The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Friday, September 30, 2005
Current Affairs ... Economics/Business ...

I’ve been trying to figure out what’s up with the economy these days. That ain’t easy, because you can’t look at America alone any more; you’ve got to look at the whole world. Fortunately, the good people at The Economist magazine in London enjoy looking at the whole world, and thus they publish some rather thoughtful articles about it. After reading some “big picture” articles over the last few days, I thought I’d offer my own thoughts about where America might be heading – i.e., are we going to be richer or poorer in the future? (And if richer, just how evenly is the wealth going to be spread?).

I’ve been alive for over 50 years now, and things were much simpler when I was young. Back then, America made most of what it used; grew most of what it ate or wore; and mined most of the minerals and oil and gas that it needed. And it did all of that right here on American soil. We didn’t think much about the “service economy” back then, but there still was one, e.g. lawyers, doctors, entertainers, retailers, bankers, educators, etc. But again, it was all-American.

Today, by contrast, we are much more integrated into the world economy. We depend on factories in Brazil and China and Germany to make most of what we use, and we import about half of the oil and gas that we need to keep us powered up. We still grow most of our own food and much of our own wood and clothing fibers (cotton, wool), although other countries can now do that cheaper (and are thus doing more of it for us as time goes by). A lot of minerals and metals like iron ore and copper now come mostly from other countries. Even some of our services are now coming from India or the Ukraine, via “outsourcing”. For an old timer like me, it’s kind of scary to be so dependent on other peoples and other lands for the basic things that we need in our everyday life, e.g. toothbrushes, shirts, telephones, autos, bedding, paper, tools, appliances, etc. If these other countries and peoples didn’t want to sell to us, we’d be sunk. So just what do we do to earn our keep these days? What do we have that they want out there in India and Japan and Oman?

America still provides the world economy with a whole lot of stuff. We still manufacture a lot of specialized products, e.g high-tech weapons and cutting-edge pharmaceuticals, which other nations aren’t set up for. And we still export some agricultural products and certain minerals (including coal). But most of what we provide to the world these days is “service oriented”. E.g., they know we are good at banking, financing, insurance, education (we still have the best universities, now filled ironically with foreign students), scientific research (still have the best laboratories), computer programs (e.g., Microsoft’s Windows operating suite and Office applications), entertainment (they still love our movies and pop music), management and engineering services, etc.

So we’ve now become dependent on the world at large, but so what? It all seems to be working. Despite an occasional loony dictator with an anti-American agenda (like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela who doesn’t want to sell us oil), most foreign leaders and business people know that if they don’t trade with us, they’ll go down too. People tend not to do stupid things when there’s money at stake.

The problem is, America seems to be buying more from the world then they buy from us. Our trade deficit seems to get worse and worse every year. According to the Economist, Americans spend over $700 billion more than they produce each year, the equivalent of 6% of our economy’s output. How do we do that? As with any family living beyond its means, we borrow. So far, the rest of the world seems perfectly willing to keep loaning us money, since our consumption habits help fuel their own economies. But you know this can’t go on forever.

Oh, another problem — most of what we sell the world these days requires brains. In a lot of ways that’s good; but we don’t seem to be putting enough effort into helping our youth to develop world-class minds. Other countries are doing much better in terms of getting their kids thru engineering schools and business degree programs. America still seems to be cranking out way too many lawyers and literature professors, while India and Ireland and China are nurturing scientists and engineers and entrepreneurs.

When I got out of high school, I went to engineering school for about $200 a semester, with maybe another $50 for books. In today’s money, that would be around $1,000 — even the cheapest state schools now charge much more than that. Back in the 60s and early 70s, the federal and state governments gave huge subsidies to the higher education system. They considered it to be an investment in the future. That investment paid off in the high-tech economic boom of the 1990s. But since the 1980s, government support for colleges has been cut way back, and tuitions have gone way up. Kids from poor and working class families in America can’t afford to get college degrees like they used to. American colleges stay in business by finding wealthy foreign students to take the place of the sons and daughters of the American working class. What is wrong with this picture?

And a further problem — the brainy economy is making things worse for the poor. Kids growing up in Appalachia and the inner city ghettos and Midwestern rust-belt towns are pretty much shut out from the high tech world. The worsening distribution of income here in the USA (rich clearly getting richer, poor clearly getting poorer, middle class clearly shrinking) is definitely tied to this. If the trend continues, with maybe 1/3 of America living well in the international economy and the other 2/3 stuck with stagnation at best and despair at worst, you wonder if social unrest will eventually rear its ugly head.

At present, interest rates in the USA are low because foreigners don’t seem to invest on their home turf. There are plenty of good things to invest in out in the developing world, but America has a much more stable legal and financial system. Plenty of good investment projects in South America and East Asia (e.g. factories, mines, shipping ports, roadways) went bust over the past 20 or 30 years, not because they weren’t working out economically, but because of politics. Here in the USA, the politics are also dirty, but there are more protections against greedy leaders getting their hands on economic wealth (Russia being an extreme counterexample).

As a result of interest rates being low (and having been low for almost two decades now), housing values are very high in the US. The lower the mortgage rate, the more house you can theoretically buy. However, you can’t really buy more, as prices go up. So if you’re a young couple looking for your first home, things are worse than ever. However, if you already own a house, you believe that things are swell. So swell that you stop saving and spend all of your paycheck. American businesses likewise aren’t investing as much as they used to, and thus more money is available to takeover other companies, or to pay higher dividends. This helps to support stock prices, which in turn promotes consumer spending.

For now, this crazy mechanism all seems to work. But in the long run, America is going to have to pay off its borrowings with interest. Had it used the borrowed money to invest in better physical infrastructure and better education for its youth and more efficient industrial facilities, it would experience enough GNP growth to comfortably meet these debts and still improve income levels. However, it hasn’t done that; it seems to be letting its capital, both tangible (e.g., production machinery, computers, Interstate highways, research laboratories) and intangible (accumulated knowledge held by scientists, engineers, management
experts, patents, etc.) run down, just so that it can keep spending today. In other words, it is spending its past wealth to live well, while forgoing the investments needed to live even better (or just as well) tomorrow. At the same time, China and India are investing in education and in facilities very heavily.

At present, the American economy is still very robust. Even $65 a barrel oil and $3 a gallon gasoline and some disastrous hurricanes don’t seem to be slowing it down very much. But everything has its limit. During the 1990s, a whole lot of wealth accumulated in America, as computers and technology finally kicked in to improve business efficiency while creating all sorts of new opportunities. Much of that wealth is still with us. Unfortunately, most of it did not go into cheaper education or improved roads and subways or new scientific discoveries or more efficient factories and warehouses; instead it went into inflated stock prices, bigger automobiles, and bigger houses. Now we’re seeing what a bad idea that was as stock prices stagnate and fuel prices skyrocket. There is a savior technology coming over the horizon: hybrid autos, which get fantastic miles-per-gallon. However, that technology did not come from Detroit; it was engineered for consumer use in Japan by Toyota and Honda. Obviously, the Detroit automakers were too busy building huge SUVs in the 1990s and weren’t interested in investing in R&D; for hybrids.

Various economists are warning of a huge interest rate jump that will be triggered when foreign governments stop buying US securities, followed by a rapid deflation of the housing “bubble”, triggering a severe recession and an escalating unemployment rate. I don’t think that scenario necessarily has to happen (although the danger is certainly present). But if the current trends and policies (or lack thereof) continue over the next decade, I do see America falling behind in terms of wealth and strength throughout the 21st Century. Or even worse, 2/3 of America will be locked into long-term decline, while 1/3 will continue to get richer. At some point, the unlucky two-thirds might start resenting the talented third.

The couple living next door to me has three kids; one who is 5, one is 3, and one is 2 (a cute little girl). Unless some kind of unexpected techno-economic miracle comes along that lifts all boats (e.g., if cold fusion can actually can be made to work), or a new wave of leadership emerges which encourages sacrifice today to finance investment in tomorrow, I don’t want to imagine the America that these kids will face in their adult years. As with Rome in the 6th Century or Constantinople in the 15th Century, it may not be a very exciting — or safe — place to be.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:37 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Saturday, September 24, 2005
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Unlike Texas and Louisiana, which are riding out another terrible storm today, northern NJ is experiencing close-to-perfect weather; sunny with temps in the low 70s. So I took a walk down to the local park and took my camera along. Here are a couple of things that I saw.

Some grafitti on a parkbench where teens hang out. It looks pretty innocent; some Led Zep lyrics and band members playing guitar and drums. And love, sweet love.

But this side of the bench isn’t so innocent. The top line reads: John Cruz is my sexi bf <--- I'm going to have his babies . . . .

Next, some political commentary.

This was just another pretty picture of the local war monument alongside the lake. However, with a few Photoshop adjustments, I managed to bring out a darker, more foreboding presence lurking behind the scene. Perhaps I should say THE foreboding presence, the same one that broods behind every sunny depiction of the glories of battle.

But lets end on a nice note. This looks like a boy and his grandpa setting up for a bit of informal fishing on the creek that drains off from the lake. Ah yes, maybe there’s still hope.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:55 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Thursday, September 22, 2005
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I was thinking about the 1980s recently. I lived thru them, and it was pretty nice. A whole lot of people had a whole lot of good times back then, including me. The music was “bouncier”, if you will (who can ever forget Duran Duran?). The economy seemed to be getting better (after the “stagflation” of the late 70s) and gasoline prices were coming down. New stores were opening and new products were hitting the shelves. IBM and some company named Apple started selling computers that you could buy and use right in your own home. Things seemed to be changing for the better. And despite all the “evil empire” rumblings from the White House regarding our archenemy, the Soviet Union, there didn’t seem to be any wars that the average American family had to worry about.

Instead, there was “Star Wars”, President Reagan’s ultimate “feel good” project. No longer would we have to worry about a rain of fire from Soviet missiles. Technology was ready to seal us off from the lingering threat of nuclear destruction, a leftover nightmare from the 1950s. All that was needed to make that happen was some good old-fashioned American know-how and a positive attitude. Ron Reagan was a master at positive attitude. Ron promised us that by the early 1990s there would be lasers in space and on airplanes and submarines and at ground sites, everywhere you look, giving us absolute protection against the forces of evil.

Looking back now, it’s hard to believe how many people swallowed this. Or sadder still, how many people weren’t deceived, but were powerless to stop the delusion of our exaulted leader. I just did some perfunctory research, and it appears that Mr. Reagan actually believed that the technology was there to build a foolproof shield against nuclear missiles. In a series of letters he wrote to his best friend (Laurence Beilenson, a former attorney for the Screen Actors Guild), Reagan said that he wasn’t trying to fake out the Soviets and get them to spend themselves into bankruptcy. (Supposedly the Soviet leader of the time, Mikhal Gorbachev, knew that we couldn’t really do it anyway). He honestly thought it would work.

President Reagan probably got the “Star Wars” idea from some Popular Science articles (or from Flash Gordon movie scripts). In 1983 he took it to his generals and they said “sure, we can do it, just give us lots of money”. Reagan never stopped to think that no military bigwig would tell him the truth in that situation. They all wanted to keep their jobs, and they also liked the idea of getting lots of money. And they wouldn’t be around long enough to take the blame if nothing much came of it (which is what happened), because generals and admirals only serve on the Joint Chiefs of Staff for a few years.

Between 1983 and 1989, the Strategic Defense Initiative spent nearly $50 billion, only to find out what a lot of smart people knew from the start: that our electronics and optics and computers and communications and rockets and other stuff weren’t nearly ready to protect the northern half of the planet from missile attack. The proverbial haystacks were (and still are) way too big, and the needles are still way too small.

Amazing: fifty billion dollars pretty much vaporized. What if America had instead invested that money into energy independence technology (as Jimmy Carter was doing when he was president, and which Ronald Reagan stopped as soon as he entered office)? Would we now have 60 MPG cars and be pretty much independent from Middle Eastern oil? Would Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups have never gotten off the ground due to lack of funding (remember that a part of every dollar that you spend for gasoline goes to support terrorism, probably thru the Royal Saudi family and their “charitable donations”)?

OK, maybe I’m going too far here, just as President Reagan was pushing technology beyond its capacity with his dreams. But we would at least be moving in the right direction by now. Star Wars was a defense against the enemy of the past; perhaps the Soviet Union collapsed a bit quicker because of their response to stepped-up American military spending during the Reagan years. But it was the Abrams tanks and Pershing missiles and aircraft carriers that worried them, not some crazy scheme about exploding X-ray laser satellites. Had we started pushing energy conservation and alternative sources back then, we would have better defenses against terrorism today — in 1985, terrorism was the enemy of the future (and now the present).

The problem is this: President Bush the Second is still dreaming the Ronald Reagan dream. He’s still trying to get more oil from the Middle East (isn’t that what the Iraq war is really all about?). And he’s still trying to shoot down missiles that North Korea and Iran may or may not ever have (when it’s airplane hijackers and subway bombers that immediately threaten us). And his “limited missile defense” still doesn’t work! When are we going to wake up from the Reagan dream (pleasant though it was)? When will we see what Jimmy Carter — and now semi-famous NY Times columnist Tom Friedman — knew and still know: that we have to put all our technology cards on energy independence if America is going to have a future.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:18 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Sunday, September 18, 2005
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He’s a real nowhere man
Sitting in his nowhere land
Making all his nowhere plans
For nobody

Back when I was in 7th grade, the teacher asked the class if they could associate a song with a classmate. One of the Miss Popularity girls, someone who normally didn’t have much time for me, raised her hand and said my name, then said “Nowhere Man” (the 1965 Lennon/McCartney classic). The class got a laugh out of it. After they settled down, the teacher said “that’s true!”, getting another rise. I could have taken offense, but it was just too close to home. I had to smile. Yea, Miss Popularity had my number there.

Hey, but so what. That’s just what people like me do, few that we are in this world. We’re here for some odd reason. We actually wish that our “nowhere plans” would help all of you “somewhere” people. Once in a very blue moon, they actually do.

I hope that Miss Popularity and all her “somewhere” friends are having nice lives. As for me, it ain’t been easy dwelling all these years in a nowhere land surrounded by a somewhere world. But it’s my home. As Man From UNCLE agent Napolean Solo said at the end of “The Nowhere Affair” to a lady who just told him that she was nowhere: “then you are somewhere”. Cut to theme song.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:44 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Saturday, September 17, 2005
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THE WAR IN IRAQ, CONTINUED: And unfortunately, it does continue. During the 2004 Presidential Campaign, John Kerry said that Iraq was “the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time”. This was widely discussed in the blogosphere. The quote actually came from Army General Omar Bradley during the Korean War. The Chinese had just entered the war to help North Korea, and General McArthur wanted to declare war against China. In May, 1951, before the Senate Armed Services Committee, General Bradley said “Red China is not the powerful nation seeking to dominate the world. Frankly, in the opinion of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, this strategy would involve us in the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy.”

Amazingly, it still fits the present day situation. Sadaam Hussein was definitely an enemy. But he wasn’t the right enemy, just as “Red” China wasn’t. The Iraq invasion has used up a whole lot of American resources, and is still very uncertain of a positive outcome. If Mr. Bush gets lucky and a stable Arab democracy does emerge, then maybe it will have been worth it. But that’s still a 50-50 proposition.

I honestly think we have to look at the Middle East in terms of economics. How can we bring that part of the world into the world economy in a way that creates opportunity for the common man and woman? They used to do all right as traders, about a thousand years ago, because they were right on the land routes between Europe and the East (China, India). But then better ships came along and cut them out of the deal. They have their oil, but that just causes more problems because the wealth goes to a small set of princes and sheiks; everyone else stays poor. How do we get them into modern times? It seems impossible, but go back 30 or 40 years and it seemed impossible then that China and India would ever get into the economic mainstream. I don’t have an answer for the Middle East, but it seems to me that the ultimate answer will respond to the question of economics, not the question of military strategy.

NEW ORLEANS – BYE BYE PUBLIC HOUSING: I know a guy who does consulting work with public housing agencies, so I asked him was going to happen now in New Orleans, which once had a huge public housing system (with 19,995 units). He said that public housing is pretty much finished there. (GOP Congressman Richard Baker of Baton Rouge was overheard telling lobbyists: “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”) They will rebuild some senior citizens buildings and will use the land formerly occupied by family tenements for mixed use developments (e.g., some affordable apartments, some homeownership units, some retail stores). Most former tenants will get Section 8 certificates to subsidize their rent (up to a point) where ever they move to.

But the big conglomerations of units for low-income families won’t be brought back. A lot of the people who lived in them may not want to come back anyway (there was an article in the NY Times saying that a survey showed that up to 20% of the former population doesn’t plan to move back); they may find work in Texas or Baton Rouge. So, the new New Orleans will be a less poor city. Let’s just hope that the silver lining works both ways — i.e., that the poor who were scattered by Katrina will also find better lives where ever they wind up. Let’s hope that Mr. Bush makes good on the little detail of honestly helping them achieve that.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:00 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Sunday, September 11, 2005
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MISHEARD LYRICS: BAD MOON RISING. OK, so everyone knows that the refrain to the 1974 Creedence Clearwater Revival hit song “Bad Moon Rising” has been misinterpreted by countless of listeners as “There’s a Bathroom on the Right”. But I got another part of that song wrong: toward the middle, John Fogerty sings “I hear the voice of rage and ruin”. Given Fogerty’s famous slur, I used to hear something like “I hear the voice, the rain of ruin”.

Little did I know that the phrase “rain of ruin” was used by President Harry Truman in a speech following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan in 1945. Truman said that if Japan didn’t immediately surrender, there would be a such an atomic rain on its land.

Maybe my misinterpreted line would have been more appropriate. Truman’s voice, and a bad mushroom cloud rising, indeed.

ON THE FENCE: A BLUES MEMORY. Here’s a spray paint tribute to the Blues Brothers, Jake and Elwood, which recently appeared on a fence along Route 3 in Clifton (NJ). The fence slats almost look like prison bars – which goes with their persona quite nicely. Rest in peace, Mr. Belushi. Glad to know that there are still people out there like me who remember those fun days.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:04 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Saturday, September 10, 2005
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MODERN POLITICS: FALL OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE?: I’ve been studying the history of the Roman Empire lately (via a CD lecture series called “Rome and the Barbarians” from the Teaching Company). Modern conservatives sometimes say that Rome fell apart because it lost its virtue. After studying the Romans, I’d have to ask: just what virtue was that? The Roman Empire got where it did by mercilessly plundering its neighbors. In the end, they returned the favor. Yea, it’s true that in Rome’s early days, there was a large sense of voluntary citizen participation that was later replaced by big-government bureaucracy. But that civic participation was mostly limited to the rich and powerful. Commoners (“the plebes” and slaves) got stuck with the same crappy jobs throughout ancient Rome’s 900 years of history. And as to religion, and those like Judge Roy Moore of Alabama (a GOP rising star) who want to declare America as a Christian nation, remember that things just got worse and worse for Rome once they became a Christian nation (under Constantine in the early 4th Century).

It’s pretty clear to me that Rome locked itself into permanent decline by the middle of the 3rd Century. The Roman Legions were trying to battle newly-founded aggressive nations like the Goths and the Sassanid Persians on its eastern and northern frontiers, and yet they kept on leaving these frontiers behind before defeating their foes to participate in civil wars against other Roman Legions. What was that all about? Well, Rome never had a good system for selecting its Emperors, so when an Emperor died – or even before – the three major Roman army groups (the Rhine, the Danube, and the Eastern armies) would each select someone from amidst their own command structure as the next Emperor. That would mean lots of fighting, usually back in Italy, before everyone agreed on a new Emperor. In the mean time, the barbarian forces on the frontiers kept on invading, taking Roman cities and farmland. Then the big armies got back to the frontiers after cutting themselves to ribbons, and started from scratch against the external foes.

With 20/21st Century hindsight, it’s obvious that you can only do that for so long before your enemies are going to overcome you.

Here in the USA, we have a better system for selecting our Emperors (whoops, I mean Presidents). We keep the military out of it; we give our Presidents limited terms, and we have regularly scheduled public elections to select them. The writers of our Constitution were well aware of the Roman system — e.g., the set up of our Senate parallels the Roman Senate in many ways — but they were also aware of its faults. So they tweeked the model a bit based on their idealism about individual freedom and equality (up to a point; they certainly agreed with the Romans that slavery is an acceptable part of the system).

And yet I can’t help but wonder if internal warfare is going to be the downfall of our Empire, too.

We select our President and most of our leaders through a competition for votes between two political parties. That goes back pretty much to the founding of our nation in 1776; we’ve always had two big political amalgamations with somewhat differing philosophies and interests regarding how we do things in America. It’s worked out pretty well over the past 226 years. According to political historians, campaigns have never been well-informed civic debates; political parties always took cheap shots and threw mud at eachother in order to win. Winning has always been what it’s all about; only after you win do you think about how to best do the job. Despite that, the American public usually does the best it can with the choices presented to it, and the system has thus held together all this time.

Unfortunately, the nasty process of political battle has become highly amplified over the past 50 year by money and technology. Not only has radio, television and the Internet made the process more vivid to the average citizen; but psychologists and media specialists have studied the average citizen to learn how to best implant an impression or belief. Using these techniques, politicians can now do real damage. Campaigns have become blood sport. A couple of good 30-second TV ads can change the course of history. Thanks to a couple of elderly actors reading a script at a kitchen table, we haven’t made any progress in this country toward universal health insurance (i.e., the Harry and Louise ads against Clinton’s health insurance plan in 1994). And last year around this time, John Kerry’s campaign was sunk by a few impressive ads about swift boats.

Some people say that America is being split in two, into “red state” land and “blue state” land. There was always a bit of difference between the coastal regions and the interior, but the gap in values and beliefs now seems to be widening. And the high-voltage political process is what’s leading it. The big business of politics wants there to be a land where God, guns and no gay marriage are the order of the day, and a land where you get to choose the god(s) you worship and the sex of your partner, but not the size of your guns. Of course, each party would like more of the other party’s territory. But given that each party has roughly equivalent resources, the nation is getting torn down the middle. We put a whole lot of energy and resources into political fighting these days. Meanwhile, there are enemies (e.g. al Qaeda) and competitors (India, China) outside the gate, putting most of their energies into finding ways to hurt us or surpass us.

You would have thought that September 11 would have caused both the Democrats and Republicans to have toned the rhetoric down a bit and to have honestly faced facts, to have moved towards areas of agreement. But no; the “I Win / You Lose / That’s All That Matters” game goes on with growing intensity, as the 2004 Presidential campaign demonstrated. Ah, the old Roman Legions battling each other in central Italy in the 3rd Century would have been proud of us. They had another 200 years to go (although those were years of increasing weakness and decay). How much do we have?

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:03 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Sunday, September 4, 2005
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THE RICH GET RICHER, THE POOR GET SOAKED: This past Tuesday, the US Census Bureau released a bunch of statistics regarding income and poverty levels in 2004. More people were poor in 2004 than in 2003, and thus the rate went up a bit (from 12.5 to 12.7 percent). The median household income (adjusted for inflation) was stuck where it’s been for the past 5 years. Another 800,000 workers were without health insurance. And at the same time, the overall American economy grew by a robust 3.8% in 2004, and gross national product per capita (adjusted for inflation) went up by 3.4%. So someone is getting richer. Guess who? The rich, of course. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the top 5 percent of households in America experienced real income gains, while the other 95% stayed flat or lost income. Take a guess who lost the most — yes, the bottom 20%.

On Thursday (Sept. 1), the New York Times ran an editorial summarizing these facts. That editorial noted that the top priorities of our President and Congress are to repeal the estate tax and cut taxes on investment income — two big favors for the rich. As to the poor and working class, Mr. Bush and his friends plan to cut student loans, Medicaid and food stamps. And even worse, in order to fight the homeland security wars and yet keep cutting taxes, they have reduced funding for infrastructure programs such as highways, mass transit, college aid, and research by the National Science Foundation.

The Times thus pulled an uncharacteristic emotional string to summarize its opinion about what our current leaders are up to: “They should be ashamed of themselves.”

Then of course, we had New Orleans as the big story this week. We now realize that Bush and the Republicans had cut funding to fix the levees. And when the levees broke early this week, they were in no hurry to send the troops in to quell the chaos that ensued. Is it possible that the pendulum of public consensus in America will soon reach a high point in terms of rugged individualism and laissez faire, and start swinging back towards communal investment and sharing? Is it possible that working families will finally see through the “lottery ticket” rationale, i.e. the notion that if we let the rich have their way there’s a chance that my family will soon join them? And will they thus stop voting against their economic interests (as Thomas Frank explains in his book “What’s The Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won The Heart of America”) ?

As to the Democrats — can they wake up and cease the moment with a program that emphasizes education, infrastructure investment, health care equality, leveling of opportunity and sustainable growth — and at the same time avoid their old-fashioned Bolshevik / labor union habits of plundering the rich, choking off world trade, and showering the masses with pork barrel favors? And can they stop antagonizing the red state people about gays and guns and old-time religion and creationist theories? (No, wait — maybe they shouldn’t give up the few things that they are right about; but they do need to make Enlightenment values look more like common sense.)

Do we stand at the beginning of a turn-around? Nah. The masses don’t read the Times or the Census income reports, and they’ll forget about New Orleans by the time the crisp breezes of autumn roll around. The Republican/Conservatives still have awfully good spin doctors and 30-second ad makers, and the Democrats still don’t know how to do anything but complain. We need an Abe Lincoln or a Franklin Roosevelt to step forward, but all we get are Clintons and Bushes. Two Bushes, and maybe two Clintons. I really have to wonder if it’s the beginning of the end for the era of American greatness.

BUT A BIT OF GOOD NEWS: Earlier this year, on April 4, I made mention of a free computer program offered by Tom Meinen of Denver. The program is called RenameStar and it comes in handy for anyone with a digital camera or who otherwise has a lot of files to rename, as it lets you rename a big bunch of files very quickly and conveniently. Tom doesn’t seem to be getting rich off of it, even though it’s a darn good program — he’s still giving it away for free. But he does ask that in return for your using it, you do something good for somebody, even if it’s just a small thing – e.g. help serve a meal at a homeless shelter or go visit your aunt in the nursing home. That’s why he calls it “careware” (which some other software people are doing).

Anyway, Tom recently finished a new version of RenameStar, the 2.0 version. There’s even a Windows 98/ME version for us old timers. I installed it yesterday, and it’s quite nice; it has some really neat features that help you keep your computer files organized. So check RenameStar 2.0 out, and maybe consider kicking a few extra bucks into the New Orleans relief effort or something. The software site is And you can find the Red Cross or the other relief agencies pretty easily. Even if the people at the top aren’t doing much to maintain America’s greatness anymore, stuff like this at the bottom might help save the day!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:29 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Friday, September 2, 2005
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For what little it’s worth, I’m gonna say a few things about New Orleans. I’m not an expert on the place. I’ve never been there. Until this week, I didn’t know that it was below sea level. I didn’t know that it was jammed in between the Mississippi River and Lake Ponchartrain. I didn’t know that it was such a poor, African-American city (about 1 in 4 below the poverty income level). I didn’t know that about 1 in 5 didn’t have access to a vehicle. I didn’t know that it was so vulnerable to a hurricane. But the federal government did. So it’s kind of shocking to know that they didn’t have a plan to deal with what happened there this past week. A lot of people are blaming President Bush, and he certainly deserves some blame. But what about Presidents Clinton, Daddy Bush, Reagan, Carter, etc.? Why weren’t detailed evacuation and shelter plans made up back in their time against mass-flooding and societal breakdown in New Orleans?

New Orleans has experienced a massive infrastructure collapse, one that has vanquished civilized society. “The thin veneer of civilization has been scraped off”, as one British newspaper said. It all reminds me of those cheesy made-for-TV movies that you saw in late 1999 about the Y2K computer thing. Remember Y2K? Some people predicted that everything would shut down when the calendar rolled over to 1/1/00. Power, water supply, fuel, food supply, banks and medicine would disappear, and there would be riots, killings, looting, and general chaos. Well, in 2000 the USA was spared all of that, but 5 year later the poor people of New Orleans are experiencing it. What happened to the federal and local emergency plans that were supposedly ready had Y2K gone the other way? Or what about those pre-nuclear war evacuation plans for urban dwellers? How were they going to get people on buses and resettle them in small towns?

Some black politicians have said that the feds didn’t rush in when the levees started to fail on Monday night because of old fashioned racism and classism. According to these politicians, the fact that most of the victims are poor and black explains the federal government’s “wait and see” response. At first I passed those comments off as the usual exaggeration that every political leader engages in while trying to gain something for his or her voting clients. But now I wonder if maybe they’re correct.

(However, Mayor Nagin’s candor has been refreshing. While reaming out the feds, he also said that a lot of the criminal behavior is what you would expect when neighborhood junkies can’t get their fixes.)

This is America’s first good look at urban poverty since the 1992 Los Angeles riots. And it ain’t pretty. Some people, like Louisiana Governor Blanco, are implying that the poor brought it on themselves; they should have left when the hurricane warnings were issued last Saturday. Yea, well — when you’re poor, you often don’t have a car and you don’t have money to stay in a motel somewhere. If you leave for a shelter, whatever you leave behind in your home can get looted. Poor people usually don’t have insurance and don’t have savings to replace their appliances and furniture. Also, as the Superdome fiasco showed, you may not be treated very humanely if you do go to a shelter. As always, the rain certainly did fall hardest upon the poor. And it continues to fall.

New Orleans will be back. It’s too big a tourist franchise to be abandoned. There’s still money to be made. But the question is, when it gets rebuilt, what role will the poor be allowed to play in the “New New Orleans”? The hotels and hospitals and restaurants and shipping ports will still need low-wage workers once they get going again. But will the re-designers of New Orleans let them live there? And what about the non-working poor, i.e. the welfare mothers (technically, parents on “temporary assistance”), and the people (mostly guys) getting by on General Assistance, SSI, Veterans benefits, intermittent jobs, and some crime on the side (e.g., small drug sales or house break-ins)? They often live in public housing and in run-down private apartments being rented out dirt cheap so as to make a few more bucks before they burn down or collapse.

Will New Orleans have any more such housing? As House Speaker Dennis Hassert asked (without directly asking it), should New Orleans have such housing and such people? I.e., maybe the poorest of the poor should be kept in more stable circumstances. But who IS going to take them if New Orleans won’t take them back? Are they just going to drift about like hobos in the 1930s, or form tent cities on the outskirts? New Orleans is about to become an incredible social experiment, not unlike the South during the years following the Civil War. Let’s hope that we somehow do a bit better with reconstruction this time.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:49 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
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