Crank-calling a volunteer fire department

Somebody must be crank-calling the Graton Fire Department out tonight. The siren has gone off a lot in this tiny community just north of Sebastopol in Sonoma County.

There’s a bonus with Graton Fire Department crank calls in that a siren goes off that can be heard over a wide area. Fire departments around here that still have sirens are few and far between. According to the Press Democrat earlier this year, “Fire officials said they need the alarm to summon volunteers because pager and cell phone service is spotty in parts of the west county, making such technology unreliable.”

That’s a little hard to buy. The terrain around Graton is simply not that spectacularly or uniquely difficult and certainly not by the standards of Sonoma County. If Occidental or Bodega or Bodega Bay, for instance, also had a siren, the argument might be a little more tenable. They don’t. The Press Democrat only mentions Kenwood as another community that still has an alarm.

But here’s West county Supervisor Efren Carrillo: “Personally, I think it is reminder of the volunteer effort that firefighters make.” The Graton Fire Department is a volunteer fire department, nearly as anachronistic in an increasingly urban society as the siren that neighbors complain about.

There are other things that are anachronistic in this increasingly urban society (even in Graton) that a volunteer fire department hearkens to, like a sense of community where people actually know their neighbors and talk to them once in a while. Like people who actually respond when their neighbors are in trouble, and not because they’re getting paid to do it, but because they actually care.

Of course that isn’t always the case. I dimly recall a while ago that a certain Graton firefighter was nearly always first on the scene for any actual fire. It turned out he was an arsonist.

But to draw Carrillo’s argument out, for the sense of duty that these volunteer fire fighters feel towards their community, the community should feel a reciprocal duty to honor these volunteers.

“Going off one or two times a day for 40 seconds is a small price to pay,” [Fire Chief Bill] Bullard said. “It is a necessary tool.”

In that context, complaining neighbors seem pretty petty and mean.

But tonight has been exceptional. I think the alarm has been sounded five times. If these are indeed crank calls, that says something pretty sad about somebody so alienated as to get their jollies at the expense not only of the community but especially of those who volunteer their services to save lives and people’s homes. And maybe the community ought to be reflecting on that as well.

To the political and economic elite of the United States

On December 10, 1948, you acknowledged certain human rights with the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These rights include “the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment” and “the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for [one]self and [one’s] family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection” (article 23); “the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay” (article 24); and “the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of [humans], including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond [a person’s] control” (article 25).

You have affirmed your commitment to these rights. As a signatory to the treaty of the United Nations, through article VI of the United States Constitution, and through the ninth amendment‘s affirmation of unenumerated rights, these rights are part and parcel of the highest law of the land.

I am not interested in your excuses. You have spent lavishly on the military and on wars which in the modern era inherently violate the rights of civilians and which lead only to more war. You have bailed out the wealthy. You have found plenty of money for this.

I am not interested in your politics as the “art of the possible.” You have embraced the North American Free Trade Agreement. I see where your politics lie. Your words are not enough.

In the course of my life, I have found many jobs that do not pay rent, where bosses revel in the infinite replaceability of workers, where workers must pay for the privilege of working. I have been told that two years is now “long term employment.” I have been told that I must continuously market myself to employers, in other words that employers should have all the power over my ability to earn a living, and that I should have none.

I want to show you a couple things. The first is my bachelor’s degree:

BA Mass Communication
The second is my master’s degree:

MA Speech Communication
I’m fifty years old. I’ve earned degrees in university and in the school of hard knocks. I’ve paid my dues.

I am not interested in your excuses. I am interested in a good-paying job where I am accorded the dignity to which you have acknowledged I am entitled. I am interested in my human rights.

Got hope? No.

It was supposed to be getting better. Barack Obama ran a campaign whose principle theme was “hope.” Progressive values were in the ascendant. Philip Slater released a book (my review here) anticipating a rise of multicultural, environmentally-conscious, and egalitarian Integral culture. And whatever happened, it had to be better than Bush, right?

In just a few short months, something else has happened. Slater might interpret the Tea Partiers and Town Hell activists as a reaction of the old order’s immune system and might even take my sense of dread for the metamorphosis into a new, hopefully better outcome.

But as Richard Dawson announced innumerable times on the television game show Family Feud, “Survey says!” And a buzzer sounded as the answer flipped into view. No.

Obama has, to say the least, proved disappointing. A public option might actually emerge after all from all the political drama of the last several months but Obama’s record on everything else has simply been dismal. There is little or no hope of meaningful reform of institutions that wrought economic devastation on the world and no sign of recognition that capitalism is unsustainable. Even as foreclosures rise, there is little of the promised help for struggling homeowners and there is no relief in sight for the unemployed; even the Obama administration effectively admits that its economic stimulus has fallen short. It seems only the rich are safe while others are ignored. The puppet government in Iraq has failed to maintain security even in the purportedly safest parts of Baghdad, let alone for people elsewhere in the country, rationalizing a more probable extension of U.S. occupation. The Obama administration persists in delusions about the Israel-Palestine conflict. The dishonesty of U.S. politics is now so blatant that one wonders why only right wing lunatics are on the streets.

Not only are right wingnuts the only ones protesting, but some survey results suggest they are in the ascendant. It is difficult to reconcile this with the hope that Obama ran on, Slater’s prediction of a rise of Integral culture, or Progressive assertions that the U.S. public is leaning left. Even some mainstream political calculations seem to have tilted toward fascism.

It is hard to say what would have happened if the Bush administration had refused to relinquish power. But a case that we are better off with the preservation of the present political order is getting harder to make.

Issues or Labels: Is the U.S. leaning progressive?

Progressives have, for about a couple of years now, been insisting that the public in the United States is leaning their way on the issues. But polls cited by a Time Magazine blog and now by CBS dispute this, noting that a plurality labels itself conservative rather than liberal or moderate. The polls show mixed evidence on issues. According to the Time blog:

On values issues it is more of a mixed bag. Substantially fewer believe that the government should promote traditional values, and substantially more describe themselves as “pro-life.” Overall, however, there has not been substantial movement here.

On government power, there are similar results. The percentage of people who think taxes are too high has dropped [four] points, but the percentage who think that government has too much power has shot up 10 points, to 52%.

Finally, on defense, supermajorities believe that defense spending is too low or about right, and a similar number believe that Afghanistan was not a mistake. The percentage of people who believe that Iraq was not a mistake is up a tick from 2008, though it is down substantially from 2004.

According to CBS:

Gallup has also found that Americans have moved rightward on some issues: A record-high 55 percent want less regulation on guns, a record-high 42 percent want less influence by unions, and there has been an increase in the percent who say they oppose abortion rights (47 percent), believe global warming warnings are exaggerated (41 percent), want the government to “promote traditional values” (53 percent) and believe there is too much government regulation in business (45 percent).

There is some good news for Democrats here, however, as they look toward the future: The survey shows that Americans age 18-29 are roughly as likely to call themselves liberal (31 percent) as they are to call themselves conservative (30 percent). Americans 65 and older, meanwhile, are more likely than any group to call themselves conservative (48 percent).

So Progressives can hope that the old fogies will die off sooner rather than later and that the 18-29 year age group does not shift in a conservative direction in the 20-30 years it will take for them to begin to achieve significant power. I wouldn’t hold my breath: the rather despicable elite that is in a final stretch to retirement came of age during the 1960s and early 1970s. While they might have campaigned against an embedded political culture in Washington, D.C., they brought us deregulation, a wider gap between rich and poor, more military spending (despite the end of the Cold War), and environmental policies that make Richard Nixon appear positively progressive.

There are major failings in all the polls cited, at least as these articles report them. None of them break down their results by class or geographic area and all of them confound liberals with Democrats and conservatives with Republicans. If we understand that rich kids are much more likely to grow up to be powerful and that Republican support appears to be strongest in the South, and consider that many Republican voters feel their representatives in Congress are “out of touch”, so much so that a race between a third party candidate and the Republican in New York’s 23rd District has become interesting, the situation appears much murkier.

And any expectation that the U.S. public will move in a progressive direction demands that the people overcome a considerable conservative ideological bias in predominant forms of public communication that favors selfishness (view a BBC series, entitled Century of the Self, episodes 1, 2, 3, and 4, each about an hour long), deregulated capitalism, an expensive military, and a racist regime of “law and order”.

This, ultimately, is the most important disagreement I have with my favorite professor at my previous school, Robert Terrell. He infers progress in race relations from his freedom to teach at a public university (he is African American, so he would have been barred forty years ago) and retains a quaint faith in the political establishment’s ability to rectify itself. He keeps reminding me that “politics are the art of the possible” even as nearly the entire U.S. political establishment bears responsibility for the over one million “excess” deaths in Iraq, even as the country has been at some state of war for nearly the whole of its existence, and even as the only thing the establishment can think to do with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms is to repeal, repudiate, and minimize as many of them as it thinks it can get away with. We have this history because despite numerous occasional uprisings (see Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States) a critical mass among the people has never revolted against it, even when presidential elections have been rather blatantly stolen as in 2000 and 2004.

It is instead a persistent U.S. public acquiescence to conservative policy which speaks volumes about any light at the end of the tunnel for Progressives. Even if Progressives read public opinion correctly, it isn’t doing us any good.

About Fox News

Media scholars have for quite some time dismissed “Fox News” as a news organization. So it is little surprise to us that the White House has said so. Roger Ailes, chairman and chief executive of Fox News, on the other hand, insists that there is a distinction between news and opinion programming on the network, provoking the ire of Media Matters for America.

The Media Matters email update I received is quite different from the linked blog entry. In the email update, Brian Frederick repeatedly attacks the network’s opinion programming and advocacy of right wing causes. He thus obscures the very distinction, whether or not it in fact exists, that Ailes is pointing to. This helps Michael Clemente, senior vice president for news and editorial programming at Fox, to accuse the White House (and, by implication, liberals) of, as the New York Times phrased it, a “strategy to marginalize critics.”

So here’s a suggestion: If people are having trouble distinguishing between Fox News and opinion programming and between Fox News and its advocacy work, then Fox, the network, should clearly label it for all us stupid liberals. Of course, to do so might undermine the authority which Fox commentators and advocates rely upon in whipping up all that Tea Party nuttery and racism. Then all the stupid conservatives who treat Fox as gospel might actually get a clue.

And if Fox won’t do this, then they are as guilty of confounding the distinction as anyone in the White House. Moreover, they’re taking advantage of this conflation to influence political discourse. That makes Fox News into an “arm of the Republican Party” whether or not their reporting is any more or any less biased than that of anyone else.

“The effect of the stimulus will not be as pronounced as this year.”

Media Matters for America labels as outrageous the following Rush Limbaugh quote:

The economic news continues to be — unbelievably horrible and bad. And by the way, I think Christina Romer saying, “This is it, we’ve had the big bang for the buck that we’re gonna get on the stimulus.” Is she not saying, ladies and gentlemen, that Barack Obama’s stimulus has failed? 49 out of 50 states report job losses after the stimulus. So, his own economic adviser, Christina Romer, essentially saying Obama has failed.

Rush Limbaugh says a lot of outrageous, racist things. But the New York Times paraphrases Romer as saying, “The effect of the stimulus will not be as pronounced as this year.”

But while the economic news does indeed continue to be, as Limbaugh characterized it, “unbelievably horrible and bad,” President Obama has targeted banks that aren’t profiting wildly from the renewed excesses of Wall Street for executive pay cuts. The Federal Reserve has announced that it will review compensation packages for large banks, that is, after a 30-day comment period.

It is all intended to sound furious. But it really doesn’t get at the weakness of the economy. Any regulation that does emerge will likely be watered down, just as the Obama administration and Congress have been doing with everything else.

For Media Matters to regard this comment by Limbaugh as “outrageous” is to imagine that Obama’s “stimulus” has been effective. It is to indulge the rich in their fantasies. While gross domestic product might indeed turn up, in the real world, unemployment is awful and getting worse, pay is decreasing, homeowners continue to face foreclosure, and the bailout has failed to generate the lending activity it was supposed to.

So yes, Obama’s stimulus is a failure and that is effectively what Christina Romer, chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisors, is saying by any standard that matters. Particularly when she “warned that the rebound in jobs could actually be even slower than what White House officials and private forecasters are predicting.”

A friendly hint to Obama

I got home tonight and booted my system to find this message in one of the FriendFeed feeds I follow (“shouting” in original): “impoliteconversation: RT @KatyinIndy: HISTORICAL NEWS ARTICLES AND FACTCHECK AGREE: #OBAMA IS #KENYAN-BORN #tcot #gop #tlot @myen.” I couldn’t imagine a point to actually clicking on the link. I did, however, find the article which flatly contradicts the message in this feed. Great, I thought, more Birther stupidity.

And of course there’s nothing anyone can say that will persuade these idiots that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii. This long ago reached a point where any actual proof of Obama’s birth in Hawaii is considered a lie and and any falsehoods “proving” his birth in Kenya are accepted as absolute proof. That this nonsense continues to make the rounds simply illustrates that racism won’t die, either among certain segments of the general population or among certain segments of the mass media.

Part of the problem, though, lies in the U.S. Constitution, which stipulates in Article II, Section 1, that among the qualifications for a president, (s)he must be a “natural born Citizen.” If this anti-immigrant passage did not exist, the Birthers wouldn’t even have the shred of an argument that they do, Birther attorney Orly Taitz would need to find some other way of drawing illicit publicity, and a certain judge who has had the misfortune to deal with her just might be a lot less annoyed.

The Constitution doesn’t explain the rationale for the “natural born Citizen” requirement. It is simply there along with a long obsolete exemption for any “Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution . . . [who has] been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.” I dimly recall from my Social Studies classes way back when a concern that the inbred royals who controlled so many countries in Europe might extend their dominion here. But a preference in the Federalist Papers for elite rule reduces the force of this rationale to a contrast between “our” elite and a “foreign” elite, which I suppose is important if you happen to be a member of “our” elite, fearful of competition from the “foreign” elite.

I’m just really having a hard time imagining this argument carrying any great weight with the Birthers. Of course, they’re simply racists. But what about the rest of us? Why should this seemingly anachronistic provision still carry any force whatsoever?

In a modern context, this provision accompanies a myth that “any boy [gender bias significant] can grow up to be president.” It is part of the myth of equal opportunity in this country. For the “natural born” and unquestioning, it fits in with a myth of the United States as a “melting pot,” as all-inclusive. Except that it clearly doesn’t include immigrants.

I’ve been hearing an awful lot of anti-immigrant bias lately. Those Mexicans doing jobs that few citizens will do are somehow cast as a threat to employment for citizens. They “haven’t paid their dues,” as if crossing an increasingly dangerous Mexican frontier and U.S. border should count for less than satisfying a bureaucracy’s need for paperwork. They should be screened to protect the U.S. from terrorism, as if the 9/11 attackers had entered surreptitiously rather than with documents. And it seems to be awfully important that any health care plan not cover so-called “illegal” immigrants, even if that raises costs for everyone else.

Meanwhile, the federal government is stripping “America’s toughest sheriff” of authority to enforce federal immigration law due to complaints of racial profiling and it is clear that many understand statistics showing that a majority of “illegal” migrants are Latin American to mean that all Latin Americans are “illegal” immigrants.

All this serves to diminish the humanity of migrants, “legal” or otherwise, now overwhelmingly people from Latin America. It inescapably seeks to preserve a particular condition of race relations in which whites exercise hegemony. It exploits an antipathy stemming from the 9/11 attacks to oppress non-citizens of color. It should be seen as inconsistent with the 14th Amendment. It is a blight upon the Constitution and an affirmation of racism.

Birther claims resonate overwhelmingly in a rather narrow segment of the population, primarily amongst Southerners and Republicans. The now-diminishing media attention to these claims privileged this narrow segment of opinion over the concerns of the vast majority of the country. Republican exploitation of the issue was dangerous, not merely irresponsible. It could not be seen as a winning electoral strategy, but rather suggested darker motives.

Republicans might be playing with fire, but Barack Obama should contemplate a possible relationship between the status quo he has sought to preserve, the economic pain he has has done so little about, and the Birther-style racism that may have succeeded in drastically weakening the health care bill that may emerge from Congress. Republicans have proven more effective as a minority faction than the Democrats ever did. My guess is that they’ll do it again.

Entitled but ungrateful, the rich whine while the poor get nothing

If you still needed evidence of a felt sense of entitlement among the wealthy, on Friday, the New York Times published an article which

wonder[ed] why so many people were furious at those who had more than they did. And why are the rich shouldering the blame for a collective run of bad decision-making? After all, many of the rich got there through hard work. And plenty of not-so-rich people bought homes, cars and electronics they could not afford and then defaulted on the debt, contributing to the crash last year.

The article seems surprised at a “suspicion that all wealthy people are motivated purely by self-interest” and cites a financial manager whose “clients felt that they had worked hard and honestly for their money and were now being unjustly judged alongside those who did not.” It quotes a psychoanalyst:

People who get caught up in this paranoia spend all night reading these blogs, and six months later they haven’t done anything to better themselves. Even if they’re right, there is a lot of wasted energy put into this. They need to look at the mistakes they’ve made in their life.

So I imagine if you’ve lost your job, been unable to find another job, aren’t even getting responses when you send your resume around, or perhaps if you’ve lost your home, you aren’t finding that very amusing.

Some of President Barack Obama’s aides made the Sunday talk show circuit and have confirmed parts of what I had to say yesterday:

Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, said Americans “have a right to be frustrated and angry” at reports that a year after the government used $700 billion to save major lending institutions from collapse, Wall Street appears poised to hand out another round of hefty bonuses. . . .

“The most offensive thing is we haven’t seen the kind of increase in lending that we should,” [David Axelrod] said on “This Week” on ABC.

The aides also complained about bank lobbying against new federal regulation and said that more time should be given for the stimulus package to generate employment before considering another stimulus package.

All this misses several points. First, the banks have rationalizations for not lending money where it is needed, even if that’s what Paul Krugman apparently assumes they will do. (UPDATE: Krugman acknowledges the problem.) Second, as the New York Times article with which I opened this posting illustrates, the rich continue to blame the poor for their problems, even when banks steered African Americans who qualified for prime loans into subprime loans, even when banks aggressively lent even to people with damaged credit, even when very few of the now-unemployed did anything to create the crisis that now besets them.

What would be more impressive would be Obama administration actions to match Obama administration words. For all their pretense at entitlement, it is the rich who owe the poor but who have in fact been ripping off the poor. Yet the Bush and Obama administrations rushed through aid for Wall Street while very little help has reached homeowners or workers. “We’ve only spent a little less than half of the money,” Valerie Jarrett, another close adviser to President Obama, said on “Meet the Press.”

I’m thinking of what Obama had to say to the people of New Orleans still angry at the slow pace of government aid for their losses from Hurricane Katrina:

“I expected as much from the Bush administration, but why are we still being nickeled and dimed in our recovery?” a man asked at a public meeting at the University of New Orleans.

“I wish I could write a blank check,” Obama replied, prompting the man to shout back, “Why not?”

That’s a very good question. Hurricane Katrina was over four years ago. Now another disaster has struck. Are we all also going to have to wait as long?

A peace loving nation

Part of United States ideology is that the country is a peace loving nation. History tells us a different story, particularly when we consider that whites have been at war with the indigenous people of this continent, pretty much continuously since Columbus stumbled upon West Indies in 1492. Some people reckon this war to have ended in the U.S. in 1890, but there were skirmishes after that and if you consider a textbook definition of institutional violence, as the deprivation of opportunity, health care, education, culture, etc., war continues on the reservations to this day.

Even using more conventional definitions of conflict, however, an image of continuous violence emerges. While you might disagree with a reckoning that includes the Cold War as war, those of us who remember any part of it know that we lived under a continuous threat of worldwide nuclear devastation under a policy of mutually assured destruction that led both the United States and the Soviet Union to acquire many more nuclear weapons than either would need to destroy the entire planet. This, too, is a form of sustained violence.

So given all this, just how does the U.S. stack up as a supposedly peace loving country? It is actually not a simple matter to find out all the wars the the nation has been involved in. And a large number of the wars overlap. But Roger Lee has a list, which I plugged into a spreadsheet. And when I put the data through some manipulations, I came up with a grand total of 16 calendar years in which the United States was not at war with someone, somewhere, somehow. The longest of these periods was eight years. We have been at war the entire rest of the time.

Why we’re still headed for a Great Depression

There’s been a lot of talk since the Dow Jones Industrial Averages breached 10,000 about the disconnect between Wall Street and Main Street. Kevin Drum at Mother Jones thinks “the next bubble is already in the works and its collapse will be every bit as bad as this one.”

That assumes there is any connection whatsoever between what’s happening on the markets and the rest of the world. But it looks like the banks have used stimulus money not to resume lending but rather the very practices with the same incentives that led us into the recession in the first place. If that’s the case, then the effects of a cut-off in lending have already been felt.

But banks that are actually in the business of serving the real world are still struggling. Bank of America just posted a $1 billion quarterly loss. The Wall Street Journal points out that the very banks–the smaller ones–that have been doing all the lending are also the ones which are not too big to fail, which is just what they’ve been doing. As for the rest, the Journal says they aren’t lending to consumers or businesses, that they’d have to go into bankruptcy if they recognized all the bad debt they have on their books, and that they “can earn a huge spread by borrowing virtually unlimited amounts for nothing and lending that same money back to the Treasury.”

So big bank profits are a chimera and the rest of the economy remains in the tank. The U.S. goes deeper in debt and opens wider the door to a possible collapse in the dollar.

As the chart above (based on data from the Bank of Canada) shows, the dollar has lately been dropping pretty steadily against the Euro. A huge U.S. budget deficit doesn’t help, leading several countries to prepare “to end dollar dealings for oil.” This report, written by Robert Fisk for the Independent, was hotly denied, as one would expect. One of the countries, China, is already worried about the value of its huge holdings in dollar-denominated assets.

So while Paul Krugman criticizes an “obsessive fear of inflation even in the face of deflation; opposition to easy credit, even when the economy desperately needs it, on the grounds that it would be somehow corrupting; [and] assertions that even if the government can create jobs it shouldn’t, because this would only be an ‘artificial’ recovery,” President Barack Obama’s team insists that “we must live within our means.”

It doesn’t seem to matter who’s right. Even if Obama were to follow the policies advocated by Krugman, the value of the dollar might undermine any gains as import prices rise and the U.S. no longer possesses the capacity to manufacture goods at home. As Obama more likely follows a policy advocated by monetarists, an already illusory economic recovery vanishes, leading to yet larger deficits as revenues decline. And the idea that politicians might somehow hit a middle ground that avoids the adverse consequences of either policy in fact assumes that Krugman is wrong, that the government need not do much more to put workers back to work.

In fact, Krugman is wrong in one respect. He writes, “Yes, the Federal Reserve and the Obama administration have pulled us ‘back from the brink’ — the title of a new paper by Christina Romer, who leads the Council of Economic Advisers. She argues convincingly that expansionary policy saved us from a possible replay of the Great Depression.” But looking at the real economy–as opposed to government misrepresentations–I cannot imagine how he can believe this.