Monday, January 20, 2014

For the Common Good

As we read the daily press
We can only guess
What motivates the crowd
That says nothing but says it loud
And lives to excoriate
While choosing to hate
Neighbors: you and me
For sharing the world we see
And the blessings and burdens therein
But where do we begin
When their credo is a sign
Screw you, Jack: I got mine

The commonwealth, or the “common good” is a concept that goes back centuries into an England that had seen the power of the monarch as much in abuse as in benefit of the citizenry and had worn weary of the lopsided distribution of power.  Not only was there inequality in wealth and opportunity, but the rules (the institutions) in force perpetuated the status quo.  So you had a bad year and were hungry?  Your duty is to give the first full measures to your lord.  This might simply be the lord of the manor or perhaps to a tax collector who reported to the king.  The good of the realm was measured as the pleasure of the lords therein.  It is a step worse than our current far right Libertarians, but a natural sibling of the logic.  A Libertarian believes that the individual is sacrosanct and should be able to trump the common good.  If you would examine that a little more deeply, you would see how that has a powerful gravitational pull, but is flawed because what you may see as individual liberty, I might see as a threat to my welfare.  If you believe that you have an absolute right to not get a flu shot, but expose me to the flu, then my rights to life and liberty are diminished, especially if I am older or already weakened by another issue.  That is but one example as we explore others to expose this Libertarian logic for what it is instead of being swayed by the distortion of freedom into absolute and chaotic liberty from common sense.

Very recently, the Senate refused to extend the payment of unemployment benefits to workers who have ”run out” of their entitlements although they still seek work (by filibuster).  Some in the GOP want any expense there to be balanced by a reduction in the budget somewhere else (food stamps again?).  Those same conservative senators who brought on the closure of government costing us all some $24 Billion did not argue for making up that loss by reducing the budget dollar for dollar in some category such as subsidy reduction.  Hmm.  So it is OK to blow big money without benefit and put our lives on hold, but that should not be paid for by a common sense reduction in some subsidies, say in big oil or yacht support?  And tell me again how that benefits the common good?  I do not remember that in any course in macro or even microeconomics.  Then, perhaps it was a class in ethics, where it is preferable to force a human being to grovel in order to provide food for his/her family.  Perhaps it was in political science and civics where, if you do not get your way in an election, you can resort to mass punishment of all the people to retaliate against your political enemies as in New Jersey?  Maybe in that Old Time Religion Course where the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons in perpetuity?  “I am sorry, but you must bear the punishment of poverty because you are not among the “Elect.”  Now the GOP is among the elect, so are they all to be saved (predestination by party?).  Unfortunately, many of the workers who were denied continuation of benefits were Republican, but poor Republicans don’t count. Let us punish the poor and make them squirm for losing their jobs caused by the Elect sending them to China so the elected might make a little more money in business.  Forget the “common good” and let us reward the uncommonly good.  Is that not what the trickle of trickle down is all about?  If you make the working poor grovel and frighten them enough, they will cry and perhaps pee their pants and demonstrate the trickle down effect.  If you are good enough, maybe you can see them bleed while they plead.  It is easier to face them than big oil or yacht owners who might reduce their support of our political campaigns.  “The people who support us are uncommonly good and that is why we refer to them as people just as the Supreme Court defined them.”  Think Wal-Mart or your own “favorite person” charity.  That department store provides employee benefits kits that include instructions on claiming state and federal health and food stamp support instead of living wage compensation.  Uncommon wealth?  About 60% of Wal-Mart employees get healthcare that we citizens subsidize directly because pay and benefits are inadequate despite the phenomenal wealth of the owners.

Aside from the obvious violations of fairness, we have a new series of attacks on the poor that are actually a reprise of 19th Century history.  We take public education as a given right, in fact, that was a major element in the American concept of commonwealth from the very beginning.  In reading European history, however there is wide documentation that upper classes feared that educating the lower class might bring on revolution.  This was a class concept in the 19th century that included children.  The American education system differed with the purpose to produce effective citizens without regard to economic status.  Most recently, we have seen the proliferation of myriad ways to promote private education and “vouchers” to minimize or even avoid the mission of educating all Americans.  Even last week, the House Speaker spoke of ways to increase school vouchers (and simultaneously reduce overall funding for schools).  Whatever else that practice brings, it reduces quality education for the great majority of Americans.  Beware of changes wrapped as gifts that are programs for the connected.

Rules for bankruptcy increasingly favor the banks and debt owners.  The income inequality continues to get worse.  Upward mobility is increasingly worse.  We are now 20th in social mobility linked to economic achievement.  Of 35 developed nations, we rank 34th in child poverty.  In short, the rules for our society no longer consider the common good to be a significant factor in business or legal decisions.  A company, state or local government can create a pension fund for employees, yet, if Bain Capital or JPMorgan Chase decides to loot those pensions, then the real people who undergo colonoscopies and heart attacks lose it all without recourse as happened so often, especially in 2011.  Common good?  Bain can loot the pensions and then stash the money overseas and out of reach all very legally.  Worse, you do not have the right to be told about it until it is too late. Information shielded by the Citizens United ruling permitted Gina Raimondo, Rhode Island treasurer, to strip most of the government pensions of RI and give them to corporate raiders like Bain without benefit to workers or the state and without penalty.  Would you like to consider the environment and the common good?  The recent water contamination by Freedom Industries in West Virginia resulted in immediate bankruptcy filing by the owners who are unable to restore the water.  They were given free reign in loose regulation and no financial responsibility or physical responsibility to restore the resource.  Common good?  Do you think that the XL pipeline would be different?  The “conservative” element that proposes these projects is adamant about two things.  One, the profits must be privatized and concentrated more and more for fewer and fewer beneficiaries, and two, that any losses or liabilities must be socialized by the general public.  In other words, if all goes well, they win big.  If bad stuff happens or if they want your pension to make a business deal, you lose.  You lose money.  You lose environmental integrity.  You lose your share of the common good.  You get to hold the bag for the raiders and the looters. They have the power of the Supreme Court behind their legal and yet highly unethical practices.  The once cultivated British/American concept of commonwealth (the common good) has been neatly replaced by a set of rules that favors the few despite the loss of a monarchy.  If you had not looked, you might have missed it, because the promotion of the new order has been clever and sometimes subtle.  “All we need is for corporations to have a free hand and we will see jobs and prosperity.”  Reduce regulation and the market forces will ensure jobs and success.”  “Reduce wages and we will become more competitive.”  Would you like a little (traffic) jam on that bridge?  Mark this: The underlying cause of the New Jersey scandal will be big profits for a connected few.  Look for it in the coming weeks.  It is institutionalized and rooted like political payback.

George Giacoppe
20 Jan 2014

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Unreal Reality

I know; it’s an oxymoron. But it’s no more oxymoronic than ‘virtual reality,’ and in our strange time may just be an accurate description of the world we now operate in. What I’m talking about is the feeling I’ve been having lately—perhaps stimulated most recently by the new Downton Abbey season which debuted last night—that most of what we now engage in somehow departs from what used to be called ‘reality.’ Like Downton Abbey’s new season, it all seems contrived. That word, ‘contrived,’ is usually applied to a work of literature or other art form that doesn’t have the authentic feel of reality or inevitability. The situations and the characters seem contrived to create a preconceived effect. In Downton Abbey’s case, this gradually dawned on me as I watched the writers deal with the death of a major character, Matthew Crawley, in a car accident—also a contrived way to dispatch a character—at the end of last season. The writers apparently also had to deal with the loss of the major villain in the series, O’Brien, Lady Cora’s personal maid. A new villain was needed, and so Thomas Barrow was recycled into his old role (he had been saved from doom and disgrace, as a homosexual, by the compassion of Mr. Bates and Anna, and seemed to have reformed.) In the new season, however, Barrow, now under-butler, goes back to his old ways of motiveless evil, destroying the new nanny for no apparent reason, and then seeking to repay Bates and Anna for their earlier kindness by informing on them as the despoilers of some prized item of clothing actually ruined by Lady Cora’s new maid (herself improbably recycled from her last season’s firing due to unprofessional flirting). Reflected on, it all seemed contrived. The writers seemed to be straining, and the sense we had earlier of inevitability, of something plausible and true to life as it might have been around the turn of the 20th century, seemed to be slipping away. The drama starts to seem more like what it is, a TV soap opera with the dramatic scaffolding showing through, rather than a glimpse of reality.
            Strangely enough, this is how life in our time begins to feel as well. The partisan fighting in the U.S. political system, especially Congress, seems contrived. Everyone appears to be playing a role with no relation to the reality that millions of Americans are unemployed and the economy has never quite recovered—except, that is, for the wealthiest Americans who do not have to work but grow richer and richer off their investments in a booming stock market. In an earlier era, this obscene transfer of wealth from the poorest Americans to the already wealthy—to the very Wall Streeters and banksters who brought about the economic crash in the first place—would have been greeted with protests at best and riots in the streets at worst. Not now. It all seems to be happening at some remove from reality. We see the numbers on our nightly business reports, we see film of and interviews with the unemployed, we feel it in our own inability to get ahead (or even have the chance to keep up), and yet it all seems to be happening elsewhere, on another level of reality. In a parallel way, we see the harrowing numbers confirming the reality of global warming—to wit, that the global carbon level in our atmosphere has now passed 400 parts per million, a number that at one time was almost inconceivable (350 ppm was considered the livable limit). And yet, we see it, it is recorded somewhere in our consciousness as a terrible warning siren, and yet we and most of the world go on burning fossil fuels as usual, even exulting in our new sources. The collapse of arctic ice, the warming and acidification of the oceans, the increasingly severe weather systems like the recent typhoon in the Philippines or hurricane Sandy on the east coast, all seem to be bothersome little news snippets that occupy us and our screens for a few days, and then fade to blankness. Even the diversions that occupy us—the world series, the current professional football playoffs, the upcoming winter Olympics—occur mainly as televised events that occur in TV sports time. Nothing is ever final. We are always waiting to “really” see them in instant replay; and then see them again and again. Real time hardly seems to count; slow motion is how we now judge everything.
Only that reality doesn’t occur in slow motion. Our reality occurs in human time and it requires attention. It requires that we understand what is happening, and that we pay attention to how it is happening and how it is affecting us, how we are reacting to it. It requires that we actually be there. Be with those who are our co-responders and co-creators. Those with whom we are having a conversation or a conflict. And increasingly, those co-responders and co-conversationalists are no longer present. They come to us on our screens (I find that something about skyping makes me very uncomfortable; unnatural; forced or contrived). They appear as disembodied words in our emails. As magically uploaded photos and commentaries on our facebook pages. As cryptic verbiage (I am assuming this, since I don’t text or tweet, thank god) in our text messages and tweets. And less frequently, now, as talking heads and brief filmed sequences on our TV screens. In the latter case, and in films, more and more often the “reality” we are presented with is digitized, computerized representations of animals and humans for whom there are no dramatic or earthly limits. This, I assume, is why advertisers use these computerized versions in their ads—plus it must be cheaper than paying actual actors. But it must also be the case that we have become so acclimated to computerized reality that many people feel more comfortable with the smooth, antiseptic reality of digitization, even in animations that urge us to buy another useless product. When the product is itself a fantasy promising that our lives will suddenly be peopled by beautiful people also seduced by our possession of the new product, then perhaps it makes sense to present it in a fantasy drama portrayed digitally and jerkily and virtually. On a screen. Where most of our lives now seem to take place. 
Indeed, I am at a screen right now. The letters forming this blog post appear as if by magic as I type them. It is a convenience I no longer think about and can no longer do without. And yet. I am completely divorced from any sensory input of paper or pencil or an actual text I used to have on my desk, or in my typewriter. There is no sensory product anymore. There is only this virtual text that is taking shape on my screen, and which I will, when finished (and easy editing is one of the great boons of computer composition), simply drag and click to upload to my blog page, and post on my facebook page, and paste to my email list, and then push a button to send out to the world where others like me will, perhaps, read it as computer text and perhaps respond in an email or a comment, and perhaps even say a word to someone else or more likely email this computerized message to someone else. And that will be the reality of this comment on the absence of reality, on the unreality of reality in our time.
I don’t know what to do about this. There may be nothing to be done. All I can do is comment on it, on the strangeness of it, on the weirdness of how “reality” or whatever this is, feels in our time. And wonder, again and again, what the effect of this ever-increasing estrangement from our actual lives, our natural lives, this apartness from what, at some deep level, I am convinced is necessary for human existence, will be. Because the truth is, we have never, most of us, ever quite figured out what we’re doing here, what our relationship in the most profound sense, to all else, consists of. And I can’t help feeling that these latest estrangements are removing us ever farther from that fundamental and necessary realization.

Lawrence DiStasi