Saturday, April 12, 2014

Try a Little Marx



“There’ll be one corporation selling one little box
it'll do what you want and tell you what you want and cost whatever you got.”                  
Greg Brown, Where is Maria?

This is my 500th post. I never anticipated keeping the Balcony going this long, but one thing led to another, and here we are, number 500.

The recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the McCutcheon case was outrageous but not surprising, because the high court is dominated by rabid ideologues. John Roberts is a second-class whore and his judicial robes should be festooned with corporate logos so his masters are easily recognizable.  Money equals free speech and corporations are people – this is what passes for democracy in America.  Our cherished myths about one man (or woman) - one vote and the will of the governed are only that, myths; this is not the land of the free and the home of the brave -- this country belongs to the wealthy and they operate it for their own advancement. 

Our “democratic” institutions are rotted through and through, hollow, ready to topple, and authoritarian forces are prepared to take their place. Every time I hear a politician say, “the American people” I want to puke. Congress has never given a rat’s ass for the will of the people -- not from the founding of the republic -- it only acts reluctantly, when forced from below by popular movements. Unfortunately, our social movements are fragmented, more often than not working at cross purposes, and while what’s left of organized labor, the environmental movement, civil rights organizations, and the remnants of the Occupy movement bicker or dither, the lackeys of the wealthy scheme to hand more of our collective booty over to people who don’t need it.

This is what totalitarian capitalism looks like. Nothing is allowed to interfere with the chase for profits…not law, morality, common sense or decency.

Meanwhile, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, NASA, and the World Meteorological Organization have all recently issued grim warnings about climate change. The condition of the planet is bad and getting worse, and yet denial remains the American mantra. Business as usual! Drill, blast, scorch, pump, cut, fell, and dump. If we don’t talk about climate change it will go away, right? Do political elites and members of the 1% breathe different air, drink different water, eat fish from a different ocean? Are they immune from drought, flood, fire, and tornado?

In the 1940’s Henry Miller referred to America as the “air-conditioned nightmare.” I’m glad Miller can’t see the country or its major institutions now, not that it would break his heart, but because it would confirm damn near everything he predicted, and he would have hoped we’d have regained our senses by now. I can imagine Miller saying, “Seventy-odd years later and they still don’t get it. A nation of dolts, that’s what they are!”

It’s hard for any thinking American not to feel bummed out by the hypocrisy, the waste, the mendacity, the unfairness, the greed, the impotence, and the belligerence that characterize our country in the middle of the second decade of the 21st century. I’m reading a book called, A Colossal Wreck: A Road Trip through Political Scandal, Corruption and American Culture by the late Alexander Cockburn. Writing in 2004, Cockburn relates some advice his father, Claud Cockburn, gave him: “When all seems dark, try reading a little Marx. It puts things in perspective.”





Sunday, March 30, 2014

Conscious Uncoupling

My wife and I drive up the coast to spend a couple of days in Cambria. The recent rains have breathed new life into the hillsides, rangeland, and vineyards along the 101; everything looks verdant. Cattle fatten themselves on fresh grass. Get it now because in a few months time the grass will be brown. Like almost every other place in California, Cambria is experiencing a severe drought that impacts the tourist trade – Cambria’s bread and butter -- in several ways. The restaurants we ate in served water by the bottle rather than the glass, charging patrons a nominal fee. Public restrooms are closed, chained off, replaced by porta-potties. There was a card in our room at the Cambria Pines Lodge urging us to be water-wise by taking short showers and reusing our towels.  
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Before leaving on our sojourn the media was buzzing about Gwyneth Paltrow’s split from her husband, Chris Martin, member of the band Coldplay. “Conscious uncoupling,” the couple’s reps called it, a term that must have emerged from a Beverly Hills shrink’s office. Paltrow is known to consider herself enlightened, in a Deepak Chopra-Dalai Lama sort of way, and by consciously uncoupling rather than muddling through the agony of a messy divorce, she and her ex are protecting their children from serious psychological damage. Most people who decide to put the well being of their offspring first call it just that instead of debasing the English language. I hope one of Gwyneth’s less enlightened friends will sit the children down and say, “Kids, your mommy and daddy may pretend to like each other, and tell you that nothing is going to change, and that you will still visit Disneyland together as a happy family, but the fact is, they are calling it quits, throwing in the towel, and you will need to adapt to this reality. When your little playmates ask why your mommy and daddy aren’t living with you anymore, you can be a nerd and say your parents have ‘consciously uncoupled,’ or you can meet the matter straight on and say, ‘they’re divorced.’ That’s what a court of law is going to call it – even in Beverly Hills.”
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I am deluged daily with e-mail solicitations from Democrats asking for money to help this or that incumbent stave off a mid-year election challenge from a well-heeled Republican opponent or Super PAC. Apparently, the Democrats are running scared that the GOP will increase its majority in the House and also seize control of the Senate, which will spell certain doom for our nation, because, as I must certainly grasp, only reasonable Democrats can keep the barbaric Republicans at bay. These e-mail pleas rarely say what the Democrats intend to do if they win re-election; no policy ideas are advanced because the Democrats don’t have any to offer, and haven’t for the past five years. If Democrats have no ideas to offer to help average Americans live better lives, I have no money to spare.

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Finally, in football news, Liverpool Football Club sits atop the English Premier League table, having earned three points by beating Tottenham 4-nil. The other contenders, Arsenal and Manchester City, played one another to a 1-1 draw, and my favorite club, Chelsea, played a lackluster match against a gritty Crystal Palace squad and fell 1-nil. Chelsea have lost its last two league matches away from Stamford Bridge, and I’m certain that not taking points from these fixtures has cost us the title this season. Our performance against Palace was one of the worst I’ve seen this year.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Racketeers

Since prisons and madhouses exist, someone must sit in them.” Anton Chekhov

The way the American mainstream news media echoes the conventional wisdom and protects the status quo rarely fails to make me crazy. I’d like to kick NBC’s David Gregory in the balls.

Paul Ryan issues a budget on behalf of the GOP and the media and the pundits lose their minds and begin regurgitating Ryan’s talking points as if they originated from the mouth of Moses. It doesn’t matter that Ryan offers nothing new – his program is the same rank Republican Party manure, chock full of austerity measures for the poor, tax cuts for the wealthy, loopholes for corporations, and sweeping cuts to Social Security and Medicare.

Let the poor and the elderly eat cake.

By contrast, when the Congressional Progressive Caucus issues its “Back to Work Budget,” the mainstream media can’t be bothered to cover it because the conventional wisdom says that this budget has zero chance of passing. Forget the fact that most Americans support the goals of the Progressive Caucus budget: job creation, infrastructure improvements, investment in education, aid to states, unemployment compensation, fair individual tax rates, accountability for the too-big-to-jail banks who precipitated the 2008 economic meltdown, and other sensible measures to assist working Americans who have suffered insecure employment, stagnant wages and crushing debt for the better part of the past 30 years.

But fuck all that stuff – it doesn’t fit the dominant American narrative as determined by our political and economic elites – and their media allies at ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, CNBC, MSNBC and Fox. The political spectrum may be ten miles wide, in theory, but the mainstream media will shrink it down to a yard in short order, exclude or ignore any story that doesn’t fit neatly into the little lacquered box labeled, Acceptable for Discourse

Democracy? Hardly. Supposedly serious people swoon over Paul Ryan’s budget diarrhea, but the budget proffered by the Congressional Progressive Caucus is deemed too radical and far out to garner a mention in prime time.

Keep the masses stupid and distracted and they are easy to control.

Folks, we’ve been sodomized by a corrupt and criminal ideology that is slicker than any racketeering scheme ever conceived by the Mafia.

Wall Street owns and operates Washington D.C. for its own benefit. Consider that a simple financial transaction tax on Wall Street would raise billions of dollars that could be used for education, infrastructure improvements, alternative energy projects, expansion of Medicare, job training and a host of other initiatives that would help ordinary citizens lead more secure lives. But don’t hold your breath. The big Wall Street firms like Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan Chase and Bank of America employ battalions of lobbyists who only have to dangle bundles of campaign cash before their lackeys in Congress in order to kill any discussion of a financial transaction tax.

When will this madness end? The broad and deep American middle class is on life support, growing weaker by the day. Outside of the Progressive Caucus, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, nobody in power stands up for working Americans and says, “This neoliberal shit has gone far enough. It’s time to run these criminals out of town.”


Monday, March 17, 2014

The Sage in the Back Bedroom


My 17-year-old son knows everything about everything, and he’s not shy about telling his mother and me that we are idiots, relics of the Dark Ages who can’t possibly have anything meaningful to say on any topic. I don’t think I was much different at his age, though time has dimmed my memory somewhat. My son’s youthful arrogance is unbridled and annoying, and I wonder how many years it will be before he realizes that his parents are not complete dunces.

The American media haven’t made it easy to follow the situation playing out in the Crimea. The major networks focus on evil Vladimir Putin and his thirst for power and empire. It appears that ethnic Russians in the Crimea want to turn away from Ukraine and join Russia, while the United States and Britain want things to remain as they are. The U.S. reserves to itself the right to invade other countries and violate international law, but we become puritanical when another nation (except Israel) decides to do the same thing. Vladimir must pull his thugs and paramilitary forces out of Crimea, stuff the genie back in the bottle…or else. Or else what? Economic and cultural sanctions from the EU, perhaps, and a hard slap on the wrist from U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, maybe another lecture from President Obama about international law…

On another subject, Syria, the west doesn’t seem particularly interested. The plight of a few million refugees and displaced persons simply isn’t as interesting as a missing passenger jet liner; the major networks spend minutes on the former and hours on the latter. Part of the problem, I suppose, is that the Syrian civil war has dragged on too long and is too confusing to explain to an audience with a short attention span and little interest in international events. The leader of the bad guys in Syria is easy enough to identify – it’s trickier to identify the good guys, what they are fighting for, and what Syria might look like if they prevail.

Weird times. Here on the Platinum Coast it’s 85 degrees, which on the one hand is wonderful – who doesn’t like warm sunshine and blue sky? But on the other hand this kind of weather this early in the year isn’t helping our drought condition, which can only be described as dire. I am already capturing gray water from the washing machine to water the plants on our deck; the other day I installed a low flow showerhead. It’s only the middle of March. We need fans in the apartment to push the overheated air around. March is supposed to be a month for mild temperatures and several days of rain.

I just finished an excellent non-fiction book, the Big Burn, by Tim Egan. It’s the story of a mammoth wildfire that scorched parts of three western states in 1910. Fine read, highly recommended. There were powerful economic interests in the United States at that time who thought turning millions of acres of federal lands into national parks was ludicrous; in the eyes of these interests, it was far better to hand the land to the highest bidder (or the most politically connected) and let the exploitation begin.

Getting back to my son…he has been accepted at the American University of Paris, France, and the lad is so enthralled by the idea of studying abroad that the $45,000 annual price tag seems more a minor nuisance than an insurmountable obstacle. Trying to tell him that debt is easy to run up and difficult to pay down is as hard as finding an honest politician in Washington D.C. The boy, bless his innocent heart, believes – against all evidence to the contrary – that gobs of money will fall softly into his young lap. I wish that were so.


Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Life on the Dole

“So long as the best elements of a community do not feel in duty bound to protect and train and care for the weaker members of their group, they leave them to be preyed upon by these swindlers and rascals.” W.E.B DuBois, The Souls of Black Folks

Paul Ryan thinks he has pinpointed the cause of persistent poverty in America. No, it has nothing to do with the 2008 financial meltdown. The reason poverty persists in America, according to Ryan, is LBJ’s War on Poverty, now fifty years old. Dependence on government largesse has kept the poor down, prevented them from taking responsibility for their own lives, halted their progress and retarded their initiative; this is why the poor aren’t launching entrepreneurial ventures or investing in Fortune 500 companies. It’s all the fault of the federal government’s attempts to alleviate poverty.

Like most politicians of his ilk, Ryan believes poverty is lucrative and that people enjoy life on the dole. He obviously thinks that taking a welfare check makes for as comfortable an existence as taking a fat congressional salary and all the perks that come with high office.

Paul Ryan is an asshole. He should be horsewhipped.

The other day I was listening to Adolph Reed, Jr., a very intelligent man, talking to Bill Moyers. Reed has been in the trenches of the political left for a long time and he has a good memory; he remembers where the left was and contrasts that with where the left is today, which, to put it succinctly, is up a creek sans paddle. No one on the political left can make a cogent argument in support of the causes the left once championed: economic opportunity and justice, education, health care, a real social safety net, civil rights, equal rights, and human rights. The left is all about neoliberalism now, laughable fantasies of upward mobility for people through fealty to corporate power and profit; both parties are guilty of slapping a price tag on our lives, turning our wants, desires and dreams into commodities to be bought and sold. Both parties tell us that free market capitalism is the cornerstone of democracy, the well from which all bounty springs; both parties reduce social problems to individual problems; both parties suck at the teat of corporate masters.

Adolph Reed Jr. told Bill Moyers that American democracy has been hollowed out by corporate and individual money; political power and influence is just another commodity with a price tag that only the rich can afford to buy and sell. Ordinary voters are priced out of the game, our voices silenced beneath a tidal wave of campaign dollars. The only way to defeat organized money is to organize people, but that’s difficult when neither political party represents the interests of the majority of citizens. Don’t believe it? Then why is it that the power brokers in Washington D.C. talk only of austerity, budget cuts, deficits, and the dangers posed by entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare? Outside the corrupt Beltway, people sit around their kitchen tables and talk about jobs, wages, the cost of college for their children, the cost of medical insurance for themselves and their ailing parents, the price of basic commodities we all need to live. Consider the state of our current politics. The men and women we elect (and, let’s be honest, most of the time our choices are between Tweedledee and Tweedledum) do not devote themselves to addressing the issues we care about. They claim to, but a cursory examination of most congressional voting records confirms the real story.


The American left lost the battle of ideas with the American right back in the 1980’s. The left’s core ideas weren’t perfect, but they were responsible for keeping the worst excesses of corporate capitalism in check. If the left represented working Americans the way it should, and could articulate its ideas powerfully and clearly – the way FDR and Henry Wallace once did – nobody would pay any attention to phonies like Paul Ryan.