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Noted with Interest, August 2012

Aug 31, 2012

Whoops!: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, by John Lanchester, Allen Lane/Penguin, 2010
I had to send along this excerpt from the great John Lanchester’s book on the financial meltdown:
“For several decades after the second world war the western liberal democracies devoted themselves to the question of how to harness capitalism’s potential for economic growth to the political imperative to provide better lives for ordinary people. The jet engine of capitalism was harnessed to the ox cart of social justice. This was the cause of much bleating from the advocates of pure capitalism, but the effect was that the western liberal democracies became the most admirable societies that the world has ever seen. Not the most admirable we can imagine, and not perfect; but the best humanity had as yet been able to achieve. Then the Wall came down, and to various extents the governments of the west began to abandon the social-justice aspect of the general post-war project. The jet engine was unhooked from the ox cart and allowed to roar off at its own speed. The result was an unprecedented boom, which had two big things wrong with it: it wasn’t fair and it wasn’t sustainable.”

Greed and Debt: The True Story of Mitt Romney and Bain Capital
By Matt Taibbi. Matt takes on Mitt, raining on Romney's parade, in a piece released a week early to coincide with the Republican convention. From Rollingstone, August 29, 2012. Accessed August 29, 2012.

tags: Noted with Interest

Gore Vidal, Prophet

Aug 29, 2012
Gore Vidal has joined the company of Martin Luther King and Howard Zinn. Another of my heroes is gone; I can’t think of any I have left now.

No one spoke truth to power with the humor, the eloquence, the urgency, the contempt, the rage—or the prescience—of Gore Vidal, and we suffer grievously without his voice.

I just finished his Collected Essays, 1952-1972. These few outtakes should impress you as much as they did me with his gifts of wit and prophecy. Long before we were what we are and had found the voice in which many of us are speaking today—before Vietnam, before Watergate, before Reagan—he was one of us, showing the way:

Here he is discussing the causes for the decline in the reading of novels, a plaint heard over and over in this collection:

“Nevertheless, appalling education combined with clever new toys has distracted that large public which found pleasure in prose fictions.”
“A Note on the Novel,” New York Times Book Review, August 5, 1956.
One of his most famous assertions, spoken not altogether with tongue in cheek, is one to which I have often related while composing the nostrums that litter this blog:
“I am at heart a propagandist, a tremendous hater, a tiresome nag, complacently positive that there is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.”
“Writing Plays for Television,” New World Writing #10, 1956.
Vidal was master of the Parthian shot, a final little twist of the knife at the conclusion of an already damning progression of put-downs. Having misspent several years, off and on, in the theatre, I can attest to the truth of this one.
“After the script was ready [for his Broadway play Visit to a Small Planet] there were the usual trials, delays, problems of temperament; each participant convinced that the others had gone into secret league to contrive his professional ruin (and on occasion cabals did flourish, for the theater is a child’s world).”
“Visit to a Small Planet,” The Reporter, July 11, 1957.
We finally “got it” in the Great Recession; Vidal got it almost 50 years ago:
“In public services [as a portion of our foreign aid], we lag behind all the industrialized nations of the West, preferring that the public money go not to the people but to big business. The result is a unique society in which we have free enterprise for the poor and socialism for the rich.”
“Edmund Wilson, Tax Dodger,” Book Week, November 3, 1963.
The futility of reversing a status quo that is destroying our country, the world, and the hopes of future generations was expressed succinctly by Vidal a few short years after Eisenhower’s famous warning regarding the military-industrial complex:
“Between the pork barrel and the terrible swift sword, Pentagon, Congress, and industry are locked together, and nothing short of a major popular revolt can shatter their embrace.”
“Edmund Wilson, Tax Dodger,” Book Week, November 3, 1963.
Vidal captures the essential lunacy—and tragedy—of the impulse toward religion and religious fundamentalism:
“And those who take solemnly the words of other men as absolutes are, in the deepest sense, maiming their own sensibilities and controverting the evidence of their own senses in a fashion which may be comforting to a terrified man but disastrous for an artist.”
“Norman Mailer’s Self-Advertisements,” The Nation, January 2, 1970.
Attending Eleanor Roosevelt’s funeral, he makes this final observation:
“As the box containing her went past me, I thought, well, that’s that. We’re really on our own now.”
“Eleanor Roosevelt,” The New York Review of Books, Nov 18, 1971 (p. 424)
And so we are.

The last word, in another election year we find ourselves anticipating with dread:
“Persuading the people to vote against their best interest has been the awesome genius of the American political elite from the beginning.”
“Homage to Daniel Shays,” The New York Review of Books, August 10, 1972.

tags: Politics | People | Governance

Money, Paul Ryan, and You

Aug 20, 2012
There has been much ink spilled on news, editorial, and op-ed pages, not to mention the virtual oceans spilled on the Internet, since Paul Ryan was chosen to be Mitt Romney’s running mate (I don’t say Mitt Romney chose him, because I don’t think he did).

Ryan’s fiscal plan, 14 years in the making, unmaking, remaking,1 has captured the imagination of the lunatic right (those who, like Ryan, have Ayn Rand on their required reading lists). Speaker Boehner, knowing a bear trap when he sees one, has almost crippled himself in contortions aimed at distancing himself from the plan without alienating too many of his constituents.

The left meanwhile, to which no one any longer pays even nominal attention, is nevertheless having a field day with it. Krugman calls Ryan “an unserious man,”2 and Steve Nelson, head of the progressive Calhoun School in Manhattan and writer of the biweekly “Sensibilities” column in my local rag, the Valley News, characterizes the society Ryan’s plan aims to forge as one “committed to rugged individualism.” I agree with Krugman, but respectfully disagree with Nelson.

What has been developing over the past thirty years and more (since the Reagan Revolution—a real revolution and one which is ongoing) is not some nostalgic return to a Jeffersonian vision of hardy agrarian individuals going about their business in an egalitarian society with minimal governmental interference. Far from it. What we are witnessing rather is the largest transfer of wealth, enabled and abetted by a co-opted and corrupted central government, in the history of mankind.

No Republican is looking for smaller government. The national debt ballooned between 1981 and 2008 from less than a trillion dollars to over 10 trillion entirely during the administrations of Republicans.3 The five to six trillion added during the Obama administration4 has accrued primarily because of a combination of circumstances Obama was essentially powerless to affect: the downward momentum caused by the Great Recession, the bailouts committed during the last Bush administration, the continuation of the Bush tax cuts, the prosecution of multiple unwinnable but very expensive wars, and Congressional obstreperousness which has scotched every attempt by Democrat or Republican alike to contain our exploding debt.

No one in power today wants less government. The ones in control, and this includes Obama, want something else altogether. They want your money. They want government to be devoted entirely to enriching the already superrich at the expense of anyone who isn’t. Show me a single significant pending legislative initiative, or a single piece of significant legislation passed in the last thirty years which doesn’t advance this agenda and I’ll eat it.

This isn’t, in Nelson’s words, “a society committed to rugged individualism.” It is a society committed to brigandage.

I predict a Romney win in November, because I believe our country is ripe for a bloodless coup. The radical right is poised to take over our hapless land, by hook or by crook, and if they can’t buy the election, they are ready, willing, and able to steal it. And the sad fact is, they probably won’t have to put themselves out to too great an extent to do it. As Gore Vidal noted over fifty years ago, “Persuading the people to vote against their best interest has been the awesome genius of the American political elite from the beginning.”5

1 See, e.g., “Fussbudget: How Paul Ryan Captured the G.O.P.,” by Ryan Lizza, from The New Yorker, August 6, 2012.
2 An Unserious Man, by Paul Krugman, from the New York Times, August 19, 2012.
3 National Debt Chart
4 The US Debt Clock
5 “Homage to Daniel Shays,” The New York Review of Books, August 10, 1972.
tags: Politics

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