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Words to write by

Meaningless words. In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning.† Words like romantic, plastic, values, human, dead, sentimental, natural, vitality, as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly ever expected to do so by the reader. When one critic writes, “The outstanding feature of Mr. X’s work is its living quality,” while another writes, “The immediately striking thing about Mr. X’s work is its peculiar deadness,” the reader accepts this as a simple difference opinion. If words like black and white were involved, instead of the jargon words dead and living, he would see at once that language was being used in an improper way. Many political words are similarly abused. The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something not desirable.” The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. Statements likeMarshal Pétain was a true patriot, The Soviet press is the freest in the world, The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution, are almost always made with intent to deceive. Other words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality.


4. All the “best people” from the gentlemen’s clubs, and all the frantic fascist captains, united in common hatred of Socialism and bestial horror at the rising tide of the mass revolutionary movement, have turned to acts of provocation, to foul incendiarism, to medieval legends of poisoned wells, to legalize their own destruction of proletarian organizations, and rouse the agitated petty-bourgeoise to chauvinistic fervor on behalf of the fight against the revolutionary way out of the crisis.

– Communist pamphlet

[Critique of example 4 above:] In (4), the writer knows more or less what he wants to say, but an accumulation of stale phrases chokes him like tea leaves blocking a sink.


In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one’s words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally. But one can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never us a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

The passages above are excerpted from George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language“. George Orwell was a reputed crank but he makes some good points. One of my pet peeves about the left is that it tends to indulge in shortcuts in writing that come off sounding like the communist pamphlet in the example shown above. I don’t mean that lefty writers are communists. I only mean that sometimes words are used without much consideration for their actual meaning. For example, what exactly is the meaning of the word “corporatist”? Does it refer to someone who owns a corporation, runs a corporation, has the means to use a corporation for his or her own ends? Does it refer to someone who works for a corporation? Are corporations always evil? And how does accusing a person of corporatism advance the cause of the writer? It may seem obvious to the left who are throwing this word around but what purpose does it serve if it is defined so generally that it can be applied to every instance of bad behavior? And if corporatism is so evil that we must prevent it at any cost, why use the word repeatedly without exploring the roots of what causes it?

I’ll admit that I am also a crank. And I could use an editor. My verbs and nouns don’t often agree, grammatical constructs are frequently written in “stream of consciousness” mode, and I write once, correct infrequently. Maybe that’s because I never feel the result will match my own expectations. Why try to correct something that will never be perfect enough? But then, I am not a professional writer, or a male blogger who has a better shot at scoring a gig at some prestigious online journal.

But one thing I try not to do is obscure my thoughts with shortcuts and the preferred vocabulary of my political group. I get particularly irritated with writers who live by their reputations who are starting to sound like the annoying peasant from the autonomous collective in Monty Python’s Holy Grail. As Orwell says, the result sounds like the thoughts are choked an accumulation of tea leaves blocking a sink. Sometimes, I get to the end of an essay and I have no idea what the writer was trying to say. It sounds forceful enough but in what direction?

Writers from all political ideologies do it but it seems to be particularly injurious to writers on the left. We can speculate why this is the case but maybe it would be better to just adopt Orwell’s rules for political writing to see if it improves our image.

Just sayin’.

For more crankiness on the importance of precision in language, read “Less Than Words Can Say” by Richard Mitchell, the Underground Grammarian. This book was required reading in one of my writing courses many years ago. The man was a prophet.

One step ahead makes you a leader…

…two steps ahead makes you a martyr.

So, in recent appearances at Virtually Speaking on BlogTalkRadio, Ian Welsh and Stirling Newberry, not to mention Stuart Zechman, all seem to be on board with the concept of rejecting the current batch of Democrats in order to reclaim the left.  They now believe you won’t get the Democrats’ attention if you complain bitterly about their antics but vote for them anyway.  It’s nice to see they have finally come around after three years.  They are now *exactly* where we were in June 2008.

Check it out here.  Someone must be reading it because that post is one of our top hits even three years later.

Of course, this will not stop the Ian, Sterling and Stuart types from running away from us screaming like we have cooties.  That’s because both parties did a number on the word PUMA, which stood for “Party Unity My Ass”.  Party unity my ass is pretty much the attitude I’m picking up from Ian, Stuart and Sterling now.  Correct me if I’m wrong guys.  When you say, “Oh, no, we’re not like you at all”, please show me where we now differ.  It would behoove them to pay attention to the faction they are writing off. Maybe they could even read the post to see how close we really are.  Or they could read all of the posts from 2008 and see how we evolved from loyal Democrats just watching the primaries starting in January to disenfranchised voters in May 2008. (I can almost see them squirming in their chairs)

We were once Democrats.  No one represents us now.  I think the proper term for us is “unaffiliated Liberals”.  We are not Tea Party people.  Nope.  Not even close.  We never signed onto the birther fiasco.  We didn’t like the way the left was demonizing Sarah Palin because it was sexist, boorish behavior that wasn’t going to change anyone’s mind.  It’s a pointless distraction and she plays her role as a shiny object to lefty magpies very well.  Nevertheless, we don’t support her or her politics.

If there was a new independent labor movement, we would be likely to join it, right there beside Ian, Stuart and Sterling.  I don’t think it will spell the end of the Democrats.  If a labor movement could seat a significant number of candidates in 2012, it could start pulling the Democratic party to the left again since presumably, those seats are going to come out of the Democratic Party’s ass.  It’s worth a shot.  But if the Democrats fail, there’s going to be a power vacuum and someone will step in to fill it.

Consider us the vanguard martyrs.  No, no, don’t thank us for taking the gratuitous hit from our own party.  We wouldn’t be in this mess if you had paid attention three years ago.

Bernie Sanders and the $1Million dollar drug innovation prize

Bernie Sanders sent out a tweet yesterday pointing to a Slate article from 2008.  It’s a proposal for revamping the patent system.  The idea is to reward drug innovators with a $1Million dollar prize instead of a patent.


When I told the BFF about it, he said, “Great!  What do we do on day 2?”

Seriously, Bernie, this is not necessarily a bad idea.  There are a lot of drug innovators out of work right now, or their work situations are very precarious.  This is especially true of medicinal chemists who specialize in transforming chemical scaffolds into drugs.  Then there are people like yours truly who design drugs who are vamping until our next gigs.

The problem is that drug research is incredibly expensive.  Any idea we have has to be ordered or made, and then tested.  There will have to be multiple assays run to verify structure activity relationships and biological activity.  Then there is the gauntlet of safety analyses required by the FDA.  It could work in a virtual environment but it requires the drug innovator to assemble a pharmaceutical company by themselves and presumably that $1M prize would have to be used to pay all of the contributors back.  After all, pharmacologists have to eat too.  What I fear would happen with the prizes is that desperate innovators would end up signing all their rights away to venture capitalists in order to make payroll while they’re starting up and going through the necessary iterations to prove a concept.

In other words, it’s not enough to live on or start to innovate, especially when one considers that it takes years and overhead expenses of the painstaking trials and errors to bring a drug to market.  Incubators have a very high failure rate.  I’m sure that the incubator model is just perfect for someone out there looking to feed on carrion but for labrats with families?   Ehhhhhh, not so much.  How do you bring down the startup costs?

I have a better idea.  The government can start its own companies.  Right now, pharmaceutical companies are trying to shed or tear down their labs in the US.  They want to rent the space to incubators but frequently, the price is too high for little companies.  In the end, it’s cheaper to just demolish them.  Buy the suckers up along with the equipment.  Better yet, snap up the old labs in the midwest.  That way, the scientists you need to hire to run the places can afford to live there on reasonable salaries.  Give us a place to do what we love and let us make the management decisions without the constant restructuring and mergers.  Then, we’ll sell the patents back to the government for a dollar.  That’s the going rate at the old pharma I used to work for.  It’s a fair deal.  You get dedicated scientists who can focus on their work without worrying about losing their houses and their kids’ college funds and you get the patents you need to bring the costs of prescription drugs down.

While you’re at it, reform and update the FDA so new drug entities can come to market.  You’re also going to have to level with the public about drug safety.  It is going to have to assume some level of risk or new drugs will never make it.

The big pharma companies won’t like it much.  In fact, I can already hear them howling and marshalling their army of lobbyists.  In general, I’m sympathetic to their predicament but if they hadn’t bet the pharm on short term solutions instead of the hard work to fix a broken system, they wouldn’t be in mess they’re in.  This is where we are in terms of drug innovation: research for antibiotics, cardiovascular, CNS and reproductive health drugs are getting severely scaled back by big pharma.  The big companies are going after biologicals, which have their own set of problems.  Well, alright then, let the pharmas knock themselves out on antibodies and have the government focus on the other therapeutic areas they have decided to pass on.

So, go, Bernie, but think this through thoroughly. You want to set it up in a way that makes it resistant to political games.  What pharma research needs is stability in order to innovate.  Any potential public-private partnerships need to be set up in way that protects and preserves this country’s scientific infrastructure and allows innovation without the chaos of the quarterly earnings report.  In other words, R&D has to be sequestered from the pressures of the business environment to some extent.  Just as you don’t want your insurance company deciding your medical treatment, you don’t want MBAs directing research.

Make sure to consult people in the R&D industry who are already in the process of setting up their own mom&pop drug companies in their garages.  That means you need to talk to the people who actually do the work, not the management class.  You will get a completely different assessment of what is broken in the current system and how to repair it.  You will have to compensate us well enough to induce a future generation of scientists to discover drugs.  That’s because this is hard work, requiring years of study and lab experience.  It has to be rewarded appropriately.  Health care and pensions would be very attractive.  But in the end, it could be a bargain.

Obama’s “post-racial” presidential campaign starting early

Corrente has the links to James Clyburn’s accusation that criticism of Obama’s performance is driven by racism.  Actually, he’s saying something completely different.  He’s saying that the president’s problems are due to his skin color.  I assume he is referring to the question about Obama’s future electoral prospects.  You be the judge:

QUESTION: What do you think of Obama’s election prospects?

CLYBURN: I think they’re improving every day. I think the president has been a good president, a great commander in chief. I think when people allow themselves to — you know, I’m 70 years old. And I can tell you; people don’t like to deal with it, but the fact of the matter is, the president’s problems are in large measure because of his skin color. All you got to do is look at all the signs they’re carrying out there and look at the mail that I get. As I said, I’m 70 years old, I been going through this kind of stuff all my life. I know what kind of mail I get, I know what kind of phone calls I get, I know what people are saying who call the office.

I’m sure he didn’t mean what is underlined. It would be really bad if he was saying that Obama needs a four year handicap because he’s African American.  THAT would be a very racist, unfair, demeaning and untrue thing for Clyburn to say.

It also doesn’t speak well of Obama’s character if his feelings are hurt by the mail Obama is getting.  If it’s racist, it should go directly to the spam filter.  There’s no reason to read it or give it a second thought.  As I have told female bloggers over and over again, trollish comments are only little black pixels on your display.  They cannot hurt you.   They’re meant to make you feel bad for no other reason than to make you feel bad.  Why the hell is Obama reading them??  So, someone out there doesn’t like you.  You’re the fricking president and leader of the free world.  Are you going to let some asshole in Mississippi ruin your day because he doesn’t like your skin color?  It’s such an absurd idea I’m surprised a man like Clyburn would even bring it up.

Lambert also links to a post from Sean Wilentz in April 2008 about the outrageous accusations of racism directed at the Clintons and anyone who did not enthusiastically endorse Obama as the second coming of Jesus.  Many of us do not need to be reminded of one of the most disgusting aspects of the 2008 campaign season.  That was the year we became ugly, kkk grand poobah sheet wearing, knuckle dragging, racists even if we were young enough to grow up in an integrated society, in schools that were racially diverse and were brought up to judge people by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.  It was beyond insulting.  My parents did not raise me to be a racist.  Not only did Obama’s droogs smear us, they smeared our parents.

Some Democrats took those insults seriously and didn’t want to be forced out of the tribe.  They capitulated so the Obama campaign would stop calling them dirty names.  Some of us would not be manipulated by false accusations to vote for a man whose political philosophy and accomplishments were vaporous and indistinct.  We judged Obama by what he did and said, not on any other factors.

And we’ll do it again in 2012.

Clyburn can go jump in the spam filter.

Convergence: “Reckless Endangerment” and “Can you afford to retire?”

One of the reasons I don’t like labels is because they tend to interfere with the free flow of information that contains some of the most interesting material.  Sometimes, it’s more useful to let your mind float around, collecting flotsam and jetsam without you consciously being aware, until it slams two things together.

Here are two of those things that were separated by several years and aren’t really related to one another on the surface.  And yet, the two of them when considered together point to a very unsettling conclusion that puts the last three years, or thirty years for that matter, in sharp perspective. I’m going to recommend that you listen and read first and then come back.

The first bit of info comes from Gretchen Morgenson’s recent interview on Fresh Air with Terry Gross about her new book Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed and Corruption Lead to Economic Armageddon.  Pay particular attention to Morgenson’s story about how James Johnson, head of Fanny Mae petitioned Congress for a government lifeline years before Fanny Mae needed it.

The second bit comes from the transcript of the PBS special “Can You Afford to Retire?

JAMES H.M. SPRAYREGEN: I would say that Chapter 11 has become somewhat of a more accepted strategic tool than just companies filing who are about to go out of business, or something like that. And as a result, there is more use of Chapter 11 now than probably 20 years ago.

HEDRICK SMITH: Over time, sophisticated lawyers and financial insiders figured out how to game the bankruptcy law. Their strategy enables companies like United to walk away from costly pension obligations.

HUGH RAY, Bankruptcy Attorney: It wasn’t that way some years back. But now it’s become a virtual control situation between the management of a company in Chapter 11 and the bankers. They control the playing field, the size, the shape, and generally, the final score.

HEDRICK SMITH: Hugh Ray, a bankruptcy lawyer for more than three decades, gave me an inside look at United’s playbook in this fat stack of documents known as the judge’s first day orders. First day orders are not actually written by the bankruptcy judge, but by United and its lawyers, hand in glove with its bankers.

HUGH RAY: If you look in the bankruptcy code, you won’t see anything about first day orders. It’s something that’s developed. And the first day order practice is probably the biggest single thing that turned around the practice of bankruptcy to where it is now.

HEDRICK SMITH: First day orders are not written to take care of employees, but to protect the power of management and the loans of bankers.

HUGH RAY: It says right here in the United first day order that the lenders are given superpriority claims­ superpriority­ not just priority, but superpriority.

BILL REPKO, Former Executive, J.P. Morgan: It’s a superpriority claim.

HEDRICK SMITH: Bill Repko, who was with J.P. Morgan, led United’s bank syndicate.

BILL REPKO: The framers of the bankruptcy code recognized that people who were going to lend money to bankrupt companies were embarking upon a very risky enterprise, and so they created a series of safeguards, one of which moved the bankruptcy loan to the head of the queue to get repaid. And that’s called the superpriority.

HEDRICK SMITH: [on camera] It sounds as though, through the first day orders, the whole deal, the whole outcome is pre-cooked.

HUGH RAY: Absolutely, the die is cast.

ELIZABETH WARREN: The question up front about who will have what priorities if this business collapses is where the whole game is won or lost. Ironically, it is the bankruptcy laws that are responsible for much of what has happened here because bankruptcy laws currently say, “Banks, you can take it all,” because bankruptcy laws don’t leave something on the table for the employees and the retirees.

HEDRICK SMITH: [voice-over] So if bankruptcy doomed United’s pensions from day one, why did United take two-and-a-half years to kill its pensions? I asked Jamie Sprayregen.

JAMES H.M. SPRAYREGEN: It may have been, you know, intellectually obvious, but coming up with a process by which to handle adjusting expectations so people would buy into the need to address the pension issue, without it becoming a situation where we would lose what we call the hearts and minds of the employees, was a real challenge and an art.

GREG DAVIDOWITCH, Pres., Flight Attendants Union, United: Ultimately, what we concluded was that management had a very deliberate course of action set out from the beginning of the bankruptcy, which was to roll out demands for concessions over a period of time in an escalating way, in order to bring the employees along without creating a spark that would have led to real labor unrest.

I might actually throw in Too Big to Fail but it wasn’t a great movie.  But at one point, some of the players are talking to Hank Paulsen about the structure of the bailout and ask him what they should do about homeowners or nationalizing the banks.  Ideologically, he was agin’ it.  No expository background explanation or anything.  It was just “No, we’re not doin’ any of that stuff because it goes against our political religion”.  Basically, anything that would have made the investment bankers accountable to the taxpayer was anathema to him and his political philosophy.  Through the agonizing closeups of his sweat drenched, sleepless face, hunched over the toilet as his troubled stomach threatens to hurl again, one gets the sense that he was caught in a difficult position: trying to prevent the markets from crashing while making goddam sure that none of the  the masters of the universe would have the taxpayers be the boss of them.

One more convergence point to show how pervasive and common the assault on us is: The bankruptcy of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

So, what do we have here?  Right now, Republicans are on the verge of winning it all.  There doesn’t seem to be much of a barrier between what they set out to do, which was overturn the New Deal and all of its protections.  How was this accomplised?

1.) Starve the beast.  Privatize a lot of government functions.  Make what’s left work not so well.  Start some unnecessary wars.  Siphon lots of cash to uber free market authorities in war torn countries.  Cut taxes on the rich; dump the responsibility for running government on the poor and middle class.

2.) Set up superpriority orders.  If the markets fail, Fanny Mae gets paid first.  TARP was a superpriority order that made sure the banks and AIG were paid first. I’d be interested to know how many other institutions also have superpriority deals and how many of them have been set up with the aid of Democratic Congressmen and Senators (Frank and Dodd?)  Time to spill the beans.

3.) Once the beast is starved and the rich have received their money, it will be time to move in for the kill and dismantle the pension system, just as if the country were in Chapter 11 bankruptcy.  The squeeze will be applied economically until workers give in and take cuts to Medicare and Social Security.  Medicare probably does need an overhaul.  The government needs to control costs at the provider and consumer end.  But vouchers are not an overhaul.  Vouchers are truck for anyone under 55 who has paid into the system for years, expecting to receive their deferred wages in the form of this particular health benefit.  Instead, we’ll get company issued ‘scrip’ to be used in the high priced insurance market.  There will be no cost controls except on the heads of the hapless worker who had the misfortune to be born after 1956.

So, now we hear that Mitch McConnell is going to move in for the kill and threaten to not raise the debt ceiling in order to get the Democrats to cave.  Hah!  All he needs to do is say, “boo!” very softly and they crumple like dry faded leaves.  And everyone is thinking, “he wouldn’t really do that.  His backers would kill him.”  But that’s not who is going to suffer.  No.  His backer dudes are superpriority creditors who are Too Big To Fail.  The people who are going to take this hit are the retirees who have their money in a 401k.

It doesn’t much matter who wins in the 2012 election if Republicans are successful at wrecking the social safety net between now and then.  The only reason they’ve been running is to get rid of any vestiges of support for the losers who weren’t born rich or don’t have the stomach to eat what they kill.  Once it’s done, it will be difficult to undo.  The Republicans could lose a lot of seats next year, but if they retain enough seats to prevent the reinstitution of the New Deal programs, they can remain a potent minority for a very long time.  Remember that the Democrats had to outnumber Republicans 2:1 in 1964 for Medicare to pass.   Any ratio less than that guarantees Republicans control.  The rest of the right wing crazies can call it a day and retire.  That’s why they are happy as clams to push the button that would send us all into economic armageddon.  They win either way.

So, what would I do if I were Obama?  Well, I wouldn’t mince words for one thing.  What Mitch McConnell is proposing to do is the equivalent of global and domestic economic terrorism.  That’s a very serious threat he’s making.  What do we do with terrorists these days, (well, short of showing up at their compound unannounced and gunning them down without a sensational trial first)?

Maybe a little indefinite detention would be good for Mitch.  Give him time to think things through, clear his conscience, assuming he actually has one.

I wouldn’t celebrate yet

We need the passengers of United 93

Today Paul Krugman wrote in Medicare and Mediscares about the Republicans hoisting themselves on their own petard by embracing Paul Ryan’s plan to gut Medicare.  The triumph of the Democrat in a special election in NY-25 was supposed to be evidence that the Republicans had gone too far.  Now, if Democrats can only capitalize on the mistakes Republicans have made, maybe they can win in 2012!

Not so fast.

Have you seen gas prices lately?  I wanted to buy some cherries yesterday at Wegman’s.  LOVE those things.  But at $3.99/lb the prepacked bag was going to set me back $8.00.  My kid loves fresh fruit but the cherries went back for a more sensible quart of strawberries.  On an unemployment budget, cherries are out of the question.

A lot more little luxuries like that will become increasingly out of the question this year.  Most employers in my industry are laying off and the R&D professionals are scrambling for anything they can get, even working for peanuts, in order to make the mortgage and fill the gas tank.  Health insurance?  Such a distant memory.  We have a nation of pre-retired professionals who are having a lot of trouble making ends meet.  It’s been this way for three years and counting and from what I can see, it’s only going to get worse.

And that’s just what the Republicans have planned.  They’re taking a page from the playbooks of big companies like United Airlines and GM, which declared bankruptcy and renegotiated all of their union contracts.  If you want to know how this works, check out the PBS special “Can You Afford to Retire?” that was broadcast in May 2006.  Here’s how the companies wear you down until you finally give in and scream, “take my pension! PLEASE!!”  From the transcript:

ELIZABETH WARREN: The question up front about who will have what priorities if this business collapses is where the whole game is won or lost. Ironically, it is the bankruptcy laws that are responsible for much of what has happened here because bankruptcy laws currently say, “Banks, you can take it all,” because bankruptcy laws don’t leave something on the table for the employees and the retirees.

HEDRICK SMITH: [voice-over] So if bankruptcy doomed United’s pensions from day one, why did United take two-and-a-half years to kill its pensions? I asked Jamie Sprayregen.

JAMES H.M. SPRAYREGEN: It may have been, you know, intellectually obvious, but coming up with a process by which to handle adjusting expectations so people would buy into the need to address the pension issue, without it becoming a situation where we would lose what we call the hearts and minds of the employees, was a real challenge and an art.

GREG DAVIDOWITCH, Pres., Flight Attendants Union, United:Ultimately, what we concluded was that management had a very deliberate course of action set out from the beginning of the bankruptcy, which was to roll out demands for concessions over a period of time in an escalating way, in order to bring the employees along without creating a spark that would have led to real labor unrest.

HEDRICK SMITH: [on camera] A strike.


ELIZABETH WARREN: What it really comes down to is, How much can we take away from the employees before they finally say, “Fine, you take it, but I’m not working here anymore.” And no one else will come to work for them, either. That’s what corporate reorganization in America has become, “How much less can I give you and still keep you here?

The Republicans loathe Elizabeth Warren with a white hot intensity.  She’s got their number.  It’s very important to get her to STFU, to waste her time, to humiliate her and make sure she never gets an appointment to the CFPC.  She’s got powerful mojo.  By the way, I think the R&D industry has crossed the line with their workers.  Experienced researchers are getting out and new ones are getting scarce.  The field is too demanding and difficult to find that you’ve wasted 10 years of your life in school only to land a job making $37,000/year and no health benefits.  And no, I don’t expect India or China to be able to make up the slack for a long time.

So, the company starts putting a lot of pressure on the employee.  Pay is cut, benefits are cut, hours are increased.  Before you know it, you’re doing a lot more work for a lot less pay.  The changes are slow and gradual.  The company doesn’t want the employees striking or jumping ship.  But the give backs start to wear on the employee to the point where there is really not much more that can be cut in the short term without inflicting real pain and inciting sans culouttes type resentment.  To avoid that, the company goes in for the kill and tells the employee that the only thing that will save the company and their jobs is if they give up their pension benefits.  Before they know it, the employee ends up with a pension 1/3 the size of the originally promised benefit.  The CEO rides off into the sunset with a huge bonus having done the job he was hired to do.

(Hmmm, is this the roadmap that Pfizer is following right now?  I wonder…)

This is what the Republicans (and some accommodating Democrats) are trying to do with the country as a whole.  They want to eliminate Social Security and Medicare.  But provoking us outright is dangerous.  There may be rioting and strikes.  So, they put pressure on us gradually.  They keep the fiscal stimulus package small,  it runs out years before it can engage the country’s economic gears, they pursue a deficit reduction policy while allowing unemployment to rise, they make it difficult for the unemployed to get benefit extensions, they allow houses to foreclose without an effective program to help strapped, unemployed homeowners and they raise gas and commodity prices to inflate the costs of food.

All this puts a lot of stress on the average American.  Spending starts to grind to a halt, putting even more pressure on small businesses, who in turn lay off more people.  And let’s not forget the Republican governors who want to suspend collective bargaining rights.  It is all designed to make the average American feel so much pressure that they will scream “Uncle!” and be a lot more willing to talk about what Medicare and Social Security means to them.

Republicans may be mindless borgs but they are really good at assimilating the rest of us.  There is still an entire 17 months between us and the 2012 election.  I anticipate a lot more pain as the Republicans crank the rack on which we are stretched.  We will be screaming and begging for relief before they are done.  And that’s when they’ll hand us the papers for us to sign away our deferred wages for Medicare benefits and all of the extra taxes that we late boomers put away for the surplus.  Timing is everything and they’ve got time to get the job done.  There won’t be a significant number of special elections before Nov. 2012 and what do they care if they lose a lot of seats in Congress in 2012?  They will have accomplished what they have been trying so hard to do since the New Deal was enacted 70 years ago- kill it dead.  Once the social safety net is gone, it will be very hard to revive.  To their backers, they will be heros and ride of into the sunset with mighty fists full of dollars.

Democrats aren’t stupid.  They know what’s going on.  We have to assume that some of them are OK with this plan.  Well, until you realize you may need social security, it’s not that big a deal.  Maybe they’re hoping that voters will be so frightened of the prospect of Republican rule in 2012 that they won’t vote the bastards in again.  But as I said before, timing is everything and by this time next year, the damage may already be done.

If the Democrats have any intention of saving the system, they’d better get a lot more aggressive and innovative about how they do it.  That would mean that Obama would have to make use of the bully pulpit and convince people that Republicans are about to steal their lunch money.  It’s too bad he’s not very good at this.  Or he could use the mechanisms of government to apply pressure on Republicans but that’s not why he was hired, right?  He was hired to make Democrats feel good.  Well, the orgasm is over now.  It’s time for him to pull his weight or sit the next term out.  If he can’t stop the Republicans from continuing the beatings to the point where we agree to the Medicare plan, it will be too late to replace him as a candidate next year.  Democrats better think that over carefully.

Taking a victory lap now is not going to stop Ryan and his cohort.  They’ll just increase the pain in the interim.  Be prepared.  This year is going to get really rough for us.

Think before you vote next time, Dr. West

So, I found the post by Chris Hedges regarding Cornel West’s disillusionment of Barack Obama.  Hedges drives me nuts with his constant bashing of “corporatism”. Some progressives seem to be obsessively fascinated with labeling and mental shortcuts.  I hate that kind of thought processing.  Hedges seems to forget that banks, corporations and the American middle class played amicably in the sand box after the changes to the banking system and the enforcement of labor protections during the Depression.  That golden age fell apart when Reagan came along.  But you will just have to take my word for it, Chris, some industries achieve an economy of scale and efficiency in a corporate setting that can’t be achieved in a smaller company setting.  Biopharmaceuticals is one of them.  Oh, but caring about big pharma is verboten, right, Chris?  If America suffers a brain drain of experienced R&D scientists because they can’t find jobs, well, that’s ok.  We “progressives” won’t worry our pretty little heads about them, right?  {{rolling eyes}}  But I digress.

Wait.  I do want to add one thing.  I’ve been listening to In the Garden of the Beast: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Eric Larson.  The book is about William Dodd, ambassador to Germany in 1933-34.  He witnessed Germany’s sharp turn toward corporatism and Hitler’s authoritarian rule.  It doesn’t take very many pages to realize that it never would have happened if the Germans hadn’t suspended the rules of operation in order to accommodate the right wing nutcases.  Every time observers thought that Hitler and his henchmen couldn’t possibly get away with the latest outrage, they were surprised to see how pliable and accepting the German public was.  Corporations are necessary business entities but the rules of fair play are absolutely necessary to keep them from taking advantage of the rest of us.  If you don’t like the way corporations are abusing the system, change the rulemakers.  It’s the only thing short of a war that will work.  You could start by insisting on fairness to the primary voters and enforcement of the rules of voting in the Democratic Party.  Maybe even get rid of caucuses, which were incredibly undemocratic back in 2008 but seemed to fly beneath progressives’ collective ethical radar in order to accommodate Obama’s capture of the nomination.  See how it works when you desperately want a predetermined outcome?  Nothing good comes from a bad seed.

Anyway, back to Cornel West.  I have a really hard time accepting the notion that a guy as smart, sophisticated and employable at a university like Princeton could be taken in by Barack Obama.  I’m going to attribute it to the fact that West is a brother, as he so often refers to other male members of his African-American cohort.  I am not a brother, unfortunately, and this has left me open to accusations of racism.  I try to forgive, Dr. West, but if the SOB’s try that $#%@ again in 2012, we’re going to be a lot less forgiving.

It also occurs to me that if he had been reading blogs like this one back in 2008 when we said over and over again that Obama was a corporate schmoozer, backed by a small evil group to which no one we know belongs, he wouldn’t have been as taken in as he professes he was.  Cornel confesses:

“I have to take some responsibility,” he admits of his support for Obama as we sit in his book-lined office. “I could have been reading into it more than was there.” [ya’ think?]

“I was thinking maybe he has at least some progressive populist instincts that could become more manifest after the cautious policies of being a senator and working with [Sen. Joe] Lieberman as his mentor,” he says. “But it became very clear when I looked at the neoliberal economic team. The first announcement of Summers and Geithner I went ballistic. I said, ‘Oh, my God, I have really been misled at a very deep level.’  [note to Cornel: Clinton passed on this bunch.  Weren’t you paying attention?]  And the same is true for Dennis Ross and the other neo-imperial elites. I said, ‘I have been thoroughly misled, all this populist language is just a facade. I was under the impression that he might bring in the voices of brother Joseph Stiglitzand brother Paul Krugman. I figured, OK, given the structure of constraints of the capitalist democratic procedure that’s probably the best he could do. But at least he would have some voices concerned about working people, dealing with issues of jobs and downsizing and banks, some semblance of democratic accountability for Wall Street oligarchs and corporate plutocrats who are just running amuck. I was completely wrong.”

{{banging head on keyboard}}  For the record, we were wrong about Obama winning.  Who could have predicted that the bankers would pull the plug on the economy *before* the election?  I always thought they would wait until at least February 2009.

Cornel, why are you tearing your garments and gnashing your teeth now?  Didn’t you get what you wanted?  The operatives played a very clever game of identity politics.  They split the party down the middle pitting the older babyboomers still living in the 60’s, with all of the civil rights battles yet to be fought, against women, the poor and average working people who were interested in economic issues.  Guess which side lost.  Why are you so surprised that Obama hasn’t addressed the issues of the poor?

And then there’s this:

He bitterly describes Obama as “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats. And now he has become head of the American killing machine and is proud of it.”

Whoa, Cornel!  I could never have gotten away with saying something like that.  Neither could any Clintonista in 2008.  Remember what happened to Geraldine Ferraro?  {{shivver}}.  In any case, West is wrong.  Obama wasn’t the black mascot of the corporate plutocrats.  He was the black mascot of the progressives.  Some of us, Dr. West, would have been perfectly happy to vote for Obama in 2016.  But during the primary season, we were so worried about the mess that Bush was going to leave behind that we felt that a person who was more experienced and who understood the mechanisms of government would be a better candidate.

And then there’s the gratuitous swipe at the Big Dawg:

“It became very clear to me as the announcements were being made,” he says, “that this was going to be a newcomer, in many ways like Bill Clinton, who wanted to reassure the Establishment by bringing in persons they felt comfortable with and that we were really going to get someone who was using intermittent progressive populist language in order to justify a centrist, neoliberalist policy that we see in the opportunism of Bill Clinton. It was very much going to be a kind of black face of the DLC [Democratic Leadership Council].”

Ok, here’s where I start to doubt West’s sincerity.  Bill Clinton was never in with the Washington Establishment.  That’s why they persisted in going through his underwear drawer and relentllessly pursued and distracted him throughout his eight year term.  Did he make mistakes?  He sure did.  Larry Summers and Robert Rubin were not very good advisors in retrospect.  And yet it was Bill Clinton who appointed the last liberal justices to the Supreme Court.  It was Bill Clinton who raised taxes on the wealthy and reduced unemployment.  The country had a fricking surplus and prosperity under Clinton.  Nevertheless, whacking Clinton is required of anyone who wants to stay in the club.

Still, I feel for Dr. West.  Despite the fact that he might have willfully blinded himself about Obama’s political philosophy (as if he had one), he probably hoped for the best.  And now he says he’s hooking up with Tavis Smiley to see what can be done to repair the devastation the Great Recession has left on the African American community, to which I say, “Amen!”.  It’s about time that someone paid attention to African Americans and took their concerns seriously.  In fact, I think the last politician to have done so was, wait, let me think… oh, yeah- Hillary Clinton!  If I recall correctly, during the 2008 primary, she showed up at the Black State of the Union hosted by Tavis Smiley in New Orleans.  Damn her!  She was probably just trying to get votes because that’s the kind of calculating vixen she is.  If she had been Obama, she wouldn’t have had to go to so much trouble.

And where was Obama?  Beats me.  Ask Tavis.

Smiley has been vocal about his disapproval of Obama’s decision [to forgo the invitation to attend].

“I think it’s a missed opportunity on Mr. Obama’s part,” Smiley told CNN. “Now, I am not interested in demonizing him for his choice, but I do disagree with it.” Watch a report on the controversy

But Smiley’s criticism has also prompted many people to come to Obama’s defense. The talk show host told The Washington Post he has been inundated with angry e-mails and even death threats.

“I have family in Indianapolis. They are harassing my momma, harassing my brother. It’s getting to be crazy,” Smiley told the newspaper.

It sounds a little like the people harrassing Cornel West for not defending Obama’s creds as a “progressive”, as if repetition of the phrase, “Obama is a progressive” would be enough to make it true, even if it isn’t.  And he’s not.

I think that sob stories like West’s are for the benefit of the progressives who feel ashamed that, in the end, they turned out to be no less gullible and vulnerable to psychological manipulation than their right wing counterparts who they mock for their slavish devotion to the Republican message machine.  The progressives are always flattering themselves that they are smarter, more savvy, more politically astute than those stupid bubbas who are always voting against their own interests.  And if this is West’s way of giving them cover so they can rehabilitate their image in their own eyes, to forgive themselves for being so taken in by such a charlatan, then more power to him.  It doesn’t seem to be working with the hardcore Obama supporters but you have to give West credit for trying.

But if West himself was really that confused by Obama in 2008, then I advise the brother to come talk to me before he votes again.  I live only 10 miles away and my office hours are flexible.

What tax cuts in NJ??

I followed a link from Eschaton to this Media Matters post on Governor Christie boo-hooing about how taxes in NJ aren’t covering state pension plans:

So, in the mid-1990s, Christine Whitman raided New Jersey’s pension fund to pay for tax cuts. Critics warned that doing so would cause massive problems for the state’s budget — and nailed the timing of those problems with remarkable accuracy. And now, the media is full of stories suggesting New Jersey’s pension system is the cause of the state’s budget shortfall — without mentioning Whitman’s role in causing it to happen. (The Washington Post, which reported on Whitman’s role at the time and which frequently reports on current pension/budget issues, last mentioned Whitman’s diversion of funds from the pension system on December 20, 2005.)

Take another look at that comment from Bill O’Reilly:

Many states cannot pay health and pension benefits because the tax revenue is not nearly enough to cover expenses.

You’ve probably seen dozens of statements like that lately. It should be clear by now — though it isn’t from most news reports — just how disingenuous this is, at least as far as New Jersey is concerned. Let’s review: A Republican governor of New Jersey reduced payments to the state pension system so she could cut taxes. Critics warned doing so would cause significant budget shortfalls in 2010. 2010 rolled around, and — surprise! — so did budget shortfalls. And now those shortfalls are used by New Jersey’s current Republican governor (along with many in the media) to justify cutting pensions (while again cutting taxes.)

Basically, conservatives have staged an end-run around having a public debate over cutting pensions in order to pay for tax cuts. Rather than making the argument that tax cuts are more important than pensions, they just went ahead and cut taxes, raiding the pension system in the process, then waited 15 years for predictable — and predicted — deficits, which they now point to as evidence that the pension system is unsustainably generous. And they’ve done it with the help of countless news organizations that fall for this shell game.

Wait a minute, wait a minute.  There were tax cuts in NJ??  How come I never heard about it?  Since around 2003, my property tax bill went up by about 40% and has stayed stubbornly stuck between ridiculous and outrageous.  The mortgage on this modest little townhouse would be pretty reasonable if it weren’t for the damn property tax that weighs it down.  Then there’s the association fee that is supposed to cover everything that the township doesn’t cover because my development is considered to have “private roads”.  How conveeeeenient.  So, I pay sky-high property taxes (my mother gets dizzy when I tell her how much) AND I still have to pay for snow removal and trash hauling and, and, and.

So, where has the money been going?  After all, this is the densest state in the union (in more ways than one) and there are a lot of people here paying through the nose to live with the abysmal traffic, shortage of public transportation, high ticket prices on NJTransit, long lines for everything and irritable neighbors.

Oh, yes, I forgot.  Governor Christie is going to bail out the developers of a white elephant mall in the Meadowlands called Xanadu.  Like NJ needs another mall.

Teachers or developers?  Pensions or public assistance for the rich?

We know the answer to this.

Government, What is it good for?

The Joplin tornado event is mesmerizing not for awe inspiring videos of the funnel cloud itself.  We’ve seen plenty of those over the past several years from storm chasing thrill seekers who set up their cameras way too close for comfort.

No, the videos from Joplin that I find most interesting have very little visual impact.  The one posted previously demonstrated what happens when 19 strangers are caught in an emergency situation and have no place to go but a refrigerator to ride out winds that stripped the bark from trees.

The video posted below is from the emergency services recordings starting with the updates and warnings issued by the National Weather Service and then coordinated by the police, firefighters and other emergency responders with the emergency services command center.  Amazing.

This is why we pay taxes.  Deficit hawks and union busting Republican governors should take note.

“I love everyone. I love EVERYONE, man”

This video was taken by a guy who survived the Joplin tornado in a walk-in refrigerator. Words cannot adequately describe the panic as children are separated from their mothers or the sheer terror of knowing that this could be your final moments on earth.

This is not disaster porn. This is a very short story about quick thinking, the force of nature and the kindness of strangers. I’m particularly impressed by the consideration the members of the group show for each other: the cameraman who is concerned that he’s on top of someone, the woman underneath him calmly telling him he’s on her back, the firm voice of a leader telling everyone to stay calm while other voices pray.

A year from now, these people may be swearing at each other in traffic. But if I were them, I’d mark this anniversary every year to remind each other how close they came to joining the dead in Joplin and how much they depended on each other to get through it.

Holy hemiola.