December 28, 2007

The Final Great Gift of the Baby Boomers

The satirical blogsite "23/6" has come out with a parody of AARP Magazine, as Generation X might modify it to reflect their true attitudes about this huge demographic bulge made up of Americans born between the years 1946 and 1964. It's very funny, standing on their heads all the well-worn tropes and delusions of this aging cohort, in whose number, admittedly, I myself dwell. Our narcissism; our Peter Pan delusions; our demand for attention. Laid out like a regular cover, there are "special sections," such as "Give It Up," with bullet points like "Stop Jogging." "Delete Your MySpace Page." And "60 Is Not the New 40: It's Old." "Sex: We Don't Want to Hear About It." It ends with a request that we simply die off and stop pestering everyone with our self-obsessions.

I was wondering when this generation would achieve enough life experience and wisdom to get around to looking at things this way. To tell the truth, I don't like my generation either. I like the "Greatest Generation" people, my parents' group. There was something so solid and real about them. They understood that life was inevitably hard work and travail leavened with a little joy. They did not treat every disappointment or down mood like a pathology. I like the generation born in the Thirties and early Forties, the ones who rebelled at encroaching materialism and gave us the Beat outlook, like Henry Miller and Bob Dylan. And today's kids, who recognize so well how we've trashed the place, clogged up the landscape with cars, and too-big houses, and devoured the world's open spaces and natural resources, and set in motion the cataclysm of global warming: I like their precocious world-weariness, their wry and ironic humor, even their patience with us, as we try to talk their lingo while wearing our oversized cargo shorts and texting on our Sidekick cell phones. They seem less inclined to spend their time "processing their emotions," or indulging in the fantasies of the "human potential movement." Sure, a lot of them have been spoiled by us, but they see through it: they know it's a bribe, the product of a guilty conscience. "Here, take all the shit we've cluttered our lives up with. We'd connect with you emotionally, but we don't know how."

That's where my generation went off the rails. It's how we became obsessive consumers alienated from one another and from the natural world we live in. We forgot the ancient cultural teaching that everything depends on human interconnectedness, that material comforts and success will do nothing without it, and that the essential attitude is not "self-assertiveness" but humility and reverence for Mother Earth.

So I think Gen X is right. And I suggest that, for once, we do something self-sacrificial to show we're sincere. I propose that we all die off. It needs to be mass suicide, of course. I do not want any painful reminders of Holocausts of the past. One other point on the AARP cover claimed "All Your Music Sucks." With that I don't agree. Taste in music is strictly a matter of cultural inculcation, and I liked our stuff. So a perfect venue for our mass die-off is a New Woodstock, a final Woodstock. Maybe in the middle of the country, near St. Louis. Every drug our generation devised can be available, to make the whole thing a little less terrifying. Those who want to be organ donors can exit that way (after all, we have a lot to atone for). The rest can enjoy the festival for a week before the Jonestown Moment.

Think of all we'll be accomplishing. An immediate reduction in American population by 80 million. The Social Security and Medicare crises: solved in a twinkling. The freeing up of vast tracts of affordable housing, which can be distributed to Generation X by the government, free of charge, as compensation for the Baby Boom inflation which made owning a house for Gen X a one-in-a-million shot. A solution to the problem of impeaching George W. Bush. But what, you say, of the tremendous loss of intellectual capital and productivity from this highly educated group? No, it's not that big a deal. They're mostly burn-outs at this point. The people born in the Thirties will still be around, and they're a helluva lot smarter than we are.

What remains is a solid waste management problem. I think I can figure some things out here, since I was educated in public schools before the Baby Boomers withdrew all the support for education in favor of buying Toyota Landcruisers and 12,000 square foot houses. Let's say, even in our SuperSizeMe era, where most of the Baby Boomers achieved their final playing weight with the aid of several thousand Double Whoppers with Extra Cheese and 48-oz. Pepsi barrels, that the average weight is 200 lbs., assuming a bloated weight of 250 lbs a man, 150 lbs for his pudgy little woman. So we've got total mass of 80 million x 200 lbs = 16 billion pounds. However, 70% of this mass is water (a little less in their case: I forgot to mention the Pre-KoolAid blood drive, where the donors will be encouraged to give and then give some more), which will evaporate out soon enough with decomposition. Some suggested uses: using the biomass to rebuild coral reefs destroyed by global warming. Incorporating the bulk in bricks for building the fence between Mexico and the United States (although it probably won't be necessary anymore). Repairing the levees in New Orleans. Organic compost. Rocketing the entire Baby Boomer generation in missiles aimed at the sun.

If we have the courage, for once, to take these necessary steps, we will be fondly remembered by those so glad to see us go. And really, we're not giving up much. The years left are the years of arthritic knees and bad backs which never relent, and occluding arteries, and cataracts and dental implants, hip replacements, diverticulitis, prostate cancer, all while trying to live up to our age group's demand for simulating the lifestyle of the young. And the epitaph written over our mass grave by a grateful Gen X: "Never have so many given so much to get the hell out of the way."

December 27, 2007

We interrupt this vacation to bring you late-breaking news

It was certainly brave of Benazir Bhutto to return to Pakistan. Amazingly so. She didn't have to, after all. She could have stayed in London, in safety, with her children. She had lost two brothers to violence in Pakistan, and her father had been executed by Zia al-Huq following a military coup. Pakistan is perhaps the most unstable and dangerous country on the face of the earth. I imagine Osama bin Laden lives there because he's addicted to chaos; it's his scene, man. Nuclear weapons, the Kashmir flash point poised to spin the world into Armageddon at any moment, an unpopular dictator running the country, 165 million people crowded into a small place. What a mess.

Bhutto's assasination occurred, of course, while Bush was on vacation. W can't buy a break. Nobody respects his time off. One must temper the notion of freak coincidence with the observation that Bush takes a lot of time off. What are the odds that a major world event will occur while Bush is on vacation, if a date is chosen at random? 1 in 3? 50-50? Still, the world should go on red alert when Bush goes to Crawford. While he's been there, the 9-11 hijackers finished up their planning, Katrina destroyed New Orleans, and now this. Bush dutifully put on a blue suit down there in the Western White House (he really should call it the "Southwestern White House" out of respect for the hallowed memory of Richard Nixon) and trooped before the press for a two-minute statement in which he demanded that the "extremists" responsible for this "cowardly act" be "brought to justice." Certainly we've heard that phrase before. The guy most immediately responsible exists now only in an atomized state, so he can be crossed off the list. What he did was certainly "extreme," but if others were behind him, Bush might want to hold off on calling them all "extremists." For example, running a fake democracy, arresting the chief justice of the Pakistani supreme court and rounding up all the lawyers might also be seen as "extreme acts," but Bush would never call the perpetrator an "extremist."

I noted that Mitt Romney cited the attack as further evidence that "radical jihadism" threatens the civilized world, then quickly added he didn't know who had done it, then noted that the attack proves violence is not confined to Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems likely that al-Qaeda will claim responsibility for the murder; it fits their M.O. It's not as if they're concerned about their international reputation. If someone other than the attacker was involved in the assassination, my guess is we'll never really know who those people were. Romney's comments, as incoherent as they are, point the way to the conservative's favored characterization. These events always have a blind-men-with-the-elephant feel to them, of course. Bhutto's supporters, with perhaps a better sense of Pakistani reality, will accuse Pervez Musharraf. The Bush Administration will not entertain such disturbing speculation, and all of the presidential candidates, Republican and Democratic alike, will steer away from such "radical" thinking. Even if it's true.

Meanwhile, a brave and principled woman who dared to lead a Muslim country is dead, and a decent period of mourning will be truncated in favor of using her demise as a political football. Such is the way of the world. It would not have surprised Benazir, I'm sure, which makes her courage all the more poignant.

December 26, 2007

Deconstructionism and the 43rd President

In one of his pre-Christmas orations, the one in question to the Rotary Club in Fredericksburg, Virginia, President Bush emphatically defended his tax cuts and, in his own mind, dismissed once and for all the tiresome liberal canard that his program disproportionately favored the rich. The way he went about this was, in one of Bush's two favorite adjectives, interesting (the other one is "fabulous"). After a few lame, self-deprecatory jokes, W got right to the point:

"Now, sometimes in the nation's capital, they'll say, some people get tax cuts and others don't. That's not my attitude. My attitude was, if you're paying taxes, you ought to get tax relief. And so we cut taxes. And I mean we cut them on everybody. And when you cut them on individuals, it turns out you also are cutting taxes on small business owners. Most small businesses in America are Subchapter-S corporations, or limited liability partnerships, which means that the owners of the companies pay individual taxes. In other words, the company is subject to the individual tax rates. And so cutting individual taxes not only helps consumers and families, but it also helps small businesses."

Bush did cut taxes on everyone; how he went about it, however, does subject him to some suspicion about his true "attitude." The purpose of Bush's tax cuts was very simple. It's not quite what "they say" in Washington, as W frames it (Bush often sounds a little paranoid; who are "they" and why do they keep saying these things?). What "they say" (I've heard them too) is that the main feature, the cornerstone, the sine qua non of the program, was the reduction of the top marginal rate from 39.6% to 35% on income taxes. Junior did not quite convince Congress to reduce the rates as low as GHW Bush's 31%, which must rankle; however, Junior has the psychological compensation of knowing he couldn't because Bush the 41st ran the national debt through the roof with his tax cuts, building on the financial ruin set in motion by Bonzo's playmate.

Now, that may not sound like much. But for W's true constituency, the uber-rich, it is manna from heaven. Suppose you are the CEO of a military contractor, a Fortune 500 company, and Bush&Cheney have made you as rich as Croesus with their constant warfaring in the Middle East. You're bringing home the Fortune 500 CEO average of $400 million per year. Even after the gnomes at the firm's CPA office have worked their legerdemain, that $400 million is still heavily exposed to the nettlesome top rate of (let's round off) 40%. Clinton! First the chubby girl, now this! That's $160 million simoleons, and for what? Look what happens when you lower that marginal rate to a still-confiscatory 35%: total take by Uncle Sam is now $140 million. You just put $20 million in your pocket, enough for another vacation house in Aspen or Montauk, and will also ease the strain of paying your two alimonies and the upkeep on your trophy wife.

Why wouldn't these people love Bush? They do, that's the point. In 1944, the top marginal rate was 94%, but there was a war on, a real one, not one manufactured in order to siphon money from the U.S. Treasury to well-connected defense contractors and oil companies. Besides, people cared about the United States in those days; they didn't see the place as simply a "platform" or a casino. The point now is to pay as little as you can get away with. And that's a lot, because the current forecasts are that by the year 2010, 52% of Bush's tax cuts will redound to the benefit of the richest 1% in the "country."

So what the hell was Bush talking about with Subchapter-S and LLP's and the rest of it? Well, part of it is that Bush loves to use terms like "C corps" and Subchapter-S because it gives the appearance of some depth beyond memorization of the lingo. Very biz school. What he says is technically true; to avoid the problem of "double taxation" (taxation of the corporation and taxation of the income the corp. pays to employees) while retaining the corporate advantage of limited liability, the IRS invented these things, which in effect allow the net income of the corporation to pass through to the individual owners. Not always an unalloyed blessing. However -- so what? What's that got to do with the effect of the tax cuts? If the Sub-S owner is a very successful businessman who owns 50% of the business, and the business nets $10 million, $5 million will be attributed to him. If, say, $4 million of this is exposed to the top rate of 35%, he'll owe $1.4 million. Under Slick Willie, he would have owed $1.6 million, so he just pocketed $200,000 in exchange for becoming a Ranger donor for the Republican Party. Will he hire some more people? Maybe. Maybe he'll just blow it on a Mediterranean cruise. But who thought that "small business owners," whether they did business through a Subchapter-S corporation or out of a roadside fruit stand, didn't pay "individual rates?" Everyone pays individual rates (except for hedge fund managers, thanks to Senator Charles Schumer (Plutocrat-NY)).

What in the world is he talking about? I guess that's my question. "Small businesses" are individuals. That's what makes them "small," as opposed to, say, Halliburton. So let's see if we can analyze Bush algebraically as well as deconstructing this gibberish verbally. "Small business owners" = business run by individuals = individuals. Substituting in the term "individuals" for "small business owners" yields an expression reduced to simplest terms, namely, "it turns out when you lower rates on individuals, you are also lowering rates on individuals." I can live with that. Surviving another year and 25 days is an open question.

On the other Hand, Never Make Big Decisions on Monday

I need to mention this guy Dmitry Orlov, a Russian emigre who's been making a splash in those cultish circles where things like "systemic collapse" and "peak oil" are routinely discussed, those folks, in other words, who conceive of a paradigm shift in the status of American society which comes about by forces beyond our political control. Which are visited upon us, in other words. Born, achieve, thrust upon: as with greatness, other quantum shifts can arrive by any of three routes. The Soviet Union was a bad idea from the jump, then crystallized its badness through the Stalinist Cult of Personality, then had perestroika and glasnost thrust upon it because it was utterly rotted out. Among this pessimistic crew we can also number James Kunstler of the Clusterfuck blog and books, and then, of course, that most scholarly of the doomsday-sayers, my old Berkeley prof Chalmers Johnson.

Orlov on the American presidential "horse race": "It is certainly more fun to watch two Capitalist parties go at each other than just having the one Communist party to vote for. The things they fight over in public are generally symbolic little tokens of social policy, chosen for ease of public posturing. The Communist party offered just one bitter pill. The two Capitalist parties offer a choice of two placebos. The latest innovation is the photo finish election, where each party buys 50% of the vote, and the result is pulled out of statistical noise, like a rabbit out of a hat. The American way of dealing with dissent and with protest is certainly more advanced: why imprison dissidents when you can just let them shout into the wind to their heart's content?"

That should be reassuring to "dissident" bloggers everywhere. Why, indeed, should the executive branch pay any attention to the rantings and ravings of the general populace? By a substantial majority, for example, the American people want the Iraq occupation to end. They so voted in November, 2006. Two months later the war escalated. A Democratic majority in the House had the Constitutional option of refusing to allow a floor vote for war appropriations. This is clear, unambiguous, Constitutionally-prescribed reality. Over one year later, the occupation is in full swing. It has been funded through at least June, 2008. In June it will be "politically" impossible to upset the delicate calculations which produce Orlov's "photo finish" through something as jarring as political courage, i.e., denying Bush his war funding. To come out on the right side of the statistical noise this time, the Democrats merely have to appear as the lesser aspect of the repugnant spectacle known as national electoral politics. They may or may not achieve this. If Hillary Clinton is nominated, we may wind up with a Baptist preacher as President of the United States. Jerzy Kosinksi, who wrote "Being There," could never have dreamed this one up.

I appreciate Orlov's sunny analysis of what he views as a certain American economic collapse. The only question, for him, is when. All of the elements necessary for such a paradigm shift are there, according to Dmitry. Bankruptcy (hard to argue when you're in hock $9 trillion); inflation (artfully concealed by leaving the two main things people need, food and fuel, out of the official calculations); huge foreign debts and trade imbalances (largest in world history, and growing at the rate of $1.3 billion per day); highly unstable dependence on foreign energy sources (20 million bbl of oil per day, of which 14 million must be imported, mostly from countries which hate our guts); a massively inflated military-industrial complex (according to Chalmers, if you add up everything that goes into defense and "security" [all the redundant intelligence services], it comes to about $1 trillion); healthcare as a profit center rather than a social service; a steeply declining quality of public education; and, of course, a representative government which concerns itself with Dmitry's "symbolic little tokens" of gay marriage, flag burning, abortion and other crucial issues which determine whether Americans can keep food on the table and their automobiles running.

December 24, 2007

Wrapping up the Blog

Look, even Thoreau only spent two years and two months at the Pond. It is sometimes incorrectly assumed he always lived there. He wasn't a crank; he was a Harvard educated intellectual who unfortunately could never shake his tuberculosis and died way before his time.

However, more influential even than H.D., in terms of this decision, is Dr. Johnson, who wrote that "nobody but a blockhead ever wrote for anything but money." Besides, to everything there is a season. So I want to say to the NSA, and to the CIA, and the FBI, and the Department of Defense, and the Office of Special Plans, and to the Executive Branch, and to those parts of the Executive Branch which apparently aren't, although I thought they were, such as Dick Cheney's office: no hard feelings, right? After all, you never (okay, rarely) saw me get personal with the Decider, like some other writers I could name. In fact, let me name names, in that fine old American paranoid tradition...okay, I won't. I might criticize policy, or certain teensy-weensy inroads on the Bill of Rights which have occurred in the last seven years. But we still have one or two left; let's not get greedy.

Anyway, increasingly I see that the democratic process in America does not quite work the way it used to, even compared to earlier stages of my lifetime. Is it possible that the almighty Framers, in their matchless wisdom and clairvoyance, designed a system that worked okay when there were about 3 million people (not counting slaves, and who was counting them?), 13 colonies, and a large city (like New York) had about 20,000 people, but doesn't work so well when the system is now so huge and complicated, and the issues so complex, and the general quality of education is declining, and incumbents are personally unknown to the electorate and are sent back to office, or defeated, on the basis of PR campaigns? When the system, in other words, has broken down because of its size and complexity?

As a salutatory note, that's what I think. It's the best explanation I can think of for the apparent irrelevance of government to the real problems of everyday Americans. It's not that government doesn't serve interests; it does, but those interests are the ones with the money and access to get the government to do something for them, and with the cash to run successful PR campaigns for public office, all of it mounted on electronic media using the tricks and tropes of the entertainment industry. Mr. Smith doesn't go to Washington anymore; the CEO of Martin Marietta does. That's a cliche, but like many cliches it's unfortunately true. So the same forces that made America an economic colossus are the forces that have locked the system into an ossified senility that cannot react rationally to obvious problems. It makes sense that such a condition would occur here now, in the late stages of the American empire. We can't respond effectively to crises like climate change, oil shortages, the national debt of $9 trillion, the collapsing dollar, the decrepit infrastructure, unaffordable healthcare, the absence of a national rail network worth anything, the shift from a manufacturing base to a "consumerist" economy, the huge and growing disparities between rich and poor - to anything, really, because it is a mistake to identify the interests of so-called "average" Americans with the political process in Washington, D.C. Note to the NSA: I don't mean anything radical by that. Nor do I propose that we do anything about it, in case you're wondering, because the whole point is that nothing can be done. Now I ask you: just how patriotic is that? A fatalist commitment to the status quo: as American as apple pie.

There will be another election season in which a group of candidates anxious for the perks and power of the nation's highest office traffic in a gaudy set of carefully-managed illusions and catch-phrases, promising great change, etc., and then one of them will go to Washington (or return there) and come up against the immovable inertia of vested interests represented tenaciously by America's uniparty; and most of the discretionary budget will go to the military-industrial complex, and the faltering social programs will limp along toward their eventual bankruptcy, and the cost of living will go higher and higher as the dollar falls, as oil grows inexorably more expensive, as Americans compete to buy American food with foreign purchasers anxious to take the country's last remaining export. I think we'll give up on the idea, after a few more years, of controlling foreign producers of oil by occupying them militarily because we just won't be able to afford it nor sustain the army to do so. And then we'll be at the mercy of the market. I think GW Bush will be the last of the great military adventurists in American history.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a goodnight.