Friday, December 21, 2012

More Seasonal Poetry

For those of you who enjoyed November by Thomas Hood (posted last month), here's a little more seasonal poetry:

Ancient Music
by Ezra Pound

Sing goddamn, damn. Sing goddamn!
Sing goddamn, damn. Sing goddamn!

Winter is i-cumin in,
Lhude sing goddamn!
Raineth drop and staineth slop
And how the wind doth ram
Sing goddamn!

Skiddth bus and sloppeth us,
An ague hath my ham
Freezeth river, turneth liver,
Damn you, sing goddamn.
Goddamn, goddamn, tis why I am goddamn,
So gainst the winter's balm.

Sing goddamn, sing goddamn, DAMN!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Death and Children

I normally stay out of the gun control debate; it isn't something I expect to influence, as the positions on both sides are religious rather than rational.  But we're all thinking about guns in the aftermath of the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.  Even my water aerobics class discussed it today, between exercises.

My first impulse after hearing the news was to think yes, it's time to bring back the assault weapon ban.  My father had guns, he was a hunter; I think his deer rifle was a 30.06.  He treated them with respect and stored them carefully.  He's gone now, but I feel sure he would agree with me that no one needs an assault rifle to kill a deer.  Or, for that matter, a burglar.

I still think the assault weapon ban is a good idea and should be passed, but it's symbolic rather than helpful.  As Prohibition should have taught us (but doesn't seem to have), passing a law against something doesn't keep it from happening.  No one seems to understand the simple fact that if a man decides he wants to kill some number of people, and he is prepared to risk and even lose his own life in the process, you can't really stop him, unless you are extraordinarily lucky.

I don't see any need to allow ordinary citizens to have semi-automatic weapons, large-capacity magazines, or armor-piercing ammunition.  But any law must be written with extreme care to prevent the gun industry from making slight redesigns which make the next generation of weapons "not really" subject to the law. We saw that in California, which has some very tight gun control laws.  As a resident of Oakland, California, I can assure you that this town is awash in guns of every caliber, despite the state laws.  I've been told by a police officer that it's easier to get a gun than a joint in the local schools.

In addition to our own issues, the absurd availability of heavy personal ordinance in the U.S. is a major enabler of the violent wars between drug cartels that have been destroying Mexico for the last 10 years.  Thousands of people dead, and it's twice our fault:  first, we ban the sale of a product that millions of people buy, and second, we flood Mexico with guns and ammunition.  We are the armorers of the Mexican cartels, to the point that the Mexican government has asked the U.S. government to restrict gun sales along the border.

But gun availability only partly "caused" the Newtown incident.  The guns Adam Lanza used were bought legally by his mother; also, he wasn't old enough to buy a gun, he stole them.  So existing gun laws didn't stop him, and the ones we're considering wouldn't have stopped him either.  A ban on large magazines might have slowed him down some.

Another factor is American attitudes toward mental illness.  Most of us think of "illness" as something you catch, have for awhile, and then get over, like a cold, or the mumps.  This may lead us to wonder what's wrong with that guy with depression, why doesn't he just "get over it?"  Mental illness is chronic, like diabetes or high blood pressure.  You don't get over it; you live with it and manage it, usually with drugs, the way you live with and manage diabetes or high blood pressure.  But the general American mental image of "illness" is something temporary.  So if you're depressed, or bipolar, or schizophrenic, or even if you "only" have PTSD (half the children in Oakland have PTSD, and I am not exaggerating) - people don't consider that you have a disease, which is something external that happens to you and then goes away, like a cold.  It's a personal failure - it's somehow your fault.  You wouldn't have that if  you weren't doing something wrong, and you should just straighten up and be normal and then everything will be all right.  We feel it's all in your head.  (I've had people tell me that about my allergies, but that's another story.)  What we don't realize is, being "all in your head" doesn't mean it isn't real.  But because we don't think it's real, we don't understand why people need to spend all that time and money being treated for it.

Consider the things you read in the paper or on the web about mental illness, and mentally ill people.  Am I right?  Many homeless people on our city streets are mentally ill - obviously mentally ill.  Do we regard them with pity for their ailment?  No, we scorn them for being loud and dirty and smelly - not like us.  And  all these attitudes are worse if the person with mental illness is a member of the U.S. military, with its history of machismo and invincible male prowess.

I don't know what insurance companies think about mental illness treatment.  I think they understand that treating mental illness tends to take a long time and a lot of money, so they write policies very carefully to restrict the amount they pay out, to protect their bottom line.  Some policies don't even cover mental illness.  I've always had very good coverage, with Kaiser Permanente, and when I had a bout with depression after my dad died I think I got 10 weeks of coverage. Fortunately, it was enough; I don't have chronic depression, I had unresolved issues.  But if you're poor, or don't have coverage for some reason, you can't afford to pay for mental illness treatments.  And our laws make it impossible to force someone to take medications, even though when a schizophrenic or bipolar person is "off the meds" they don't understand why they ought to take them.

I think we're frightened by mental illness, because we don't understand it; and because we're frightened, we're angry at the people who have it.  Until we're willing to accept that schizophrenia and depression and so on are diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure and arthritis, and to treat them like diseases instead of like personal failings, we will continue to have a pool of untreated mentally ill people which could at any time produce a disturbed person on a rampage.  Like Adam Lanza.

Finally, there's the issue of community.  I don't claim to know what was wrong with Adam Lanza; but in all the coverage I've read, and heard on the radio, I've heard nothing about him having any friends:  no one to have coffee with, shoot hoops with, go to a ball game with, or sit and talk with.  He was (I think I read) home-schooled, so he didn't meet friends at school.  He went shooting with his mother.  I can't tell that he had any other social interactions.  And nobody seems to have thought this was odd, or tried to do anything about it.

I grew up in a small town - Napa, California in the 1950s.  Small towns must have changed a lot since then, because I remember all my neighbors talking to each other about each other all the time.  Frankly, I couldn't wait to go away to college, where I wasn't immediately obvious to everyone as "Mary Ivy's girl."  In Newtown, CT, nobody seems to have known anything about Adam Lanza.  Have we lost our curiosity?  Have we lost the willingness to ask, "How are you?" and listen to the answer?  We used to care about each other; we used to listen to each other's woes.  Do we not have time to do that any more?  Is this another side effect of the loss of the middle class?

We'd all love to wave a magic wand and ensure that no one will ever again take an assault rifle - any gun - into an elementary school and blow away a bunch of first-graders, and a few unlucky teachers.  There is no magic wand.  The only way we could make this never happen again is to change ourselves: change the way we think about guns, and stop worshipping them; change our fear and loathing of mental illness, and start treating it; go back to knowing our neighbors and caring about them.  That's a lot of change.  I don't know if we can do it or not.  But in the end, the guns are just tools - the real problem is the people.  Us.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

How Bad Is the Fiscal Cliff?

First of all, the term "fiscal cliff" is pure scare-mongering.  When you fall off a cliff, you die.  Usually.  If we "fall off" this cliff, we'll be uncomfortable.  We won't be dead; countries rarely die, although we might lose some less-well-off citizens.  We almost certainly will be back in recession, and who knows when we'll pull out again.  Everyone's taxes will go up; a lot of people will lose jobs when government departments are cut.

Second, the U.S. debt burden isn't that bad, and the Republicans are the only ones who think it is.  Or say they do.  If the financial markets thought the U.S. debt burden was a problem, we wouldn't be paying .65% on 5-year Treasury bonds.  (Yes, we are.)  Our real problem right now is that we haven't yet emerged from the worst fiscal downturn since the Great Depression (which took 10 years and a war to pull out of, remember).  We're spending money (yes, borrowed) on things like extended unemployment insurance, welfare, and food stamps.  Take a look at this graph:

United States Debt as a Percentage of GDP (1940-2012)

The estimated U.S. debt at the end of 2012 will be about 100% of GDP.  Before you freak, look where it was in 1946 (121.7%) and remember what happened to the U.S. economy in the next 15 years.  When, I might add, the top marginal tax rate was 90%.  Compared to the European countries in trouble (on the same graph), our debt isn't unreasonable;  Ireland's debt is 1300% of GDP; the UK's is 413%.  Greece's debt is 168% of its GDP (but Greece's tax collection rate is only 10%).  Japan's debt is 233% of GDP.  Even at 100% of GDP, we're in better shape than any of them, which is why our credit rating was downgraded in 2011 not because of our fiscal position, but because Congress wouldn't agree to raise the debt limit, normally a routine item that doesn't even make the news.

You might also note that the budget deficit has been consistently lower since President Obama took office in 2008.

I recently got an email from the White House which suggested that, if we go over the "fiscal cliff," it would cost a "typical middle class family of four" about $2,000.  If you're paid twice a month, the way I was, that's $83 less per paycheck (or about $6 a working day), which anyone would notice; but it wouldn't all come out of the paycheck; some of it would show up the next year when you paid income tax.  The White House didn't mention the income level of this family of four; the 2011 Census Bureau estimates range from $54,500 in New Mexico to $102,127 in Connecticut.  So the impact will vary wildly depending on where you are.

Still, if you're one of the many families living paycheck to paycheck, the fiscal cliff changes could tip you over a very unpleasant edge.  Which is why it would be much better if we didn't do it.  I wish I thought our elected representatives were capable of negotiating an alternative.

I'm not trying to argue that we should keep spending at the rate we have.  We shouldn't.  We need to think about what we're spending, and what we want to accomplish with the money for the nation, and not just for the various Congressional districts. And we all need to remember that taxes are the price of living in a civilized society (to paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes).  They buy amenities like roads, schools, libraries, clean water, clean air, and police and fire protection.  In Princeton, NJ you can still see buildings with the medallions on them that told the 18th century private fire companies which houses they were being paid to put out, if they caught fire.  Do we really want to go back to that??

We have time to stop, think, and make rational decisions - or we would have if we didn't have this idiotic "fiscal cliff" staring at us.

It still infuriates me that we have the fiscal cliff because the Republicans didn't want to raise the debt limit, and wanted to get spending under control; but now that we're looking at it, they don't want it because it would raise taxes on the rich and cut the Defense budget in irrational ways, even though it would reduce the deficit.  And these people were elected to national office, and in many cases re-elected.

Fiscal Cliffery

The subtitle of this post should be my favorite adage, "Be careful what you ask for."  In August or so of last year, the rampant Republicans in Congress thought they were on a roll.  Having created a monster out of the country's debt burden, based on what was happening in Europe, they:

  • Insisted that getting rid of the deficit and paying down the debt was more important than getting out of the recession we were still in 
  • Blocked approval of the report of the Simpson-Bowles commission for fixing  the country's spending plans, I think because it didn't eliminate Social Security
  • Refused to consider any action in Congress that involved raising any taxes on anything or anyone
  • Caused the country's credit rating to be downgraded by jumping up and down and yelling instead of increasing the legal debt limit.
That last maneuver came close to causing the country to miss routine debt payments.  To soothe their troubled souls from having to raise the debt limit, they insisted on a backup plan:  if Congress couldn't come up with real spending reform by the end of 2012, we would have what we now call the "fiscal cliff":  all existing tax tweaks would expire (mainly the Bush tax cuts and the Social Security payroll holiday President Obama set up to take the edge off the Great Recession), and every government department and spending program would take an across the board, meat-axe 10% cut.  Including Defense.

I assume they all figured that by 2013, they'd be able to think of something to prevent this. I'm morally certain that a big part of "something" was to win the 2012 presidential election, after which they'd have a whole two months to set things up the way they wanted.  The bipartisan Congressional committee they put together to solve it certainly didn't produce anything.

So here we are.  The Republicans actually lost a little ground in the Senate, and President Obama has a mandate to raise taxes on the rich. We have 19 days, 10 hours and 21 minutes (as I write this) to January 1, 2013, when all this will ensue.  Are we any closer to a solution?  Not from what I hear.  I'm hearing all the same posturing as I did then, except that this year President Obama has given up on attempts to be bipartisan, since they never worked.

I have a bet with my financial adviser that they won't agree on a solution.  If they actually come up with something, anything, I take her out for a drink.  If they sit and scream at each other until January 1, she takes me out for a drink.

Several things infuriate me about this.  First, the country is about to be bombed out of a position it should never have occupied in the first place.  Deadlines like this are stupid.  Congress is playing chicken with itself.

Second, it's clear now that the Republicans don't give a rat's ass about the deficit.  If they did, they would be negotiating - and in fairness I've heard some very senior Republicans starting to sound like rational human beings on the subject, since they really don't want those random Defense cuts.  The trouble is, John Boehner isn't one of them.  If the Republicans really cared more about the deficit than anything, they would raise taxes on the rich, since all serious analysis of the situation says you can't raise enough money through budget cuts and eliminating deductions.  For that matter, if the deficit was the real and only issue, they would let the fiscal cliff happen, because it would punch a whacking hole in the deficit.

It's probably unfair to suggest that they won't raise taxes on the rich because the rich would then stop giving them money to get re-elected.  It's almost certainly untrue.  That money buys access to power, even if the taxes are higher.

The other reason it's clear the Republicans don't care about the deficit is that they created the deficit.  Over the last 32 years (since 1980) we have had 12 years of Democratic presidents and 20 years of Republican presidents.  The only time during that span that the budget was balanced (and with a surplus, no less) was under Bill Clinton.    Ronald Reagan tripled the national debt.  George W. Bush, the next president after Clinton, immediately instituted the Bush Tax Cuts to "give the surplus back to the people," then started two wars that he ran entirely on borrowed money.  How are you doing spending that surplus he returned to you, folks?

It pains me to say this, but I get the impression that what the Republicans really want is to stop spending money on poor people.  Grover Norquist's government "small enough to drown in a bathtub" is roughly what we had back in the Gay Nineties (1890s, that is):  no safety net; no services to speak of; certainly no regulation of food, water, or business practices; no health care; no pensions.  If something goes wrong, you're on your own.  The only happy people were the rich, who could pay for anything they needed. That's the impression I get from the spokesmen.  I'm willing to be convinced I'm wrong, but nobody's trying.