Saturday, March 21, 2015

America’s Brief Reign

In retrospect, it will seem completely natural that America’s period of worldwide dominance only lasted a short time. It is intellectually unfit to rule the world. It just doesn’t pack the gear to handle the job. Just as Sparta couldn’t rule Greece after the Peloponnesian War, so America couldn’t rule the world after the Soviet Union went down. We just aren’t cut out for it.

Think about it: America’s moment as the super power du jour spans the lifetime of the baby boomers. That’s it. In history that’s the blink of an eye.

We talk up a storm and build gaudy monuments, but in reality we’re just trashy used car salesmen experiencing a chance, temporary monopoly, and we cant’t even handle that. We went from Jonas Salk to Rush Limbaugh in the time takes for hair to go gray. We went from the Marshall Plan to quantitative easing and Wall Street bailouts in my mother's lifetime.

She was born in postwar middle class splendor; she’s ending her days in a mobile home on social security.

(She grew up in Manhattan Beach, California, where I lived as a child; it was a beachy, middle class place. Now it is an exclusive rich suburb, home to obscenely affluent fuckwads like Sharon Stone and Tiger Woods, and a legion of sniffy plastic yuppies. Last time I was there, they were all racing out to buy mini-coopers, because they were just oh so fucking hip and trendy at the time, don’t ya know? God, that fucking place always makes me feel like I need a shower.)

(Although I did meet Chuck Woolery in the produce department at Ralph’s once, and I’m a better man for it.)

Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in one generation.

American exceptionalism will be a term that refers to the speed of our decline, not any special quality within us.


Sunday, January 4, 2015

Parrots, the Universe and Everything

For a good time, listen to Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, describe his experiences researching several endangered species for a BBC radio documentary entitled Last Chance To See. These are animals that are being driven to extinction by mankind’s thoughtless intrusion into their habitats. If this doesn’t turn you into a conservationist nothing will, but his description of traveling through places like Madagascar, Komodo Island, China and New Zealand will have you rolling on the floor, so laugh and cry at the same time. You’ll be glad you watched this. Really, you will.

Adams died of a heart attack just a couple of days after this talk. He would probably have been saddened, but not the least bit surprised, that the things he describes here have only gotten worse over the last decade.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Jeb Will Beat Hillary

According to the latest Gallup Poll, Hillary Clinton is the most admired women in America, and she has been for 17 of the last 18 years. This will be used to help create the Hillary Is An Unstoppable Juggernaut narrative that is just getting underway and will soon become unendurable. The same process that brought us Regular Guy George W. and Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction is now going to sell us Hillary Clinton, Unbeatable Titan of 2016, and maybe even The Most Beloved Women in America Since Eleanor Roosevelt!

It’s just another bullshit media narrative. Once the meme machine shifts in gear it can con you into believing anything. It can convince you that goose eggs are caviar and grape soda is wine if powerful people want it that way, but it would still be bullshit. Hillary Clinton and the Beltway claque can delude themselves all they want about her inevitability and her appeal, the fact is it won’t matter when the campaign starts in earnest. She’s popular right now because nobody has seen her lately. She occasionally makes pronouncements about Important Events, but apart from that she’s largely been out of the public eye. Well, everybody loves their mother-in-law when she’s back home in Olathe, but during a two week’s visit at Christmas her virtues quickly fade.

Will Hillary Clinton still be the most admired women in America six months deep into the campaign? Will wall-to- wall coverage of her robotically calculating, condescending, transparently cynical politicking still warm the hearts of Americans? It won’t, and half the country will view her just like they viewed Ann Romney: an arrogant and entitled aristocrat who thinks the little people smell.

Meanwhile, another bullshit narrative will come barreling down the road and catch Team Clinton utterly flat-footed, just like in 2008. They will discover, too late, that “Vote For Hillary — It’s Her Turn!” is neither an appealing nor an effective campaign strategy. And once the Chris Matthews-Maureen Dowd set grab hold of this new bullshit narrative, Hillary will be in deep, deep trouble. That bullshit narrative might look something like this: Jeb Bush, A New Kind of Conservative, Nobly Fighting to Redeem His Family’s Name.

From then on, it will be Nurse Ratched Hillary (Is she too old to be president? Does she have health problems she’s not disclosing?) versus the Smart Bush, who’s wife is Hispanic and who ain’t his big brother’s kind of conservative. Come home, normal Americans, it’s safe to vote Republican again.

But what about all of Jeb’s shady business deals? Well, what about them? Poppy and Dubya’s shady business deals didn’t harm them at all. In the TV cartoon of American presidential elections, those kinds of details are dead air. No producer in his right mind would let such boring filler on the show unless he wanted to wind up mopping floors the rest of his life.

Besides, crooked financial dealings are a basic prerequisite for the job. The alarming absence of such deals on Obama’s resume meant he had to work doubleplus hard to convince Wall Street he was safe (and he succeeded).

If Jeb’s crimes and misdemeanors ever threatened to become a real issue, all he’d have to do is hunker down and stonewall for a news cycle or two. It wouldn’t be long before the media found more important things to cover. Sooner or later Hillary would get caught eating a hot dog with a knife and fork, or distending her pinky when sipping a beer, or committing some other dainty upper class faux pas while mixing it up with the folks somewhere, and the media would be off and running.

After that, Jeb’s chicanery will be as ancient as Watergate, and any mention of it will be met with the withering groans and eye-rolls of the Beltway Masturbation Brigade: “Ohhh, that’s soooo five minutes ago! Get over it. Get a life. Get hip and move on!” They will already have chosen Bush and built their narratives, and anything that contradicts them will be dismissed out of hand.  

But what about the base? Bush can’t win the base! I think he can. Just put a right-winger from a swing state on the ticket and let him roam the swamps and prairies of Red State America, tossing clay and raw pig intestines to the crowds. They’ll come around. When he goes too far he can just claim that his words were taken out of context. The entire right wing noise machine will leap to his defense and the mainstream media, terrified of being accused of liberal bias, will sheepishly concede the point. Meanwhile, Jebby can go on playing Mr. Nice Guy in more civilized venues.

Believe me, the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency will bring the NASCAR Jacobins out on election day, especially after Rush Limbaugh sends word down from his Palm Beach mansion that Jeb’s okay, which, after playing hard to get for awhile, he most assuredly will (although the Bush camp might have to procure a few underage Dominican hookers in order to, ahem, nail down the old boy’s endorsement. Winning ain’t cheap).

In the battle of the bullshit media narratives, Noble Son will beat Inevitable Queen Hillary, regardless of what the polls say right now. But Hillary and her complacent, high-paid flacks will go on believing their own hype. They’ll seek out every poll result and focus group that reinforces the notion of Hillary’s invincibility, conclude she has it sown up, and then play prevent defense and lose.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Auld Lang Syne

Anton Chekhov died in 1904 from tuberculosis at the tender age of forty-four. One of my old Russian instructors, an Armenian linguist and grammarian from the Soviet Union, met Chekhov’s widow when she was at an advanced old age. He asked her if she might say a few words about the great writer.

“Ehh, ” she shrugged, airily waving her hand, “it was so long ago I can barely remember.”

As The Romans Did

Have you ever wondered what public toilets in Ancient Rome looked like? Of course you have. They looked like this:

It was a social occasion. You could take a shit and talk shit at the same time (sorry, I couldn’t help myself).(It just sort of dropped out.)

This is one Roman custom I could bypass, although they had many I admire. For example, I can think of some prominent CEOs, politicians, and “public servants” I wouldn’t mind seeing get tossed to the lions, provided it didn’t harm the animals in any way.

Monday, December 29, 2014

America’s Newest Enemy?

So how much mileage can the US get out of North Korean hackers? I’m no expert — I only play one on a blog, ha ha — but on the villain scale, I place them higher than Somali pirates but lower than hooded ISIS maniacs waving severed heads around.

Let’s face it, the whole war on terror thing is getting old. It just doesn’t rally the people like it used to. Americans crave newness and novelty. If you give them the same old enemies over and over again they will get bored, and if they get bored they might start seriously complaining about jobs and the economy and stuff, which mustn’t be allowed to happen.

So what’s an incompetent and increasingly unpopular national security state to do? They can’t wait around for Putin to become a Hitler forever, and their attempt to turn him into one was a big fat dud. So until something bigger and badder comes along, scary North Koreans doing scary things on computers will have to do. The fact that they might not have been responsible for that dastardly plot to prevent Americans from seeing a crappy movie is irrelevant. It has truthiness, and truthiness is all our national security institutions need in order to stir up hysteria, start shit with someone, and demand more funding (and power).

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Home of the Brave

This holiday season, Americans showed their bravery and patriotism by … going to a movie. My heart swells with pride. Are we a bold and hearty people or what?

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Pointless Thought Of The Day

Solitaire is like life. You play it alone, you lose most of the time, and even when you win isn’t that great.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Our Incompetent Elites

In a letter to a friend, Alexander Hamilton once wrote, “The American people have all the passiveness of the sheep and all the folly of the ass in their composition.” I happen to agree with this sentiment, but not because I think the people are innately stupid or weak ( Hamilton also referred to the people as “a great beast”). Rather, sixty years of consumer capitalism has conditioned them be passive and ignorant. They have been subtly and relentlessly brainwashed by the most sophisticated propaganda organ in history, namely, the modern advertising industry.

As I write, the people of every country in the world are rapidly descending to the same level of stupidity and ignorance as their American counterparts. We just happened to get there first because America is the most advanced country in the world. Case in point: When I studied in Russia, my instructors lamented that “kids today” no longer read Pushkin and favored American TV shows instead.

At any rate, the other Founding Fathers more or less agreed with Hamilton, and the government they created was carefully designed ensure that only the best sort of people, meaning rich white men like themselves, would rule. They would have defended the system by telling you that governing should be the responsibility of educated men with enough leisure time to study politics and who could therefore make rational and informed decisions. Somewhat conveniently, that meant rich white guys exactly like themselves, because nobody else in the eighteenth century had any education or leisure time at all (although many people were allowed to drink beer on the job, the lucky sots!).

The people, on the other hand, were ignorant and susceptible to irrational hysteria and prejudices. If they were given too much power, they might do crazy things, like chop the heads off the rich and steal their property! No, it was much better to have intelligent elites run the show.

So how has it worked out? Let’s see. Intelligent elites, knowledgeable people who went to the best schools, studied the issues, and can be trusted to make wise and informed decisions about matters that are beyond the comprehension of the common folk, have given us: VIetnam, bank deregulation, and the wise and far-sighted policies that produced the blowback of 9/11. They responded to that by giving us the USA Patriot Act — an hysterical, paranoid over-reaction if there ever was one, the kind of thing the irrational masses might do if left to their own devices! And, of course, our expert elites, in command of all the facts and utilizing the soundest judgment, gave us the invasion of Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq.

It was the slickest, sharpest, most well-fed and well-educated brains in the US that introduced the world to sub-prime mortgages and credit default swaps. Their brilliant maneuvers created the conditions that ruined the world economy and are gradually turning the country into Burkina Faso.

It seems to me that the unwashed masses aren’t the ones driving stupid and dangerous policies. The biggest fuck-ups of the last fifty odd years have been the result of the calculated and deliberate policies of our most eminent and well-qualified elites.

Is it possible we need to re-think this situation? Do you think we need to change this paradigm? Is it possible, to paraphrase a prominent elite fuck-up, that the model of how we think the world should be organized is wrong?

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Workers Get Screwed, Market Rises

Let’s take a little trip through the business section of today’s New York Times and see what we can learn, shall we? (The link is here, but I’m working from the paper copy so the articles are arranged differently).

 On the first page, we are greeted with the following headline: “Regular Bills, Irregular Work: Unsteady Incomes Are Keeping Millions Behind on Bills, And Undermining Savings.”

It tells us that seventy million people are underemployed, and that most of their jobs are part-time or seasonal and only pay shit wages. As a result they are falling behind on their bills and slipping into poverty. Apparently this is some kind of big surprise to the business reporters at the New York Times. To most of us, this story is about as revelatory as a headline that reads: “White Officer Kills Unarmed Black Man And Gets Away With It, Again.”  

Economists call this situation “income volatility,”which is the best euphemism I’ve heard since the invasion of Grenada was referred to as a “pre-dawn vertical insertion.”

Let’s move on to item number two, right next door on page one: “Study Finds Violations Of Wage Law In 2 States.” It turns out that some noble job creators in New York and California are cheating their workers by not paying them the full minimum wage. The study finds that “more than 300,000 workers in each state suffered minimum wage violations,” and “if one assumes a violation rate half that nationwide, that would mean two million workers across the nation were paid less than the federal or state minimum wage.” Brace yourselves for another shock. Most of these workers are in the “restaurant and hotel industries, educational and health services, and retail and wholesale.”

So we’ve got marginalized part-timers living in chronic anxiety and despair, and downtrodden service workers getting ripped off by employers who are too fucking cheap to pay them seven dollars an hour.

Meanwhile, the news on B10 tells us that “Economic Data Lifts Market to New Highs.”
 The Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index rose 7.78 points, or 0.4 percent, to 2,074.33. The Dow Jones industrial average rose 33.07 points, or 0.2 percent, to 17,912.62. Both indexes closed at nominal record highs.
“Things are better than you think,” an economist says. Boy howdy!

The very next article has even more good news. It tells us that the US economy is “resurgent” because 208,000 jobs were created in November. But, it cautiously adds, “wages continue to lag.”

I’m not an economist, but I think this might have something to do with the fact that most of those new jobs were created in the service sector, where, as we were just informed, people are only hired on a part-time basis and many are blatantly being ripped off. But growth trumps income volatility in America, so be happy.

So let’s condense these stories into a single headline: “Workers get criminally screwed, stock indexes rise.”

Next up, David Brooks, Ezra Klein, Matthew Yglesias and the rest of their sheltered and myopic little tribe will wonder why the people are so disgruntled in spite of these hopeful statistics. All the charts and models and graphs say they should be happy, but they aren’t. What gives? David Brooks will call his sociologist friends to get to the bottom of this weird cognitive dissonance. What will he come up with, I wonder. Lack of meritocratic virtue among the working class?No grit? No capacity for delayed gratification? Unrealistic expectations? Your guess is as good as mine, and it won’t matter a bit because it will all be bullshit anyway.