Friday, June 26, 2009

In Memoriam

I've been catching up on what Michael Jackson is all about. I guess I've led a sheltered life, because I didn't even know what the moonwalk was. (Too bad he never met Marcel Marceau.)
His videos offer some insights, like Beat It, a phrase that means both fight and flight, a wonderful paradox given that it's about gangs, kind of like West Side Story. Opponents grasp hands and pull knives at the same time, just as we are always tied to what we resist. It reminded me of a former lover, who wanted me to tie his hands to the bed. I found a similar solution - I tied one of his and one of mine.
But Smooth Criminal ain't smooth, he's scandalous. And Scream totally says how I feel about Harleys and leafblowers.
Michael doesn't care if you're Black or White, which I appreciate. But I have to confess I have trouble understanding all the lyrics, so hopefully he was good enough to explain everything visually too. So I don't know really if Michael cared if he was black or white. I'm not sure he cared if he was male or female, either. As he became whiter, he looked more and more femme.
It's clear that his affinity with, and affection for, children was part of his nature. Children love to play. And the younger they are, the less they care if you are rich and famous. Plus which, the psychic pressure of being that rich and famous must have made kids' indifference to it seem so, so gentle and playful to him.
A lot of people are mourning more than I would have thought. And it's too bad he's gone, though it's easy to think he wasn't having that much fun anymore. No wonder his poor heart gave out. It's so, so sad that friendly touch has become suspected of sex and exploitation. Throwing that baby out with the bathwater is an ongoing social tragedy.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Co-Opting of a President

     I hope President Obama has noticed Kevin Baker's article listing the ways he has broken campaign promises, because he really should think about what he is doing. While I am sure he is thinking, and carefully, about his decisions, I have also noticed too much continuity with the previous administration's perspective on secrecy, economics and military action.
     Moreover, the Democrat party needs to also read and ponder this article; ideally, they would have an epiphany and maybe even turn back into the Democratic party.
     Last night on C-SPAN, I happened to see Obama and former President Clinton speak at a Democratic Leadership Council event. (When did everyone else forget that there's only one POTUS at a time?) Anyway, Obama told some funny in-jokes, roasting various political players, and then Clinton talked about how wonderful the DLC has been for getting Democrats elected.
     While this may be true, it's less clear that the DLC is actually that wonderful for a lot of ordinary Democratic voters. Moving the party to the center may get more centrists elected, but thinking that populism is obsolete or that the grassroots activists don't matter leaves the party without a vision. Democratic leadership needs to listen to leftist prophets like John Todd or Noam Chomsky, because if they don't they'll just end up being anti-Republicans rather than pro-progressive.
     But, while Obama seems to be following the same split-the-difference political navigation that the DLC pushes, most Congressional Democrats are just as frozen in the headlights. 
     So we still have far more government secrecy than in 2000, part of a trajectory that really got going in WWI. Meanwhile, we see glacial progress on getting out of Iraq, and plans to beef up the war on Afghanis, both a poor way to win hearts and minds. If Pakistanis are outraged by a video of Taliban vigilantes terrorizing women who show a shred of independence, how can anyone imagine that videos of collateral damage by our soldiers and mercenaries will get us anywhere? Our mercenaries should be cashiered, the National Guard should return home, and the soldiers should be transferred to another service.
     The veteran Wall-Streeters in charge of economic policy still think that financial institutions, rather than the ordinary livelihoods of ordinary people, are what keeps the economy going, . There can be no other explanation for the fact that none of the banks that received bailout money are willing to reduce the principal on any of the unsustainable loans they have on their books. They would rather use the bailout money to pay for all the costs of eviction, repossession, maintenance and insurance on an empty house, and then the cost to resell the house for a lower price, when they could have just reduced the price for the original homeowner who is now probably homeless. 
     The financial pyramid is built on the livelihoods of ordinary people, and allowing ordinary lives to crumble strengthens nothing. Will Obama and Congress manage to think outside the box? 
     Baker's article concludes by noting that "all of Obama's major proposals ... are labyrinthine solutions designed mainly to avoid conflict." Marginal changes will likely not suffice. "Obama will have to directly attack the fortified bastions of the newest  "new class" - the makers of the paper economy in which he came of age - if he is to accomplish anything. These interests did not spend 50 years shipping the greatest industrial economy in the history of the world overseas only to be challenged by a newly empowered, green-economy working class. They did not spend much of the past two decades gobbling up previously public sectors such as health care, education, and transportation only to have to compete with a reinvigorated public sector. They mean, even now, to use the bailout to make the government their helpless junior partner, and if they can they will devour every federal dollar available to recoup their own losses, and thereby preclude the use of any monies for the rest of Barack Obama's splendid vision."

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Iranian Democracy Puts Us To Shame

     The massive peaceful resistance by the Iranian people to apparent election fraud offers U.S. citizens a perfect example of how to protest election fraud and corruption. If only enough of us had been capable of that kind of free and independent thought and action in November 2000.
     While some believe the Republicans didn't cheat, a number of researchers, such as David Moore, Bev Harris, and a number of law professors who regard the election as far from definitive.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

State Budget Reality Check

     Like me, you have probably been getting lots of news about the budget crisis, and hearing all kinds of lamentations about cuts that will allow crime to run rampant, leave disabled people alone to die, and double classroom sizes.
     You may have also shared my frustration with the complete lack of financial perspective accompanying these terrifying prophecies of disaster.
     Recently, I attended a panel discussion where several policy wonks shared new revenue ideas. During the Q&A, I expressed my feelings about the total lack of perspective offered by anyone. Another attendee referred me to the State Controller, and indeed I found on their website the unsung foundation of the discussion. A few calculations allowed me to finally feel like I have my conceptual feed on the ground.
     For starters, actual state operations are only a little more than 1/4 of the budget, and CDCR is the biggest portion, over 1/3 of 1/4, or 1/11 of the total state spending in the 2008-9 fiscal year to date. Debt service is just under 4% of total spending, and UC+CSU are just over 6% of total spending. Are we spending more on prisons than higher education? The community college portion is accounted in the local assistance part of the operating results, and is just over 4% of total expenditures, so that looks like the state spends just 1% more on higher education. (Of course, counties spend a chunk on jails and courts.)
     But state spending to assist local operations is almost 3/4, dwarfing spending on state operations. And spending on K-12 operations is 1/3 of the total budget and 4/9 of local assistance. State spending on "medical assistance" is 1/8 of the total budget. Social services are between 1/8 and 1/9 of total spending, over 4/5 of which is local assistance.
     Newsflash! State worker salaries are not the place to go for serious savings. Combining agencies is like moving the deck chairs around on the Titanic. $24 billion is 1/4 of annual state spending. And if there is fat and wasteful spending to cut, 3/4 of it will be local assistance.

To recap, the big expense categories are, in order:
     33% local assistance for K-12
     12.5% local assistance for health care
     9% prisons
     5% SSI etc.
     4% community colleges
     3.9% interest on state debts
     3% each UC & CSU
     3% on CalWORKs

     The immediate question is how to deflate state spending to match state revenues. Perhaps we can keep K-12 class sizes manageable by cutting middle management positions and drafting laid-off Californians who are collecting unemployment and CalPERS retirees as volunteer replacements. 
     Perhaps we can reduce health care needs by switching to a 20-hour work week, which will double the number of jobs and give everyone time to live in a healthy way, with healthy family dinners, plenty of sleep, and plenty of exercise in the garden and on sidewalks and bicycles. 
     And we could even start paying attention to academia's evidence-based solutions to prison spending which is probably growing faster than any other category.