the possiblity that they will not be able to get rid of Churchill at all and he will continue to be the thorn in Colorado's backside. This is nonsense. At this point they will pay him off one way or another, either as a settlement of his suit, or a settlement before he sues, and they will pay him far, far less than $10 million.

Then there is the action over at Centerfield: Dan Savage Getting Radical About Curbing Unsafe Sex

"Dan Savage is a gay, maverick liberal, nationally syndicated opinion columist, [and] editor-in-chief of a weekly Seattle publication called The Stranger...recently turned some heads by supporting the Bush war on terrorism, including the invasion of Iraq, arguing that the only way to prevent September 11th-like attacks on American soil is to ensure emphatically that all terrorists are dead....

"Savage writes: 'If people are looking for a truly radical step--something that might actually curb unsafe sex--I've got a suggestion....my radical plan to curb unsafe sex among gay men is modeled on a successful program that encourages sexual responsibility among straight men: child-support payments. A straight man knows that if he knocks a woman up, he's on the hook for child-support payments for 18 years. ' "

Unfortunately, in both cases, the invasion of Iraq, and preventing the spread of HIV, Mr. Savage has simply lost his mental balance and sent his brains out to lunch. No one with their head screwed on straight would contend that what we are doing in Iraq will "ensure emphaticly that all terrorists are dead", however much it may do or have done other good things.

Committed, monogamous relationships don't spread HIV, multiple sexual partners are what spread it. Marriage and paternity can both be proved definitively in court, the one by official records, the other by DNA test. STD infection cannot be so definitively proved if the infected party has had multiple partners, as he or she are likely to have had.

One of the pestilences of our time are "liberals" who have conservative conversion experiences on one selected issue or another. The blogosphere is full of them. The cognitive dissonance of operating from two different and incompatible sets of ideological principles is almost always fatal to their common sense, as in the above cases. And it is common sense that ultimately is the basis of the political compromises most "centrists" wish we could achieve.

I have to cut this out. I'm just having too much fun. After all, a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police has a code to uphold: a Mountie not only gets his man, he never eats peas with a knife!

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Saturday, February 26, 2005

We All Must Keep Bringing It Up Again and Again

More reasons to be ashamed for our good name, reported in the New York Times:

Within C.I.A., Growing Worry of Prosecution

By DOUGLAS JEHL and DAVID JOHNSTON Published: February 27, 2005

WASHINGTON, Feb. 26 - There is widening unease within the Central Intelligence Agency over the possibility that career officers could be prosecuted or otherwise punished for their conduct during interrogations and detention of terrorism suspects, according to current and former government officials.

Until now, only one C.I.A. employee, a contract worker from North Carolina, has been charged with a crime in connection with the treatment of prisoners, stemming from a death in Afghanistan in 2003. But the officials confirmed that the agency had asked the Justice Department to review at least one other case, from Iraq, to determine if a C.I.A. officer and interpreter should face prosecution.

In addition, the current and former government officials said the agency's inspector general was now reviewing at least a half-dozen other cases, and perhaps many more, in what they described as an expanding circle of inquiries to determine whether C.I.A. employees had been involved in any misconduct.

Previously, intelligence officials have acknowledged only that "several" cases were under review by the agency's inspector general. But one government official said, "There's a lot more out there than has generally been recognized, and people at the agency are worried."

Of particular concern, the officials said, is the possibility that C.I.A. officers using interrogation techniques that the government ruled as permissible after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks might now be punished, or even prosecuted, for their actions in the line of duty.

I hold no brief to argue that only the employees should be punished and not the leaders who gave them carte blanche to murder and torture. If there is a de facto amnesty for the leaders, because they can hide behind a wall of secrecy and "executive privilege", then there should also be a de jure amnesty for the followers under their orders.

But the torturing must stop.



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The War To End All Wars Shown As Never Before

This is an absolutely heart rending set of photos from World War I. Pictures from this war in general are rather scarce. Unlike the American Civil War, moving armies did not leave their dead behind them on a now quiet battlefield for photographers like T.H.O'Sullivan and Alexander Gardiner to commemorate the battle's aftermath. The trenches of Flanders were no place to try to take snapshots and darkrooms were seldom handy.

Nor were the powers at war in 1918 locked into the obsessive/compulsive overdocumentation in both pictures and text that they would be in World War II.

Not only are these very good pictures, they are also in color. The Lumiere brothers, inventors of the movie camera, also perfected one of the first viable color photgraphy processes, the Lumiere Autochrome. These were glass slides with the color dyes imbedded in grains of starch overtop of the light sensitive emulsion.

These autochromes were made by the French, probably by a professional, from the look of them, for some official archive, a commonplace cultural use of photography in France, dating back to the mid-19th century, and the earliest days of the medium.

Hat tip--Stephen Green on Vodkapundit.


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Friday, February 25, 2005

The Criminal Conduct of the New Swift Boat Smear Artists

Yesterday Josh Marshall turned up a very interesting fact about USANext the so-called "charitable organization" [actual status 501(c)4] behind the scabrous ad campaign against AARP for its stand on Social Security privatization: they were fined one-half million dollars for repeated and flagrant mailings with the intent to deceive seniors into believing that their propaganda was official mail from the Social Security Administration.

The "charity" of USANext appears to consist largely of fundraising to send out more fundraising mail, which funds even more fundraising mail, (For example, $5.3 million collected in 1993, of which $4.2 million went back into newly mailed envelopes) and, not incidentally, enriches its founder, Richard Viguerie, for his services rendered, whatever they may be.

These swimming-in-cash, flacking, bozos have hired the same consulting firm for the Social Security fight that was used by the Swift Boat Liars. They also, appropriately, have as a stuffed and pickled figurehead of a "National Chairman", the former television host, Art Linkletter. Linkletter has been a prominent piece of demented Hollywood wing-nut taxidemy for many years. These days, he may be the most prominent of them, since the two who were more famous than he rode into the sunset of real and clinical dementia.

Here is the substance of the actual judgment of criminal conduct against USANext:

On August 13, 2001, counsel for the Social Security Administration Office of Counsel to the Inspector General (the SSA I.G.) sent a notice to Respondent in which she advised Respondent that the SSA I.G. was proposing to impose civil money penalties against it totaling $554,196. The notice alleged that Respondent had mailed at least 554,196 solicitations in envelopes that misused the Social Security Administration's program words and/or letters in violation of section 1140 of the Social Security Act (Act). The notice alleged further that the envelopes sent by Respondent violated the Act by using words and letters specifically covered by section 1140 in a misleading manner.....

More important, the penalties that I impose here are strongly supported by the evidence of this case. I do not find that penalties necessarily should be decided based on a comparison with penalties in other cases. Here, Respondent distributed misleading envelopes which had the potential for causing substantial damage to the integrity of the Social Security program. [emphasis mine--ed.] The penalties that the SSA I.G. imposed reflect that fact......

In theory, the Act would permit the SSA I.G. to at least consider imposing civil money penalties against Respondent totaling more than $3 billion, based on a maximum penalty per violation of $5,000 multiplied by more than 600,000 individual mailings of the proscribed envelopes. Act, section 1140(b).

--Steven T. Kessel, Administrative Law Judge
If you examine the actual decision in detail, it outlines a consistent pattern of flagrantly deceptive mailings--which USANext persisted in continuing--despite clear and repeated warnings from the Social Security Administration Inspector General's office that the mailings were in violation of Federal Law.

I respect very greatly the law-abiding moral integrity of my many conservative friends in the blogosphere. I just wish that the emminence grises behind so much of conservative politics had an equal respect for law and moral conduct as my friends do, the same respect, in fact, that these shady individuals clearly have for money, influence, and power at all costs.

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Tuesday, February 22, 2005

The American Decline I: The Richest Rich People Money Can Buy

Note: This is a series of four posts. They really need to be read in order. For your convenience, I have posted them so you can read them in order down the scroll. Or you can move over to them here, here, and here. These posts also are a summary of the thinking I have been doing about American domestic policy since long before the election. So I intend to keep them on top for a while.

The January new-jobs-added figures have arrived, as well as the revisions for December. January shows 146,000 jobs, December has been revised downward to 133,000 jobs, down from an initial estimate of 157,000. And January’s revised figures are equally likely to be revised downward.

It takes 150,000 new jobs per month to simply absorb the “never before employed” new entrants to the job market. We are three years into a “recovery” that will probably last 5-6 years at the maximum (the Clinton Recovery was the longest in history at 8 years). It is already showing the first signs of the inflationary pressure that will force the rise in interest rates that lead to recession. Halfway through the recovery we still can’t generate enough jobs to reliably absorb fresh job market entrants, let alone employ all the people who lost jobs since 2000!

Think about it for a minute.

With the January figures the Bush Administration finally showed a net job gain: between January 2001 to January 2005, the economy generated a net gain of 119,000 jobs. So we have now replaced all the jobs lost since 2000, and a few more for good measure. Finally, we’re back exactly where we stood then.

That sounds real good, doesn’t it? But if you multiply 150,000 new entrants per month by four years, that’s 7,200,000 totally new jobseekers since 2000 piled on top of all the people who have lost jobs in the interval, and whose jobs have now finally been replaced. Seven million two hundred thousand new jobseekers, with a net gain of only 119,000 new jobs for them.

Something is seriously wrong with the American economy.

It is not an “anomaly”, a “blip”, or a “concern”. It is a deep and pervasive structural failure, a day of reckoning that has been coming upon us now for 25 years. You can see most of the relevant data in the factbook “How Unequal Are We Anyway?” at Inequality.Org. You will also need this data on recession and poverty.

Take a moment and bring up a new window in your browser to have these at your fingertips so we can all be on the same page. Look at each chart in the new window so you can flip through them with the back button. Then minimize this window. For the browser challenged, I will re-link as well throughout the essay.

The starting point is how wealth, or “net worth” is distributed in this country (chart 3 in the factbook). Twenty percent of Americans own 83% of the wealth, 40% of Americans own 16% of the wealth, and 40% of Americans own less than 1% of the wealth. We are two nations, rich and poor. Almost half of us have no significant share of this country’s real assets. Why is this important? Assets are what exist beyond wages transformed into mere consumption of necessities or luxuries—they are the only things you can invest to make yourself significantly wealthier. Almost half of America has little or no chance to do this.

We are no longer the world’s richest nation, as we once were. We are now the nation of the world’s richest rich people.

We started becoming that way from the start, not coincidentally, of the Republican administration of Ronald Reagan. Between 1947 and 1979, largely under Democratic government, incomes of all Americans rose steadily, and to about the same degree. From approximately 1980 forward to today, largely under Republican government, the richer you are, the more your income has risen. (Factbook Chart 2) Risen by how much? Income for the bottom 40% of Americans (who, remember, have little to no “net worth”) has risen by just slightly over 10% in dollars adjusted for inflation. The top 20%, (who, remember, own 83% of the “net worth”) have risen in income by 68%. And the top 1% have risen in income by 201%! (Factbook Chart 1) The nation of the world’s richest rich people. Period.

Fully sixteen industrialized nations are “richer” than we are in the only functional way to view the matter, (unless you happen to be personally rich) the ratio of rich to poor and the equality of distribution of wealth and income. (Factbook Chart 4)

Why have the richest of us gotten so much richer so quickly? Speculative market investment of their “net worth” is why. The top 20% have overwhelmingly more “net worth” so they can make overwhelmingly more money with it. Why have the poorest of us lagged behind? (Factbook Chart 6) Because since about 1980 most of the basis for the real growth of wealth for the rest of us, competitively making things for sale, has simply disappeared here. It has gone to China, in case you hadn’t noticed. If you follow such things, China is now, self-evidently, the “land of opportunity” and upward mobility. America has become the “land of customer service” and McJobs.

But matters are even worse than this. When the McJobs aren’t there, the poor go nowhere or go down the tubes. They haven’t been there for four years now, despite “rising economic indicators”, and there is no real evidence they will ever be there again in any serious quantity. The best we have done so far, four years into a recovery, is tread water.

The rich, however, can always make money through intelligent investment, whatever the state of the economy, by essentially betting against American growth rather than for it, what the Stock Market calls “selling short”. They may make a little less money, but they continue to make it, if they have their heads screwed on straight. This is why brokers are now touting on television the buying of Euros, or betting against the rise of the American dollar rather than for it.

Keep this firmly in mind as we look at recessions, the times when the poor must go to the wall and the richest can sell short. What do we see? Of the seven recessions since 1959, only one has both started and ended under a Democratic President. It is the most important one, as we will see next week, but for now lets look at the other six. Of these six, five of them have started under a Republican Administration.

What we notice next is that, under a Republican executive branch, both the number of people in poverty and the absolute poverty rate, steadily and reliably rises or plateaus. Under Democratic Presidents, both these measures steadily and reliably--and usually quite sharply--declines.

In an economy that, by any measure but jobs and poverty, is growing quite nicely, we cannot generate enough jobs to even absorb first time workers, and at the moment both the number of people in poverty, as well as the absolute rate of poverty, is steadily growing.

Speaking in Omaha, Neb., on Friday, February 4th, President Bush said he was pleased with the new January job report, "That's a good sign. More people are going to work around our country. But we shouldn't be content. I'm looking forward to working with the members of Congress to create the conditions for continued economic expansion."


The American decline is real. It has been created and maintained largely by the policies of Republican Presidents. In the next essay I will examine the policy decisions that manufactured it.

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The American Decline II: Oiling the Cogs of the Stock Market

In the last essay we examined the growing inequality of wealth (defined as “net worth”) in America from the beginning of the Reagan Administration forward. We looked at the decline of manufacturing in this country in the last 25 years and the advantage the rich (the top 20% of the population) have over the poor (the bottom 40%).

This advantage comes from the fact that the money making of the rich, speculative market investment, can make you more money under absolutely any economic circumstances: all you need is shrewdness about how to invest. Jobs and wage levels, however, can only improve the lot of the poor when the jobs actually exist and the wages rise, in other words when the economy is both nominally and actually improving.

America is declining because, after 25 years of policy decisions by a largely Republican executive branch, we have reached a state where nominal improvement in the economy is not resulting in actual improvement in new jobs and rising wages. These essays examine why.

This time we will be looking at five charts: the poverty and recession chart we used last time, a chart of the stock market as reflected in the S&P 500 Large Cap Index, a chart of the rise and fall of oil prices, expressed in inflation adjusted 2004 dollars, a chart of the growing Federal deficit, and a comparative chart of oil production and consumption between America and four other countries.

For a brief explanation of why I have chosen the S&P 500 to represent stock prices you can look here. Another reason for this choice is that many Stock Market Index Funds--which are a simple way for middle-class investors to achieve a widely diversified stock portfolio--use the S&P 500 large cap as the index they target.

So what do we find? Not surprisingly, some of our recessions begin with a sharp fall in the price of stocks. How large a fall? From 1962 to 1982 a fall of at least 30+ points was a clear recession trigger: 36 points in 1969, 49 points in 1974, 37 points in 1981. The only exception was the recession of 1979, and we will examine why in a moment. Remember that 1979 was the date we gave last week for the clear separation of the fortunes of the American rich and the American poor.

After 1979 a very peculiar thing begins to happen: starting in 1981 the stock market takes off like a rocket, gaining a full 1424 points (!) between 1981 and its all time high in 2000. This was an unprecedented twenty year orgy of stock speculation. As a part of this process, something strange begins to happen, as well, to recessions: they are no longer reliably timed by sharp market falls of 30 points or greater.

A 112 point fall occurs in 1987 with no official recession following, a 67 point fall occurs in 1990 but in the middle of the recession rather than the beginning, and it takes a fall of a full 680 points to trigger the 2000 recession! This is by far the strongest evidence that the market growth from 1979 forward has been largely speculative and driven by the investment of the net worth of the rich rather than by the productive basis of the economy itself.

Something else also begins to happen. Before 1979, the valleys and peaks of poverty are very closely associated with the beginning and the end of recessions (1969-1971 & 1973-1975). From 1979 forward the highs and lows of poverty begin to loosen from the actual recessions themselves. Rising poverty now lasts for years into recoveries (1979-1980, 1991-1993, and 2001 to 2005 and still rising) while falling poverty is abruptly ended by stock market declines (1990 & 2000).

In other words, since the beginning of the Reagan Administration the relationship between poverty and the stock market has been almost totally reversed: the rich are making the greatest gains from sharply rising stocks early in the recovery when the poor are poorest, as opposed to all of us benefiting by the stock market rise. And the poor make the greatest gains immediately before the sensible rich bail out of the stock market and it falls.

In this country poverty is also now being driven by pure stock market speculation rather than real and productive economic gain and loss.

Why? Oil. And oil prices. And the policies of largely Republican Administrations toward oil prices.

From 1973 to 1980 the price of oil (in 2004 dollars) jumped from $17 to $94 a barrel, or about 575%! And in 1979 alone the price jumped from $42 to $94, or about 225%, the largest single jump ever. We spoke last week of the very important recession of 1979, the only one which both started and ended under a Democratic Administration. The cause and effect relationship between that recession and the insane jump in oil prices is as clear as anything gets in economics, and totally beyond control of the polices of any government.

This is, in fact, when America started to come apart. From 1980 to 1986, the price of oil fell almost as precipitously as it had risen from 1974. This period of steeply falling oil prices corresponds almost exactly with the first great bounce of stock speculation ending in the 112 point crash of 1987. During that same period the number of people in poverty rose by 10 million (the size of a major world city, like Tokyo, to keep that number in perspective).

After this, in 1991 following a $25 a barrel spike up, and immediately down, of oil prices, the second great speculative stock orgy began, with a further fall in prices in 1994 sending the market up at the fastest and longest clip in history, ending with the dot com crash in 2000, from which we have still not fully recovered. The 1987 to 1994 climb in the market actually saw the numbers in poverty increase by a further 7 million. So two major cities worth of poor people were added to America during the 12 years of rule by Ronald Reagan & George Bush I.

From 1994 to 2000, under Bill Clinton and a stalemate with a Republican Congress, steadily falling oil prices, combined with a high flying stock market, managed to produce some serious relief to the growth of the numbers in poverty: by 1999 we had at least worked our way back to where we were in 1988, if not to where we were before the ascension of Ronald Reagan.

But under George Bush II and a Republican Congress we have seen not only a precipitously falling stock market (of 680 points, or about 40% of the speculative excesses of 1981-2000) but also fast rising oil prices to the tune of a full $40 a barrel or an increase of 400%!

So I wouldn’t be looking for job numbers to increase any time soon or for the ranks of the poor to stop growing while the rich today are now well established in reinvesting in stocks to fuel the next big speculative extravaganza, driven by more government deficits.

Why have we gotten to the pass? Two reasons, both matters of Republican policy. First the insane budget deficits run by Reagan/Bush I and Bush II. In the twenty five years since Ronald Reagan assumed the Presidency, the national debt has grown from $1 trillion to $8 trillion dollars, 800% in nominal dollars not adjusted for inflation. In the same interval the stock market has risen 1000% in the same nominal dollars to the huge profit of the wealthiest 20% of this country. This is clearly cause and effect.

In the same 25 years poverty has bounced back and forth by about plus or minus 10 million people (one of those major cities, remember) as the oil prices have gone up and down. This is also cause and effect. We now stand as a country with 13 million more in poverty than the lowest number both in absolute terms, and in poverty rate, of 23 million people in 1979. And poverty is still rising while job numbers remain essentially flat, and barely able to absorb any totally new entrants into the job market.

The second policy decision which brought us to this awful economy is the failure of Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II to heed the wake up call of the first 575% rise in the price of oil from 1973 to 1980. The big spike of 225% in 1979 forced the only serious cutback in American consumption—lasting until 1981. But no one has been minding the store on this matter since. And certainly no Republican politician of any consequence has seriously advocated conservation or cutting back consumption in any other way.

In the last 25 years the United Kingdom has kept its own consumption of oil flat despite the bonanza of its own oil production from the North Sea. China, Indonesia, and India are consuming oil at a faster rate than us, but China and Indonesia have used oil surpluses to industrialize and all three are now making most of the goods, and offering many of the services, that we used to, but now do no longer. If you look at the economic opportunity for future growth in all four—the U.K., China, Indonesia, and India--you will see what advantages both oil conservation and real manufacturing give them over us at present.

In the next essay we will look at the American middle class, at why their fate is tied up with our insatiable appetite for oil, and why they are likely to be by far the biggest losers in the American Decline.

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The American Decline III: The Middle-Class Con Game

In the last two essays we have examined the relations between the rich in this country (the upper 20% who own 83% of the total net worth of America), and the poor (the lower 40% who own less than 1% of the total net worth). This time we will examine the 40% in between them, the middle-classes.

Remember, we established in our first essay that jobs have been stagnant since 2000, and that real gains in mere wages from jobs have barely exceeded inflation since 1980. So “net worth”, and not wages earned, is now the key to upward mobility in America, because net worth is what you can invest, in one form or another, to make money beyond mere consumption. The middle 40% of the American spectrum holds only 16% of the country’s net worth.

What do they invest it in? Housing, largely--owning “a home of their own” and “acquiring home equity”. Never mind that they must borrow far in excess of their net worth in order to make this investment. Never mind that, for the life of the loan, the financial institution actually “owns” the bulk of the worth of the property through the legal lien. Never mind that they must service this debt with interest for decades. Never mind that the housing market is like any other, with risk of falling home values, while you are locked into paying off that mortgage no matter how much your home’s value declines. Home ownership is the American Dream.

Home ownership is the Middle Class Con Game.

Owning a home is not an “investment”. It is mere consumption, a very expensive hobby, fun for some, a burden for others, but profiting no one except the institutions making the loans. The only people who “invest” in housing are landlords.

Don’t believe me? Let’s do the math. The figures cited below are generally approximate mean or median figures extracted from the sources I will link to as we go along. They are rounded to the nearest $100.00 for convenience. Since inflation applies to all figures equally, we will not factor it in. We will assume $10,000 of net worth available for a down payment. This is the money we are “investing” in the property.

Cash For Down Payment $10,000
Average House Price $250,000
Amount of Loan $240,000
Length of Loan 30 years
Fixed Interest Rate (This is quite generous, 7-8% is current) 5% per year
Total Interest over 30 years $223,800
Total Payment over 30 years $463,800
Total Maintenance $400 yr @ 30 years $12,000
Sale Price to recoup $10K without profit $475,000
Percentage of appreciation to recoup $10K without profit 90%
Profit on investment of $10,000 $0.00
Percentage of profit on $10,000 0%
Net Loss on Home Ownership with no home value increase -$225,000
Percentage Loss on Home Ownership -90%

Now no one can reasonably assume that their home will appreciate 90%! It might happen, but it would be an obvious windfall. And it would have to do this just to break even—no profit at all on the initial $10,000.

No serious person, confronted with these reasonable figures would call owning a home an “investment”. Owning a home is a hobby, and a very expensive hobby at that. What about “equity”? Equity is merely the money used to pay off the loan principal plus any appreciation that might happen to occur. It pays no set rate of interest or average yield to the homeowner, and is not that much better for the homeowner than building up the same amount of money in a simple, no interest, checking account. The checking account would not require any major debt service in the bargain. And, as the figures above show, the equity you accumulate, without appreciation in home value, is only moderately more than the money you spend in debt service and maintenance. Appreciation in home value is not guaranteed. Housing is a market, with risk, like any other.

Now let’s look at what might happen if you took that same $10,000 of net worth and invested it in a very conservative buy-and-hold stock and bond portfolio for the same 30 years while paying average rent.

Cash For Investment $10,000
Stock to Bond Percentage in Portfolio 40%--60%
Length of Investment Time 30 years
Annual Average Yield 12%
Total Yield in Dollars $300,000
Profit on Investment $290,000
Median Gross Rent per Month $600
Total Gross Rent over 30 years $216,000
Net Profit on Investment and Rent together $74,000
Percentage Profit on Investment and Rent 30%

Now, THAT’S an “investment”! Seventy-four thousand dollars and 30% pure profit. To achieve the same profit with the home of our hypothetical buyer, he would have to sell it for $549,000, or approximately a 140% increase in home value!

The benefits of renting and investing become even more spectacular if you assume that the amount of money which is going to service the debt on, and maintain, a home is also invested in this same portfolio:

Total loan interest over 30 years $223,800
Rent Differential over 30 years $234,000
Maintenance Differential over 30 years $12,000
Total Invested Capital Available over 30 years $256,000
Capital available per annum from Differentials $8,200
Total Yield from Capital over 30 years $2,516,000
Total Profit on Investment $2,260,000
Total Gross Rent over 30 years $2l6,000
Net Profit on Investment and Rent $2,044,000
Percentage Profit on Investment and Rent 430%+


Over 2 million dollars and 430% net profit on investment and renting! Owning a home is a very expensive hobby.

The con game--perpetuated everywhere from Better Homes and Gardens magazine to the prose introductions of the United States Census figures--is the lie that a home is an “investment”. Who profits from that lie? The financial institutions that lend the money, that’s who. They are part of that exact same equities market that rewards real investments, and clearly punishes borrowing to own real estate to live in.

But why does it matter to the decline of America as a whole?

Oil consumption.

Consider my city, Columbus, Ohio. In 1950 the economic reach of Columbus, what we now call the Metropolitan Statistical Area, was no larger than Franklin County. That country had a total population of 503,410 and a land area of 540 square miles. Like most Ohio counties, Franklin is nearly a perfect square in shape, and Columbus, the county seat, is approximately in the geographic center. So, for convenience, let’s assume an exact square and an exact midpoint.

This would give a distance of 12 miles, more or less, from the county boundary to its midpoint, and this would be the about the maximum distance anybody would have been driving to work in Columbus in 1950.

As of 2004, the Columbus MSA consisted of fully eight surrounding counties: Delaware, Fairfield, Franklin, Licking, Pickaway, Madison, Morrow, and Union counties. The MSA has a total population of 1,549,360 (2000 census) and a land area of 3983 square miles. So the maximum distance from the center to the edge of that perfect square is 31 miles, this is the reasonable maximum distance most people would travel to work in Columbus. Effectively, Greater Columbus is three times larger than it was in 1950. This growth has largely been a growth of middle-class home ownership with single-family units on lots of about 500 to 1000 square feet. The name for this is suburban and exurban sprawl.

Over the second half of the 20th century, transportation was the largest consuming sector of petroleum and the one showing the greatest expansion. In 2002, 13.1 million barrels per day of petroleum products were consumed for transportation purposes, accounting for 66% of all petroleum used. This is because of suburban and exurban sprawl and, ultimately, because of the middle-class con game of individual home ownership.

For perspective, let’s compare Franklin County with San Francisco County, which is contiguous with the city of San Francisco itself. San Francisco is surrounded on three sides by water, and that has restrained its capacity for exurban sprawl to the minimum possible.

San Francisco County 2000 census data:

Population 776,733
Land Area 47 sq. miles
Population Density 16,634 per sq. mile
Home Ownership Rate 35%
Poverty Rate (1999) 11.3%

Franklin County 2000 census data:

Population 1,068,978
Land Area 540 sq. miles
Population Density 1,980 per sq. mile
Home Ownership Rate 56.9%
Poverty Rate (1999) 11.6%

San Francisco is a clean, livable city, with a wonderful subway system to do the work that hundreds of thousands of cars do in Franklin County, at a far lower cost for, and rate of consumption of, crude oil. And, in the best of times, such as 1999, the percentage of people in poverty in each county is virtually equivalent. San Francisco is what every city in America could have been but for the con game of home ownership and the cheap energy prices which sustained it, with rising incomes for everybody in America, until 1979 and the dominance of the Republican Party in American politics, with its huge, stock-market boosting budget deficits.

Let’s consider the implications for oil consumption under contemporary conditions. China, India, and Indonesia are rapidly increasing their consumption of oil and this, along with our increasing consumption of oil, is pushing a sustained and continuous price rise of crude.

This is likely to continue unless there is a sharp downturn in the entire world economy. Such a downturn is now far less likely than ever before, because the world economy is rapidly becoming less and less dependent upon consumer activities in the United States. Just recently China, which has captured most of our old manufacturing, has also passed us as the world leader in consumption of many industrial consumer goods.

So oil prices will continue to rise for the foreseeable future, and the consequent increase in poverty in America that is tied to oil prices will also increase, widening the income and net worth gap between the upper 20% and the lower 40% of America.

However, unlike China, India, and Indonesia, where rising oil consumption is actually generating wealth through manufacturing, services, and marketing, our oil consumption is largely going toward simply being able to get around in our insanely sprawled exurbs, and to heating the homes in a few of them.

In other words, our oil demand is not only inelastic and tied to our poorly managed urban growth, it is also producing little or no wealth for the country as a whole. And, as exurban spread by the middle 40% of Americans continues, propped up by their borrowing, our oil consumption, and the consequent cost of living for all Americans will steadily rise. The percentage of that cost taken up by fuel consumption will rise even faster. And the real quality of life for all but the rich 20%, whose immense net worth is invested in equities rather than debt service, will steadily decline.

We have seen how excessive government borrowing has been crucial to the meteoric rise of the Stock Market since 1980 and the consequently huge capital gains to the upper 20% of this country. These capital gains have never “trickled down” to the lower 40% with virtually no net worth, and they have merely enabled the middle 40% to assume 30 years of debt service whose real cost will far outstrip the home they acquire for it.

This private borrowing for home ownership, home improvement, and home equity cash out also contributes to the expansion of the capital markets where that debt service cash of the borrowers would be more profitably invested. Who does this really benefit? Not most of the people buying the homes, and certainly not the people who can neither afford to invest in the markets nor buy a home.

So what of the future? In order to manage the slow recovery from the recession of 2000-2001, the Federal Reserve has kept interest rates at historically low levels for an extraordinarily long time, soliciting an incredible rush to borrow among the middle 40% of this country, and consumer debt levels have reached historic highs. Thus through 12 years of economic expansion, contraction, and relative stagnation, the housing market has steadily flourished.

However, interest rates are starting to rise, as are inflationary indicators, which force the Fed to keep interest rates rising. Also, the market for home borrowing has become saturated as more consumers reach debt levels where they can no longer receive favorable terms from lenders to borrow more.

This has put the burst of the housing bubble within sight. In my own town, for the first time in years, I am starting to see homes offered for sale with asking prices of under $100,000. And among the more cautious in the real estate business, the warning bells have already started ringing.

The middle-class, however, will have to eat its loans no matter how much the market hammers down their home values. Moreover, with stagnant real job growth, sharply rising interest rates to curb the inflation, steadily rising fuel prices from both inelastic and nonproductive American patterns of consumption, and a fast approaching fall in the business cycle from the rising interest rates, the American middle-class is very likely to see a horrible day of reckoning in the near future.

Sharp job losses--far more in all probability than we saw in 2000-2001 where over 2 million jobs went south--combined with falling home values and debt service which is ever harder to maintain in the face of steadily rising fuel prices, will very likely ripsaw the American middle-classes--and end their American Dream of upward mobility--for the foreseeable future. Bankruptcy rates will skyrocket and the ripple effect through America from downstream to upstream lenders will knock down a great many standing dominos.

Of course, anyone in the upper 20% who has diversified the investment of their net worth with investment abroad, or in petroleum stocks will do quite well, thank you; perhaps not quite as well as in a booming American economy, but still very comfortably enough.

So, if you are a member of the American middle-class yourself, think carefully about the real results of the policy changes proposed by a Republican President and a Republican Congress. They want to turn America into the “ownership society”, or so they say. I presume this means that they would love for you to borrow some money and buy a home. You just might ask yourself the real reason why.

You might also ask what does “privatizing” Social Security do for anything but the growth of the Stock Market, in which you are likely to have a very diminished share, even with a private SSI account, because of the debts you’ve assumed to buy a home and make ends meet.

What does a “flat income tax” of, say, 15%, or a national sales tax on the things you buy, mean for you, compared to what it means for someone in the upper 20% who has seen their real income rise 68% over the last 25 years through stock speculation?

What does “tort reform” and restrictions on “class action” lawsuits do for you, compared to what it does for those who own stock in insurance companies?

What does “bankruptcy reform”, making it harder to discharge debt at a discount, mean to someone such as you who is tied to debt service for 30 years, whether your job is finally outsourced abroad or not?

What does the refusal to let anything but “market forces” determine the price of gasoline mean to you, when you can’t get out of driving 150-300 miles a week in your old sedan, while your wife drives the equivalent amount in your new gas-guzzling SUV?

After all, you bought it at a premium price--on credit with finance charges--since your wife thought it “safer” for her and the kids. Can you cut any real corners and still make it to work, the grocery store, the home improvement warehouse, Wal-Mart, the soccer match, and the karate lessons?

What will the fact that health insurance costs are rising five times faster than inflation--with no address to this problem by Republican government even on the horizon--mean to you?

What are the implications for you of steadily rising deficits, with steadily diminishing domestic government services, such as cheap college loans for your children, by both state and federal governments?

Will the children you are raising really have a better life, or even as good a life as you have had in the America of the future?

If I were you, I’d start asking these questions real soon. As the latest ad campaign, by one of the largest insurance companies in the business, says, Life Comes At You Fast.

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The American Decline IV: Where We Stand and What We Can Do

I must be brutally honest. I personally think the American decline has passed the point of no return. The demographics of where and how America voted, as best expressed in the breakout of Bush vs. Kerry by county, make it clear that continued and expanded energy dependence from a housing pattern of exurban sprawl favors the dominance of Republican politics.

I think the election of 2004 will go down in history as the watershed where a bare majority of the American voting public put their seal of approval on ending the American Dream of a better life for all of us, and, consequently, the American Dream died.

When I read virtually every policy goal of the current Administration, I can see only one reliable long-term result: the further enrichment of the top 20% of American society at the greater or lesser expense of the 80% who are left. A majority of American voters have made it clear that they simply do not care, as long as we are "fighting terrorism" and making a statement (if not actually changing anything) in favor of "moral values".

Those of us who do care about the decline may be able to halt this particular policy initiative, or that particular policy decision of the Bush Administration. And we must make our best efforts to do so, for the sake of America's future. But even were we to halt them all, the process of the long-term impoverishment of most of America would likely continue under its own steam. It is driven by our energy dependence and the disappearance of our competitive economic base. The dominant economic power of the early 21st century clearly will be China.

We would have to become energy independent to even stabilize the general levels of poverty and quality of life in this country. This would require commitment of national will and the setting of a specific goal for an end date of independence. If we started today, a realistic goal would be 2025.

If we did achieve such energy independence, it would require weaning ourselves off of crude oil. The fact that the major sources of crude supply and demand are abroad, and subject to a competitive consumption market in which we have less and less influence, are not the only reasons for this. There are strong indications that an absolute decline in crude oil and gas supplies, and of energy generation as a whole, may be coming within our lifetime.

The only way to forestall the consequences of this would be a massive public commitment to achieve a profitable hydrogen fusion reactor, since this is the sole possible technology that could return America to the absolutely stable energy prices of 1947 to 1974, and make a renewal of American manufacturing possible. All other energy sources, both individually and collectively, appear to have resource limits far lower than continued American, or World, economic growth can tolerate. Only hydrogen is in large enough supply for such growth.

Europe and Japan have led the way in fusion research, and, as matters now stand, they will be the first to reap any benefits if it comes to fruition. The economic advantages to any country who achieves it first will be enormous. Such a country is likely to become the dominant economic power of the middle 21st Century. This will probably not be us.

Moreover, the inelastic need for vehicular transport in America ultimately implies hydrogen fueled cars, which are already on the horizon, for exactly the same reason: hydrogen supply. This research would have to be dramatically and substantially expanded, with strong public financial incentives for all segments of the automotive market--producers, consumers, energy companies, and retailers--to convert completely to hydrogen.

Finally, both the long term production of hydrogen, and the short term non-transportation energy needs, in the interval between now and the achievement of profitable hydrogen fusion, would probably need to be met by coal gasification, with this technology also encouraged with public incentives.

The other social and economic problems leading to concentration of American wealth, such as exurban sprawl and housing debt, would just have to take care of themselves in the years before the achievement of profitable hydrogen fusion.

In the absence of coalescence of national will, and intelligent policy, to reverse the American decline, America will still remain America, but it will never again be the America of equal economic opportunity in which I passed my childhood and youth.

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Monday, February 21, 2005

The Way Things Really Are

My Buddhist teachers assert that our problems in life stem from the fact that we consistently misperceive our world. The sensory, thought, and feeling processes which appear to us to be inside our bodies, we attribute to a "self" or an "ego". We habitually fixate and cling to this notion of "ourself". We are constantly trying to relate everything we experience outside of our bodies to it, and evaluating everything that happens as a friend or a foe of this precious ego of ours.

It is this deeply ingrained emotive habit--a constant mental muscle clenching of me, me, me, my stuff, my friend, my enemy--which actually creates the world of "solid objects" and "definite places" that we appear to inhabit.

Things are really not like this. Our awareness, that basic thing we call "mind", has no definite limits or boundaries. If you doubt this, look at your own mind and see if you can find exactly where it ends.

For example, is your right hand part of your mind, or is it an object that your mind perceives? If your hand is not part of your mind, how can your mind feel the keyboard under your fingers, or the weight of the heavy coin-silver ring on your middle finger? But if it is part of your mind, why does it appear to be a separate object when I call your attention to it?

See? The mind has no boundary and no definite location. When we try to locate it, it slips away from us like a wet cake of soap in the shower.

Now stop right there! I'm not asking for the opinion you were taught in school about the functions of the brain, or the opinion of your pastor about who is or isn't in Heaven, or the opinion of the news service whose "fair and balanced" reporting you favor.

I'm asking you to look at you, yourself, right here, right now.

Look at those alternatives that flicker in front of your mind--the smooth equivocation of the textbook, then the resentment that the textbook is so self-assured, then the flickering image of the teacher telling you about science, then the flickering image of your mother telling you about God. See how they flash, one after another?

See how when one of them appears, the one before that fades, and the one before that has totally vanished? Where did it go? Was that thought something that your mind perceived, or was it your mind itself? If it was either, where is it now?

Where is your right hand now?

Slipped out of your mind, didn't it?

So what about all that stuff that's somehow "out there" beyond our bodies? What about the Honda Prelude coming off the assembly line up in Marysville, Ohio? It's an "automobile", right? A "sedan", right? A "vehicle", right? A "foreign car", right? And "made in America", right? So which of these is it really?

Let's repeat that. So which of these is it really? Is there anything there at all but a series of empty labels? Thoughts flashing in front of the mind? You’re not in Marysville, you’ve never seen the assembly line, and old Joe Claus might be just fooling, feeding you a line.

Maybe there is no Marysville, no Honda Plant, no automobile. How do you know for sure?

Do you trust Joe Claus about Hondas like you trust all the science teachers and science books about Quarks and Positrons and Gluons and Black Holes that no one has ever directly seen? Do you really know any of this for yourself? Or are you just deferring to the "authorities"?

Luckily for you, I’m a very reliable guy. I’ve actually driven by Marysville on the expressway, and driven through it on the U.S. two lane. I’ve seen the road signs about the auto facility as I drive by. I read about the Honda Plant in the Columbus Dispatch all the time, I see the ads there for the assembly line jobs, and I watch reports about it on 10TV Eyewitness News, too.

I frequent the sushi bar at Otani's in Columbus, and watch the Japanese execs boozing it up in the tatami rooms on a Friday night and I note every gesture of rank, deference, and decorum among them. (I have very sharp eyes for everything, in case you hadn't guessed.)

Of course, I’ve never seen an actual Honda come out the plant doors. But I’m at least as reliable as your high school science teacher who never got his hands on an atom smasher or a radio telescope to check out those Quarks and Black Holes. I'm as reliable as your pastor who has never been able, personally, to manage a trip to the Chambers of the Throne itself, though someday....

He takes it on faith, and you take it on faith. Right?

Feeling kind of skeptical about things? Good. Keep thinking about that Honda Prelude and about your own mind.

Okay, let's say that you don't trust me anymore. I can't think why you wouldn't, given all the other unsupported testimony you've been trusting for so long, but let's say you don't. Your not going to believe me when I talk about a Honda Prelude coming out the door of the Assembly Plant in Marysville, Ohio, since I’ve admitted I’ve never seen any such thing.

But in order to talk about the way things really are we have to talk about something, so let's do what real philosophers do and let's assume the Honda and the Assembly Plant. No harm in just assuming it, is there?

If there is a Honda and an Assembly Plant in Marysville, Ohio, then what?

Well, first of all, we come back to the same questions we started with: It's an "automobile", right? A "sedan", right? A "vehicle", right? A "foreign car", right? And "made in America", right? So which of these is it really? Is there anything there at all but a series of empty labels?

If all these labels are "true" and refer to the same thing, are they all interchangeable, all identical to one another--if so, why so many? if not, how can they all refer to the same thing? Puzzling, isn't it?

Well, we've assumed a Honda and an Assembly Plant, so we can also assume the Honda was assembled from something. From what? Smaller components, of course. Somewhere at the other end of the plant there must have been a pile of all the unassembled components that now make up our Honda. So maybe it's something about the components that makes all these labels both "true", and different from one another.


What is the real difference between all those components piled up one way at the front end of the Assembly Plant and piled up in a different way at the back end? Nothing essential has happened to change any individual component--a "gasket" or a "fuel pump" remains a "gasket" or a "fuel pump", in either case. Are both of the piles of parts "automobiles", then? If so, why can we drive away one, but not the other? If not, how can we have a change in the pile if nothing changes about the parts of which it is composed?

Now remember, all of this is about a hypothetical Honda Prelude, one that we've merely assumed in our minds, a pure mental fabrication, nothing which really exists outside of our own minds. But this fabrication does have a logical structure: If we have a Honda and an Assembly Plant in Marysville, then we also have our five "true" labels, and our two piles of component parts, one "before" and one "after" assembly. Right?

Now suppose we actually went to Marysville and watched a real Honda Prelude being assembled. (There you go, trusting me again! Go ahead! Flattery will get you everywhere with me.) If we saw the Honda in front of us, rather than just as an image in our minds, would the logical structure of what we see be any different from the logical structure of our completely hypothetical mental fabrication? I can't see where it would be, can you?

If that is the case, just where is that logical structure? Is it inside my mind? Inside your mind? Or out in Marysville? Or anywhere autos are being assembled? On which side of what boundary is it really located?

If we don't know where such mental ideas are located, how do we know where any supposedly "real" and "objective" Honda Preludes are located either?

How do we know the way anything really is?

What we've done so far is to consciously and deliberately exercise that emotive habit and mental muscle which I referred earlier in this essay:

It is this deeply ingrained emotive habit--a constant mental muscle clenching of me, me, me, my stuff, my friend, my enemy--which actually creates the world of "solid objects" and "definite places" that we appear to inhabit.

If you have been very lucky, there may have been one or two times, while reading this essay, where doubt about what is really going on has brought you up very short, leaving a small mental gap in this deeply ingrained habit.

The actual appearance of things both inside and outside your body hasn't really changed, but it may be that you got a glimpse of what I mean by how we make the world with our minds, and a glimpse what it might be like to let go of doing it for a moment.

At some point in your life you have probably watched an old-fashioned 16mm movie, in a room where the movie projector is set up amid the chairs of the audience.

When you do this, you can watch the entire process of how a roll of thousands of pictures on film, stored in a large flat can, will create the illusion of people talking and living behind what we know to be a movie screen, just an opaque surface with no real people in it whatsoever.

We connive in the illusion, we "suspend our disbelief", almost without thinking and, if conditions are right, we can get comfortable and completely lose all track of anything but the illusory world of the film.

Our relations with our own lives are precisely the same as this, the only difference being that the "prior causes and conditions" (which Buddhists call "karma") behind what appears to us are hidden from our view by our constant mental fabrication of illusory boundaries. These mental fabrications, and the actions they prompt in us, are what keep our "movie" continuing--as if that 16mm film were spliced as a continuous loop.

We do this because the movie is so entertaining, and the greatest entertainment of all is our overwhelming fear that if we stop doing it, there will be nothing and no one there at all. Our suspicion is perfectly correct, but our fear of it is what keeps us in chains.

When we think things actually exist, we are wrong--"existence" is a mere mental fabrication. When we think nothing exists, we are wrong--"non-existence" is a mere mental fabrication. When we think things both exist and non-exist, we are wrong--that is also a mere mental fabrication. And when we think things neither exist nor non-exist we are wrong--that is finally a mere mental fabrication.

The "ground" of what we call mind is completely empty of any such mental fabrications, full of the luminous and radiant bliss of the way all things appear, and totally unobstructed in the way any appearance whatever can manifest. There is absolutely no distinction to be made between that empty, luminous, and unobstructed mind and anything that appears anywhere. The Ground does not change.

So my teachers say. Now I know none of this from my own experience, any more than I have seen a freshly minted Honda come out of the plant at Marysville, but working with them and following their instructions for 20 years has occasionally brought me up short, leaving that little gap in my mental process that I've described above.

What happens in that little gap leads me to strongly suspect that they are right. And they themselves have always said to me what I now say to you: don't rely on our word for it, look directly at your own mind to see if what we say is true.

Nothing on this earth matters as much to me now as this constant effort to look directly at my own mind.

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Yes, Virginia, Torture is Wrong

We bloggers are beginning to preen ourselves on being the real newshounds, covering what the "mainstream media" can't or won't. But, if I may say so, our Achilles heel is that we are constantly gabbing to each other about whatever the latest sensation in our world consists of and not digging deeper into fundamental issues.

When someone does, and does so with considerable moral courage, I think they should be recognized. Sebastian Holsclaw and Will over at Wills4223, on the right and the left respectively, have each placed two major posts on American torture (here,here, here, and here) that should, but, of course, won't, be required reading and thinking for any American.

I particularly salute Mr. Holsclaw, since the proponents of torture share the same views as he does on many other subjects, it is always easy to turn a blind eye in such cases, and it requires both intellectual and moral courage not to.


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Sunday, February 20, 2005

The Red-Leaved Bamboo

We had a small blizzard here a couple of days ago. It was a dense white blanket of large dry snowflakes, so thick you could hardly see across a six-lane downtown street. It lasted only 10 or 15 minutes, was followed by sun and high winds, blowing and melting the snow away, and by the falling of temperatures off of a sheer cliff to a wind chill of -10F degrees by nightfall.

February at its finest.

Winter has its charm, particularly if you do not drive in it, as I don't now. I have a large stand of yellow-groove bamboo, Phyllostachys Aureosulcata. In just right type of snowfall, medium flakes, not too wet or too dry, and with temperatures 2-4 degrees below freezing, the snow on the leaves is utterly magnificent.

Yellow-groove is an extremely hardy species, excellent for midwestern gardens like mine where real, below zero, temperature extremes are possible, though they seldom last longer than the better part of a week. Yellow-groove has been stated, by some authorities, to be hardy down to -20F of real temperature, not just wind chill, temperature which will kill many other species of bamboo rhizomes. The shoots are also edible, if you like to cook and eat such things.

Bamboo is a weird plant about which we really know less than we should, given the progress of science. For example, species like yellow-groove normally propagate through spreading rhizomes, but, at extremely and long and indefinite intervals, they will flower, go to seed, and completely die, culm, root, and rhizome (culm, by the way is the botanical name of the stalk above ground with the leaves on it). No one can stop this process. That may not seem that odd, but every member of any given species of bamboo goes to seed and dies at the same time all around the world! Nobody knows why or how they do this.

Yellow groove spreads aggressively, so if you plant it, do what I have done, and plant it in the middle of your property, where you can lawn-mow the new shoots that come up in your grass outside the confines of your bamboo grove. Nothing makes a neighbor more shirty than an overwhelming jungle from next door taking over his property! It also makes a very dense screen if left to grow naturally, a living privacy fence which, when mature, can grow as high as 25 feet.

But this dense screen is not the aesthetically pleasing bamboo groves which the Chinese and the Japanese have painted for centuries. These are manufactured with deliberate cultivation and care. I stumbled on the secret of doing this with yellow-groove last year. Two years ago, the grove did not grow upright and tall, but, rather, low and spreading, due to some freak in the weather conditions. It looked totally ugly, so I decided to completely prune back all the culms to the ground.

Having done so, the new bamboo shoots grew fast and tall, at exactly the density that you see in well-cultivated Asian groves, with about a foot, more or less, between each culm, letting them display their leaves magnificently, and letting them bend gracefully to every wind. I have cut out a space in the center of my grove, and a path through to it, paved with flagstones, and containing a wrought iron chair, for someone to sit in privacy, and contemplate the beauty of the sound of the wind rushing through the leaves.

I sometimes wonder if our great land is not like my bamboo grove: dense, thick, healthy, and hardy; spreading aggressively; and at its best with tender care and cutting back. If so, I hope it doesn't suddenly go to seed, though I fear it may be doing so even as we speak, since the flowers of our profligacy and our indifference to the views of the rest of the world have been exceptionally large over the past few years.

In any event, bamboo is the plant of beauty and mystery, stimulating some of the greatest art of Asia, the art of brush and black ink on paper. My favorite story is of a patron who commissioned a painting from one of the most famous artists of his day, who was a renowned painter of bamboo. When the painting was finished, you could almost feel the wind swaying the culms in the grove. But it was done entirely in red ink, which is normally reserved for personal seals. The patron was overwhelmed by the beauty, but dumbfounded by the color. He said, "But bamboo isn't red!"

The great and famous artist replied, "Have you ever heard of a black-leaved bamboo?"

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Saturday, February 19, 2005

The Blood on Iwo Jima

Reverend Donald Sensing of One Hand Clapping has an absolutely tremendous post both in prose and pictures on the Anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima. Go read it. It is a perfect essay of its kind. I would only add to it that my teachers have suggested to me that many, perhaps most, of the Americans born after 1945, were Japanese or German in their immediately previous life. Such are the karmic bonds war makes. Looked at that way, it amplifies the ultimate tragedy of it.


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Friday, February 18, 2005

The Encounter with True Silence

The free floating cloud is back. For the clinically depressive, the worst part is that you are not depressed about anything, so you can't act on what is depressing you. These days, the cloud comes and goes on its own schedule--about 2-3 hours in duration, instead of whole days, so I can function through it.

It has taught me a few things. By taking away my favorite pleasures--books, music, crisp sunny days--it has shown me the futility of trying to use anything as a crutch to prop yourself up with, and evade your depression. I did this with these things for years.

But nothing will work as that sort of crutch forever, and the rebound from the biochemical basis of your depression is devastating. I completely burned out on these favorite pleasures from trying to use them that way. Reading went first, then music, and now even my favorite weather has dropped away from me. The disorder chewed them up, spit them out, and left me only with the cuds.

It is so strange to read prose or listen to music with absolutely no emotional affect. Most of the time, there is even no affect reading my own prose. With music comes an utter indifference, except for mild to serious annoyance at the noise. The only thing left is my emotional response to content, when there is content: lyrics or issues to get involved with, exercised with, and concerned about.

Peculiarly, in the absence of emotional affect, I am writing better and easier than I ever have in my life. The words rattle in my head constantly, and it is a major relief to put them to paper or to direct blogging.

I engage content sparingly, for all my recent prolificness in writing. For I fear developing the same indifference to even this level of involvement. Another affect gone would not only leave my world flatter and grayer, it would also silence my voice when all who can speak in defense of the values I hold dear, are vitally needed against the dark ideological onslaught, manipulated by cynical and indifferent wealth and power hunger, which we face in this country.

When I was in New Mexico, I made frequent trips into the high desert backcountry. There I heard, for the first time in my life, true natural silence. No place in the eastern forests, farmland, and prairie is wholly silent. In the country there is always rustling, chirping, chittering, and the dopplering sound wash of passing automobiles.

There is even, if your ears are sensitive enough, and the background quiet enough, a constant, almost subthreshold hum of alternating current in any nearby wire. And some wire or other is always nearby.

In the high desert, you can finally be miles from the wires, the fauna are few and far between, and so are the autos. So, normally, you hear only the wind, and, when the wind lays, you can finally hear nothing. Natural silence. The only comparable experience I have ever had in the East was a heavy snowstorm on New Year's Day morning, with three-quarters of the town sleeping off their drunk, no one running appliances, and the snow pack and very low clouds deadening most of the background noise.

I crave that silence. It would probably move me emotionally again, and would certainly heal and relieve me. For with the regular return of the cloud of depression on my mind--even though shortened and dissipated by the meds--comes a chronic hyperacusis of hearing, making discrimination the content and meaning of live human voices nearly impossible in a room with a chattering television. The sentences alternate between the live voice and the electronic voice in my mind, turning the mixture into paragraph salad.

It also weighs me down with every random background noise: conversation several cubicles away, the copier or fax machine running, file drawers opening, or my co-workers chewing a snack.

The high desert is truly still there, though the West is filling up, and it is much harder to find that silence, or even to find only the sound of the wind. You must drive further and wait longer. But, if you can, go find it and listen. For even if I never hear it again in this life (and the odds are I will not), I can still feel pleasure, though who knows for how long, at the thought that somebody else might hear it.

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Thursday, February 17, 2005

Since the Anchoress Asks, I'll Answer

My tussles with the Anchoress give me great pleasure. Like my other favorite bloggers, La Shawn Barber and Reverend Donald Sensing, the Anchoress and I share a belief that asking religious questions of oneself and others is overwhelmingly important to a life well lived. We have very different answers to those questions, but that keeps us from being merely a mutual admiration society, and makes our blogs much more interesting to write. Here is one of the questions she asked me recently, so, since she asks, I'll answer.

You are a man of prayer. It's a different sort of prayer than mine, but prayer can't live and grow and flow if the pray-er is not open to where it can go...and that requires a little bit of optimism, I think. A little bit of faith that good outweighs bad...but how can you prayerfully believe that, when EVERYTHING is bad?

Good question. And one that cuts to the chase about the Buddhist view of life. Forty-nine days after his complete and final enlightenment, the very first thing Shakyamuni Buddha taught to his very first students was: Life Is Suffering.

This is called the first of the Four Noble Truths, the others being: Suffering Has A Cause, Suffering Can Be Ended, and there is a Path to that Conclusion.

But let's stay with the First Noble Truth, for now. Life Is Suffering is about an absolute crystalline realism regarding our human situation. To begin with, there is the Misery of Conditioned Existence: everything, absolutely everything in our world, changes, and nothing endures. Then there is the actual pain of embodiment. We start out dark and warm in our fine amniotic swimming pool, but it gets smaller and smaller with each passing day until we are finally so claustrophobicly tight, we can hardly move.

Then we are squeezed through a tube far too small for us, dragged out into a world which is blazingly and unendurably bright as well as freezing cold, hit hard enough to learn to breathe, and, from that moment forward no contentment or pleasure lasts. That's why babies cry so much.

Our body develops and every change is really what used to be called a "growing pain". Watch any children you're familiar with for a while if you doubt this. And as the growth speeds up towards physical maturity, the mental pain of the rush to adulthood increases exponentially. Once development stops, the deterioration begins almost immediately. We get flabby, we get sick, we get old, and we die. These are facts. These are real.

And it doesn't just stop with this life, but goes on from life to life to life, some better, some worse, but all, on some level, unsatisfactory, alternating from the misery of actual discomfort and pain to the misery of the evaporation of happiness and pleasure in the very act of enjoying it. All this with no way out from it, life after life after life after life, all the way, as we Buddhists say, from "beginningless time".

Why do we make so much of this? Because, in fact, the real cause of our torment is intimately bound up in our desire to avoid confronting it, with our fear of it, and with our anxiety to control that torment and conceal it from ourselves. The restlessness and busyness with which we constantly try to cheer ourselves up--reassuring ourselves that everything is going to be all right, everything is copacetic, everything is under control, all we have to do is x,y,and z and we will finally be truly and lastingly happy--that restlessness is actually feeding and sustaining our misery itself.

When we finally sit down and acknowledge that there is nothing we can do to cheer ourselves up, no band-aid we can cover up with, and no obvious way out, a very peculiar thing happens. The process whereby we actually make ourselves more miserable lets up a little. It shows us a little gap--hinting that there just might be a better way. We get a glimpse that what we are doing with ourselves is part of the cause of our misery, and that points to the Second Noble Truth: Suffering Has A Cause. And the cause is somehow bound up in what we are doing.

Anything we know the cause of, we can stop, sooner or later. Stop the cause and you stop the effect. This is the third Noble Truth: Suffering Can Be Ended.

And since we know we can do things that make our misery worse, we can surmise that there might be other things we could do to stop the cause of suffering. Somebody, somewhere, might have already done it, might know how to do it, and might be able to teach us how.

This is where the search for the Dharma begins. And this is the fourth Noble Truth: there is a Path of Action that Concludes Suffering.

That path can consist of many different "skillful means", one of which is prayer. I have written a little bit about some of them, here, here, here, and here. But the basis of it all is that First Noble Truth: Life Is Suffering. The basis of it all is ceasing to constantly tell ourselves, over and over, "It's not really as bad as you think." Because it really IS as bad as we think.

I teach Basic Buddhism in my Dharma Center. And one thing I always tell students is that if our lives were like the perfect vacation on Maui, nobody would even think about being religious.

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When Pleasures Slip Into Larger Spaces Than The Mind

I commonly find that I have to work to completely enjoy something. This is not a matter of inhibition or self-censorship, but, rather, a by-product of years of Buddhist meditative practice. Without what Buddhists call "mindfulness", complete enjoyment of anything is impossible.

The mind is a peculiar thing, hopping around most of the time like an agitated monkey and never wholly at rest. And with our pleasures, this obsessive monkey-mind constantly tries to fit itself around experiences which are larger than anyone's mind. The very agitation of flitting from one part of pleasure to another, trying to possess the next while losing grip on the last, is like trying to grab the reflection of the moon in water with your hand. The moment your hand penetrates the water, the reflection vanishes.

So we tame and train the mind, teaching it to settle and stay put somewhere (anywhere will do, really, but we start out with the breath going through the nostrils). When you do this regularly, you find that conscious experience is far larger than the part of it which has been jumping around so much. Our body is not really breathing; it is, in some sense, being breathed.

When a source of pleasure has definite boundaries, like the tiny cup of impossibly rich drinking chocolate that Starbuck's sells under the name Chantico, the encounter with the monkey-mind, and with the consciousness that is larger than the monkey-mind, is a bright strong light shining on how large our experience is, how ever so much larger it could be, and how no definite limit or boundary to it can be found anywhere.

The monkey-mind will gulp the entire cup of Chantico before one even has a chance to halt the process, if you let it, spasaming orgasmicly and frantically, like two teenagers having illicit mutual sex for the first time in their lives. There is not enough liquid to outlast the monkey-mind, as there is say, with the largest of the coffee drinks. The chocolate flows through the monkey-mind smoothly, like a one-note samba of bliss, or a piano piece with a single melody for one hand only.

But if you are mindful, sip slowly, and roll each sip around your mouth before swallowing, the pleasure of the chocolate resonates back and forth through all the spaces in you not occupied by your mind. The final swallowing comes in half surprise as the pleasure continues to swirl around like water in a tide pool, turbulated by the undertow, after the main wave has passed.

There is no exact location or boundary to such pleasure. If you don't believe me, try to find one, try to identify where your consciousness ends and the pleasure begins, and try to ascertain the exact moment when you cease to taste the chocolate.

Try, and you will be well on your way to genuine understanding.

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Wednesday, February 16, 2005

A New Wrinkle For Straight Shot

Over the last couple of weeks, the prose has just been pouring out of me. As a result, scrolling through this blog has gotten to be a major chore. I write long because I have a great deal to say when I have anything to say at all, and when I don't have anything to say, I try to shut up. So I have added the expandable text feature for the convenience of my readers. I hope this makes scrolling through Straight Shot more pleasant and gives you a better short sample of the writing to be found here. Enjoy.


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The Genuine American Epidemic

This is the Land of Plenty. So much plenty, that we are sickening of it, and will soon be dying of it. We hear dire warnings on all sides of the Obesity Epidemic, and, insofar as informal empirical data is concerned, I would agree that more and more of us, including myself, are reaching the point that if we really had to haul something vulgar, it would take two trucks.

For example, I was at a Midwestern indoor shopping mall a little over a year ago. I don’t get out much and when I do get out, I am far too visually sensitive and observant for my own good.

Also, for whatever reason, I have the peculiar property of accidentally conjuring up absurdist theater, wherever I go. Perfectly ordinary Americans will start acting like the clowns of the Cirque Du Soleil if they get within five yards of me, particularly in public places. This is overstimulating, so I ration my shopping trips carefully. And every time I do go shopping, it’s a cultural adventure.

The most striking thing in this mall was the Obesity Epidemic, up close and personal. I simply could not believe how many people in their twenties and thirties were far fatter than me. They were everywhere from the moment I walked in the door to the Food Court until the solemn departure of my minivan from the parking lot.

None of the clothes in the stores were for fat people, though most were for twenty-year-olds. None of the clerks in the clothing stores were too big to wear the clothes. And several of the stores had “help wanted” signs. So I got the sense, while there, that something was radically out of kilter with America besides our collective weight and our politics.

What I saw in the shop windows was absolutely unrelieved Midwestern Dreadful. Something about the atmosphere of the Heartland can take almost any design that hardworking fashion designers spend hours pumping up with chic, hip, and with-it juice, and turn that design into dowdy, watery mashed potatoes.

The well-worn Adirondack canoe guide outfitters clothes (you know the brand names) looked like pre-shrunk, Volunteers of America, discards. The East Village Art Vampire style--acres of basic black casual with splashes of white or red--were like leftover battle banners from a bad samurai movie. And the old money, dressage horses, and 2 carat diamond solitaire pendant, clothing for rich tanned blondes, somehow came out looking as if one of daddy's thoroughbreds had trampled it in the mud, during daily exercise.

I was reflecting on this as I passed two very large women working the Information desk in the Mall. Their uniforms made them look like fraternal twin sisters. One was saying to the other, "Now I like myself, and I always do everything I can to make myself feel good."

I am always on the lookout for good personal fashion tips, and one of my sartorial difficulties is my 19 1/2" neck. I cannot wear 19 dress shirts with a tie and when I wear 20, I look like one of the Muppets. So when I did happen to find a young shoe store manager with my general build, I asked him confidentially where I could find a good tailored dress shirt in my neck size. He said he didn't know because his wife bought all his clothes.

Deflated by this, I walked to the other side of the mall where my companion was at another shoe store trying to buy clogs and struggling unsuccessfully with an incredibly passive aggressive shoe clerk--a 20-odd, straw haired, butterball--who clearly was very put upon by the number of boxes of women's shoes she was toting back and forth.

It didn't seem like I could be of much help, so I went out and stood by the children's play area under one of the open spaces to the upper mall level. There I reflected a little on the fact that it seemed like the only place a fat person could get hired to sell wearing apparel, was in the shoe stores.

The kids were having a high old time screaming and romping on gigantic Claus Oldenburg plastic replicas of breakfast food: sunnyside-up eggs, strips of bacon, link sausage, regular shredded wheat squares with blueberries, waffles with butter pats and syrup, and round banana slices. I looked up to the second level and saw a large sign. It read: The World Is Your Pork Chop.

Makes you think, doesn't it?

It is also the case that those of us who are obese are the target of unacknowledged hatred and prejudice from all in a culture (including the obese themselves) conditioned to worship and envy the maniacal anorexic counter image of Thin Thighs in Thirty Days. By implication, to be fat is a moral failure, and to diet is a moral struggle whose loss is a condemnation to the condition of eternally preterite.

Let's leave a paragraph there to underline how silly the prejudice is. And let's savor the silliness a little to encourage us to really think about what is a real problem. For, even if it were an individual moral problem for any one of us, it cannot possibly be an individual moral problem for all of us at once. And, actually, it is neither.

There is enough evidence to clearly indicate that, like so many problems of habitual dependence--cocaine, heroin, tobacco, alcohol--the chemistry of our own bodies fights against every attempt we try to make to break the addictive cycle, as if our somatic being viewed those attempts as a means of gradual suicide.

In most cases, for most people, the soma is stronger than the will, for the soma exerts its influence continuously, like a marathon runner, where the will is confined to the explosive force of a dash.

Nor is it the case that we can just all sit back, be fat, and tell ourselves we are happy. I, for one, have already graduated to Type II Diabetes, sleep apnea, hypothyroid, and hyperlipidemia.

And I can tell you that sitting back while pricking your fingers repeatedly to test your blood sugar, sleeping with an air pressure mask constantly galling your face, and trying to remember what pills are due when with what foods, in what one of your six small meals--as well as trying to be happy about it all--is as wearying an act of will as any diet you may have undertaken.

Being fat is just no fun, period. And the consequences cost everybody enormous amounts money for the extra medical care, and most of us months or years of happy living.

So it is a real problem, and a collective problem, beyond any individual problems any one of us may be having with it. That is the first thing to get established, because collective problems need collective solutions and, in this man's country, collective solutions are a political football in a game with no real rules and no real referees to blow the whistle on groin kicking, throat chopping, and eye gouging.

And there is a large and determined political cadre philosophically dedicated to preventing or destroying any collective solutions to any problem whatever, with the notable exceptions of jailing people at home and killing enemies abroad.

But the collective problem is really not about all of us getting fat. And it is not even really about more and more of us becoming addicted to something, even if it is only to our own bad eating habits. It is a deeper emotional issue about the Land of Plenty itself. Whenever lots of Americans do anything all at once, you can bet your life that there is someone making a lot of money behind it.

Looked at that way all the conventional wisdom about the causes, supersize fast food portions, time spent in front of computers rather than exercising, couch potatoing in front of the TV, ect. ect., are part of a larger issue. We are all, or all but all, not only "too fat", but also, everything we have and everything we do is "too much".

I look around my own house and am appalled by the merry-go-round of consumerism in which we are all trapped. I am constantly trying to get rid of broken down junk which is hardly more than two years old, most of it made abroad, none of it repairable or sellable, and much of it against local, state, or federal law to throw away.

My household has gone through at least six computers in the past ten years. The height of technology when I was in junior high school, in the early 1960's, was the fine Zenith portable AM/FM monaural radio, with the chrome plate over the speaker, the heavy-duty dial, the tightly and thickly hardwired transistors, and the rich case of thick black leather.

Forty years later, even after constant daily playing, of eight hours or more, for at least thirty of them, the leather was cracked and seamed and frilling away from the corners, but nothing else had ever required repair. Forty years and nothing needed repair. A year ago I gave it to my best buddy for his fledgling antique radio collection.

We have piled the weight on our middle, the useless broken junk in our house, and the endless debt on our credit cards for one reason only--to make people we have never heard of rich.

And when you hear of the millions they have contributed to the party of their choice--which just happens to be the party so opposed to collective solutions of collective problems--think carefully about where all that money came from, and how much you were able to buy with it, that is as good as my old radio.

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