The Shifting Sand of Context

“He has the right to defend himself from deadly force.”

That’s a line that gets tossed around a lot these days, particularly whenever a cop kills a black person.

It’s a nice-sounding sentiment, but it isn’t true. For instance, it doesn’t apply to a citizen who defends himself when a cop pulls a gun and threatens to shoot.

So there’s an asymmetry here. A context. “It was self-defense” applies to a cop who shoots a citizen, but it doesn’t apply to a citizen who shoots a cop.

So, if we want to be clear, we have to say that a cop has the right to defend himself from deadly force. A citizen does not have the right to defend himself against a cop.

Let’s broaden the context a bit. What if you shoot a cop who is off-duty, in plain clothes, who pulls a gun and threatens to shoot you over a matter of your dog pooping in his yard?

Well, your life is probably over, either way — if the cop doesn’t kill you, then the lawyers will make you wish he had, and you’ll almost certainly go to prison, even if you only winged him. But that’s our current fuckup of a legal system. In theory, you would have the right to defend yourself. I think.

We would have to clarify again, by saying that a citizen does not have the right to defend himself against a cop who is doing his assigned duty.

Let’s broaden the context a bit further. What if the cop’s assigned duty is to provoke a violent response?

There used to be a concept of “fightin’ words” — the idea that normal people can be provoked, sometimes with words alone, into a violent action. I don’t know if this actually had any legal standing, but it certainly served to take the edge off a judge’s sentencing in the past.

Think of that scene in the film Crash, when Matt Dillon’s cop character is feeling up the black man’s attractive wife while “searching” for weapons, just to try to provoke a violent reaction from the husband. It resonates, because we all recognize the asymmetry of power in this scene. The cop can do whatever the hell he wants, and get away with it.

“That’s a movie, it doesn’t happen in real life,” is one predictable response. Uh-huh. That’s exactly why the scene resonates so strongly.

“There are always a few bad apples,” is another predictable response. “And they are prosecuted vigorously and drummed out of the … well….” Uh-huh. We see lots of that vigorous prosecution, and bad cops getting drummed out.

This is basically saying that no one assigns cops the duty of stirring up trouble. That just doesn’t happen. Right?

Except when you look at a place like Ferguson, where the dim-witted city officials decide that they are short on funds, and decide to take up highway robbery.

Jaywalking? Fine ’em. Double parking? Fine ’em. Sleeping on a park bench? Lock ’em up and fine ’em. If they can’t pay the fine, double it. If they don’t show up to pay the fine, put out an arrest warrant and fine ’em again. If they can’t pay that, put them in the prison system and get kickbacks, as well as giving the “perp” a police record that effectively ruins their life.

That’s not stirring up trouble? Really? Before you make that your final answer, are you sure you don’t want to call a friend?

The fact is, it is increasingly the official duty of police officers to enforce laws that stir up trouble.

In many cases, these laws are the legacy of our national history of racism and slavery: the laws are intended to enforce an inequality in society that was considered natural and just at the time — at least by those (white) people with legal voice and standing — which is now considered natural and just by almost no one.

In many other cases, these laws are merely intended to keep the poor impoverished, and out of sight. No one wants beggars on the street, or sleeping on park benches, and we’ve always had this strange, Puritanical, Calvinist belief that the poor somehow deserve their lot, so it doesn’t matter much if we make their hard life harder.

The biggest problem is, of course, the disastrous Drug War, which has been going on for nearly a century. The Drug War was founded in racism, and resulted in the twisted vision of “law and order” that we see flourishing around us now: something that any American citizen from the 1800’s would have viewed as standing in complete antithesis to the ideal of Freedom this country was presumably founded upon. Virtually every criminal law on the books regarding “drugs” is a legal abomination, and its enforcement is all but guaranteed to stir up huge buckets of flaming trouble.

Finally, adding spice to this unholy mix, we have the neoliberal economics of the last forty years, which has twisted our nation’s vision from freedom, to “free markets,” in which the whole of human activity and governance is reduced to competing against each other for money in the marketplace. Entire cities are being effectively defunded, though they are still expected to provide all the normal services. City officials have been reduced to extorting money from their citizens, and it is the cops who are officially ordered to go around breaking the knees of people who don’t pay up.

So let’s look at the question again in this still-broader context.

A cop goes to the door of a person who already lives on the edge of ruin, to serve a warrant that is going to destroy that person’s life: force them to pay trivial fines they can’t afford, take time off work that will cause them to lose their job, brand them with a police record that will make it hard to get a new job afterward, get them evicted from their home and have their children taken away, and — to top it off — all this in an environment where cops can do whatever the hell they want.

Even if the cops don’t, they can. And everyone knows it, including the cops.

Is it any real surprise that someone might come to the door with a shotgun?

So it leads me to the question: when you hold the power to stop someone on the street and do literally anything you want to them, right up to killing them without consequence, and then deliberately provoke a fight with that person, holding not only their future, but their children’s future hostage, do you give up the right to defend yourself from deadly force?

I’m not asking the legal question. I’m asking the moral question.

Go watch the movie, Rob Roy. This is not a new question.

Home Projects

“Honey, the tires on the casita are still flat!”

“They’re not flat!” I replied. “I looked at them this morning, and they were still round.”

“You haven’t been outside the house since you got out of bed.”

“Fine, I looked at them recently.”

“They’re soft, and it’s going to ruin the tires, and then we’ll have to buy new tires. Just put some air in them.”

“Fine. Later. After I’ve had my coffee.”

“Your first cup, or your seventh? It’s already getting hot outside. Just go put some air in the tires.”

I hate home projects. Virulently. Meaning — literally — like a virus. My dislike is actually contagious. If someone even mentions a home project in my presence, my aversion reaches out through the psychic aether and affects everyone nearby. The person talking about his home project starts wanting to hire it out. People who do that kind of project for a living start thinking about changing careers.

I especially hate little home projects. Because there is no such thing. Only puny expectations.

Put some air in the casita’s tires. Fine.

Our casita is a little 8′ pop-up camper that has lived in our driveway since we moved into the house last December. As I inspect it, it seems that the tires have, indeed, gone a little soft.

The first thing is to get rid of the spider webs. We have spiders, here, and those little bastards can web over a doorway faster than Spiderman. They’d had a couple of generations to craft the little spider Manhattan in, on, and around the tires of the casita. I don’t want to reach in and have my hand look like lunch to a city full of eight-legged New Yorkers.

I need to get into the garage to get the spider-brush. I don’t have my keys. I search in three places before I find them. I unlock the garage. I find the spider-brush, which was (of course) right where I’d left it, but not right where I looked.

After evicting the eight million residents of Spidopolis, I need to get low enough to read the tire. My knees don’t work like they used to, so I end up sitting on the ground. My hand sticks briefly to the cement as I lift it: there’s a 100-foot pine tree shading the casita, and little drops of pine sap are everywhere. I wonder if I’ve ruined another pair of shorts.

Tires always have a big logo on them, telling you who takes credit for making it, but the PSI (Pounds per Square Inch) rating is, if present at all, in the middle of a long paragraph of specifications involving load distribution on a single axle mount under lateral shear from winds up to 30 MPH, provided you aren’t at the North or South Pole, where gravity is slightly stronger. All of this is written in raised black-on-black, so if the light isn’t exactly right, you can’t read it at all.

And then, there’s bifocals. Not only does the light need to be exactly right, you can’t tilt your head to the side, or your glasses go wonky, and then you can’t read the E on an eye chart at three feet.

I finally puzzle out enough of this black rubber vowelless Ogham to think it’s calling for 80 PSI. Which is — for a tire — kind of high. I don’t believe what I’m seeing, so I have to go check the other tire. First, evict Los Spidangeles. Then back down on the ground on the other side.

More pine sap.

It would be normal at this point to find out that I have two entirely different tires, with two different pressure ratings. But it appears they are both the same, which gives me pause: this looks entirely too easy.

It turns out, that would have been entirely too easy.

I have to hunt down the tire gauge, and find it exactly where it belongs in the car, giving me another twinge of foreboding. The tires are at 40 PSI, so they are soft — no escape in that quarter.

All I have is a bicycle tire pump. It should do the job, I think, since 80 PSI for a bicycle tire is pretty normal. I dig out the tire pump, which is also right where it should be, another bad sign.

This is when I get reintroduced to Boyle’s Law, up close and sweaty. Bicycle tires are kind of, like, really, really thin. You know? They may have 80 PSI in them, but there isn’t a whole lot of actual air. So I pump until I am sweating pretty hard, and check the tire pressure again. 45 PSI. I remember Boyle’s Law. I do a quick calculation: if 20 vigorous pumps will top off a bicycle tire to 80 PSI, a tire with this volume, will, conservatively speaking, take about 20,000 vigorous pumps. Or maybe it’s 200,000 vigorous pumps. I invoke Themon’s Law of Large Numbers, which states that any two large numbers which apply to sweaty, physical labor, are equivalent.

“I’m off to the hardware store!”

Every home project, no matter how small, ends up at the hardware store, usually multiple times. I actually had a second, also-stalled, home project I needed something for, and thought it would be just grand if I could take care of that and get an electric tire pump, or at least one of the old foot-pumps like my father had in his car: those things have a big, fat air cylinder on them that can move a lot of air.

Three stores later, I come back empty-handed. No tire pumps of any sort. And the other project — well, I think it is going to be a custom design that requires a hand-crafted alloy of osmium, beryllium, and transparent aluminum. That’s for next weekend.

It’s lunchtime, now. So after lunch, I decide it’s time to just get smart and take the stupid thing to the gas station and fill the tires. The tires are still round, after all. It can be towed.

But the lock on the ball-and-socket has been out in the rain since December. Oops. It opens, but I’m concerned it won’t open if I close it again. So out comes the WD-40, the 3-in-1 oil, and a million paper towels. Now the lock works.

My wife helps me hitch the thing up. The hitch itself is where it belongs, the lights work once connected, and we’re off. Just down the street a quarter mile or so.

“Stop!” my wife yells at me. “You need a license!”

Sure enough, the trailer doesn’t have a license plate. That was a whole different story, from last June through December, dealing with the California DMV, and we actually got the plate a week after we’d already parked the casita against the fence. The plate is in my wife’s office.

I look at the spot where the license goes, and there are no screws. There are no screws with the license plate, either.

So what kind of idiot takes the old license plate off the back of a trailer, and doesn’t put the screws back in the holes?

Oh, right. I guess that would be an idiot like me.

This would, of course, have been the perfect opportunity for the second trip to the hardware store. It would have been, if my wife hadn’t been involved.

We spend five minutes searching through the “screw box” containing every screw I’ve ever collected over the last fifty years, for something close to the right size. My wife pulls out two candidates. From traces of rubber and glue on the head, I realize they are actually the original screws from the old license. In the box with every other screw from the last fifty years.

I finally get on the road, and when I arrive at the gas station, I discover that the the air pump needs quarters. Guess where my wallet is. No, don’t guess, it’s obvious.

I drive back home, pick up my wallet, and return. I go inside to get quarters, and the clerk tells me I don’t need quarters, the air is free. I give him a strange look, and ask how I turn it on. He tells me that I don’t: he turns it on.

I go back out into the rising afternoon heat — it’s well after noon, now — and the air machine is chugging away as advertised. So I finally — finally — put air in the tires.

Up to 60 PSI. The pump is for car tires. It doesn’t even go to 80 PSI.

I return home, the job half-done with no real prospect of completion in sight, and wrestle the casita back into its spot, which involves a ninety degree turn at the end of the driveway. By this point, piece of cake.

A reasonably successful home project. Hey, the tires are up to 60 PSI.

The sad thing is that I’ll have a work meeting tomorrow, and before it starts, people will compare what they did over the weekend.

“Oh, I put in a deck in the back yard.”

“That’s nice! I rebuilt the engine on my 1966 Mustang.”

“Some buddies and I went hang-gliding.”

“So Themon, what did you do this weekend?”

As God is my witness, I have no idea what to tell them.

The Bigger Picture

Like many people, I’ve been pretty upset about this 2016 election.

Then a very odd post showed up in my Facebook feed this morning, and I was upset enough to watch it. I’m glad I did.

Here’s the link. It’s only nine minutes out of your life, and she speaks well. Go watch it, then come back here to laugh at me for listening to a psychic.

The thing is, I think she’s right. Let me cast her message in a slightly different light.

Who is Donald Trump? By himself, he’s just everyone’s asshole uncle. We’ve all met this kind of guy: we’ve put up with his rants, endured Thanksgiving dinners with him, rolled our eyes and talked about him when he wasn’t around. He’s a thick-headed ignoramus, he’s a bigot and a fool and annoying as Hell, but he isn’t much of a threat to anyone. He’s just an everyday asshole.

What makes Donald Trump different from everyone’s asshole uncle is not anything about the man. It is the mob that has flocked to him.

That mob is not a person, nor even a movement. It’s as much about the Latin Massacre in Constantinople in 1182 as it is about NAFTA in 1994. It’s about slavery in the seventeenth century, and the South losing the Civil War. It’s about Gandhi, and Hitler, and the Sack of Beziers, and Genghis Khan. It’s a collection of expectations and resentments with deep, deep roots. It is a force of history and nature playing out in particulars on the 2016 political canvas.

If Donald Trump were to drop dead of a heart attack tomorrow, this force would remain, and sooner or later, someone else’s asshole uncle would rise up and become the next Donald Trump. The same mob will form.

This is bigger than all of us put together, and it is going to play itself out.

Is it really 100,000 years old, as this psychic claims?

Very possibly. That’s roughly when “modern humans” made their debut, according to anthropologists, mixing with, breeding with, and eventually pushing aside the Neanderthals, the Denisovans, and perhaps many other early human species. Certain wheels were set in motion 100,000 years ago that are still rolling along: in particular, our explosive, exponential population growth as a species.

Does this force represent a perennial dilemma that we’re doomed to play and replay forever?

No, and the difference is rising population. It’s like rising temperature in a pot. It causes things to cook; it causes new chemical reactions to take place.

It causes transformation.

The human race has been through numerous transformations. There was a time before cities, when all people hunted and gathered and lived a very easy life: ask any anthropologist. Once cities formed, there was still a time before kingdoms and empires arose. Once the idea of empire was well-established, the nation-state came into existence.

People didn’t invent these things because they were a good idea. They invented them because rising populations forced them to find new ways to live.

We’ve now reached a population level where — as I’ve put it before — if everyone inhales at the same time, birds fall out of the sky. Human population is beginning to show long-term, global consequences on every aspect of life on Earth. We’re once again being forced to find a new way to live.

And we will.

In the process, however, the old way of living has to end. It has to die. Cain (the agriculturalist) must again slay Abel (the hunter-gatherer).

Donald Trump represents the dying scream of the old way of living as it is forced out of existence.

Unlike this psychic, I can’t claim to be very good at reading energy, particularly the energy of the entire United States, much less the energy of the whole world. So I can’t personally be quite as confident that the dying scream of Donald Trump won’t drown out the voices of the living for a while.

I am confident that the Trump energy is dying. Just as I am confident that capitalism is dying, and with it, all of the social perversions that have come with it, including our reckless endangerment of the natural environment we need in order to live.

So, let us acknowledge and even honor the Trump phenomenon for what it is: a desperate, dying scream of something that can no longer continue to exist in the world.

Then, let us — together — bury it.

Nobody Hates Bernie

The 2016 election is starting to shape up: the Republican convention is over, with a Trump/Pence ticket, and the Democratic convention is coming up soon.

I’m feeling a little foolish for not thinking through an essential part of the Trump candidacy.

I’ve been puzzled from the start how a narcissistic blowhard like Donald Trump would ever withstand the job of being President of the United States. It requires skills that he not only doesn’t have, they are skills that he apparently can’t even grasp. I can’t imagine him staying awake through an entire national security briefing without shouting at some five-star general, “You’re Fired!”

How could Trump be President?

The answer is both simple, and obvious. He won’t.

He’s going to delegate the entire job to his Vice President. Every bit of it. From persuading Congress, to appointing Supreme Court justices, to managing the nuclear codes. Donald Trump will be an absentee president.

I guess I did kind of see it coming: I mentioned in an earlier post that Trump would surround himself with sycophants who would stroke his bottomless need for inflating his own ego, a machine that would make him a puppet inside the machine, a machine that would turn to purest evil. What I missed is that Trump won’t even be inside the machine. He’ll be out on his yacht, when he’s not preening in front of a camera. He’ll get “regular reports” from his Vice President on how that worthy is doing his job, which he won’t have time to read, because he’ll be too busy Tweeting grade-school insults to foreign heads-of-state who slighted him in some way.

“Mike, just give me the bottom line,” he’ll say to his Vice President, adjusting his cummerbund for some state dinner, turning sideways to the full-length mirror to check his waistline. “Is the country moving in the right direction?”

“Oh, yes, Sir!” the Vice President will say. “You don’t have a thing to worry about.”

“Great! Keep up the good work. Let’s make America Great Again!”

Trump is already a catastrophe for the Republican Party, and if he wins the election, a catastrophe for the nation.

In the meantime, we have the Sanders/Clinton situation. I still have no idea how the super-delegates are going to vote, nor does anyone else. At this point, given the polling numbers, it’s irresponsible for them to nominate Hillary. On the other hand, I have no idea whether responsibility is anywhere near the top of their list of priorities. So we’ll have to wait and see.

But here’s the thing: nobody hates Bernie.

A lot of people hate Trump. Pence is — if anything — worse. I’ve never seen such a broad outpouring of open contempt, hatred, and fear of a US Presidential candidate. I’m not sure it has ever happened in US history.

A lot of people hate Hillary just as much. The level of insanely violent hatred she inspires in extreme right-wing quarters is actually frightening. Since I have relatives in that quarter, I’ve seen this hatred first-hand.

Both of these extremes are matched by a broad tail of people who should be supporters, according to the pundits and their conventional political theory, who actually are not. Trump is driving lifelong Republicans completely out of the party, and those who remain to support him appear to occasionally choke on their own vomit. Hillary has a lot of lifelong Democrats wringing their hands and making excuses for her declining poll numbers; the Independents are not coming together under her banner, even when faced with a monstrous buffoon like Trump.

Nobody hates Bernie. Not everyone likes him, or his politics. People certainly get upset about his young, loud, disruptive supporters.

But nobody hates him.

It’s actually not clear who earned the majority vote in the Democratic primary, but it seems safe to say that that both Bernie and Hillary were close enough to tied that, even if we reversed all the suspected fraud in the election process, the nomination would still be up to the superdelegates.

What’s growing clearer is that a Hillary nomination offers a much better chance of handing us President Trump. Or rather, President Mike Pence, a franchised subsidiary of President Trump, Inc.™

The latest poll numbers I’ve seen have Bernie beating Trump by ten points. Hillary actually loses to Trump. Polls change, but there are disturbing trends. Hillary’s numbers keep going down, and neither she, nor her campaign, seems to have any idea how to improve them. Bernie’s numbers keep going up, and he’s not even campaigning.

Bernie has the potential to unite the Democratic Party, draw in much of the Independent vote, and even draw Republican votes away from Trump.

Hillary simply doesn’t. She might unite the Democratic Party, if she tries really, really hard, but Independents are and will remain indifferent, and she will not draw any of the Republicans who can’t stomach Trump. The only way she can bolster her position is to convince more people to vote against Trump.

We’ll see what happens next week.

Bernie or Bust

I need to discuss the Bernie or Bust movement now, I think, because in a few more weeks, the Donkey Party nomination will be over and either a) Bernie will be the Donkey Candidate in a “surprise” turn-around1, in which case Bernie or Bust will become a moot point, or b) Hillary will be the Donkey Candidate, in which case Bernie or Bust will throw a loud temper tantrum and then fade away — and though it probably won’t actually have much effect on the election, if Hillary subsequently loses the election, the media will pull it out and polish it up to a fine sheen as the reason for Hillary’s loss.

I recently watched Susan Sarandon’s interview with Chris Matthews; she’s a Bernie supporter, and though the interview is now two months old, she was at that time on the fence about whether she would vote for Hillary.

Much as I despise Donald Trump and everything he represents, I’m also on the fence about Hillary. I’d like to talk this through.

There are a lot of people out there who think Hillary would be a horrible President. They see the three major contenders in the race at this point as a choice among FDR, Hitler, and Stalin. If FDR is thrown out of the race, they are compelled — if they vote at all — to choose either Hitler or Stalin, and they don’t want to participate in that process.

Should Hillary be nominated, people who feel this way about Hillary probably should conscientiously abstain from voting for President. They aren’t so much Bernie or Bust, as they are Never Hillary, and probably Never Donald as well, so there’s little point in them casting a vote for President. They can write in Bernie as a protest, but no write-in candidate is going to do well. I’d still encourage them to vote for the local and Congressional races — it will make a bigger difference, anyway.

I agree with Robert Reich: Hillary is the best choice for the government we have, while Bernie is the best choice for the government we need. Because I think our government is broken, with massive corruption from legalized bribery that is driving us toward collapse as a nation, I want to see changes that Hillary will not even try to bring about.

But in simple choice between Hillary and Donald, there isn’t much contest. Donald is a pathological liar and a narcissist, and has risen to his current position on the coattails of a movement that is brutish, ugly, ignorant, and nihilistic. Because he is a narcissist, he attracts sociopaths and flatterers to his circle of power. As a narcissist, he’s easily managed by sociopaths who have power. In four years’ time, he’ll be the prisoner and puppet of the machinery he surrounds himself with; being a narcissist, he won’t even know it has happened, and won’t believe it if he’s told. That machinery will be pure evil.

But it isn’t just a simple choice between two candidates. There’s the deeper issue of how we find ourselves in this situation, and that inevitably leads us back to core defects in our election process.

These have come garishly to light in this election cycle.

The Elephant Party was taken over by a brutish mob, following a demagogue. The Party barely resisted. The candidates they put up against the demagogue were — I don’t like using the word, but it fits — pathetic: pale shadows of cartoon cutouts of real candidates, rigid ideologues preaching a failed and increasingly unpopular ideology.

This happened because the Elephant Party made a deal with the Devil back in the 1970’s, to pander for votes, and in two generations, it has destroyed the Party. It may have tarnished the brand beyond redemption: the Republican Party may well vanish in the next generation. If it doesn’t, it will have to rebirth itself.

The Donkey Party has been corrupt — meaning bought-off — for a long time: it was seduced by union money in the 1960’s, and then switched allegiance to the bankers in the 1990’s. I’m sure its love of money goes back to the beginning: it was, after all, originally the party of the Antebellum South, the wealthy Southern land and slave owners whose ancestors came to the US to get rich.

The thing is, this love of money has led the Donkey Party into a lot of stupid behavior over the years, including the widespread vote-tampering in this primary election. If Hillary had been as strong a candidate as they want us to believe, none of that would have been necessary, or even tempting. The problem was, she wasn’t a strong candidate to begin with, and Bernie became a legitimate, and then serious, threat to her campaign. The Donkey Party leadership all across the country panicked and started vote-rigging.

That was a stupid move, because we’re not living in the 1800’s any more: that kind of open-handed vote-rigging gets easily caught and exposed.

Now, in defense of the Donkey Party, I have to point out — again — that it’s a club, and neither Bernie nor the Independents he pulled into this primary are (to put it delicately) their kind of people. They gladly took our money, and our votes for one of their own, but they really, really didn’t want to put out our candidate. They thought Bernie would be a fringe candidate who would bring in a few extra bucks, and it blew up in their faces.

This brings us close to the real problem: an arguable plurality of people in the US do not have any political representation at all. It isn’t that this group can’t vote — though there is a lot of overt vote suppression — but that the entire election is rigged. We routinely are forced to choose between Hitler and Stalin. It’s how the system is set up, and it’s been that way for generations.

Even then, though it’s a horrible shock to anyone who has grown up with the idea of fair elections in a democracy, that’s still not the real problem. In fact, we can argue that rigged elections are necessary to protect us all from the mob. Even if you don’t buy that argument, our flawed system of vote-rigging has been getting by, more or less, for quite some time.

The real problem is that the Parties — the vote-riggers — have lost touch with reality in a changing world.

The point of elections is not to give the people control, but to give the people voice. It is the job of the elected officials to listen to that voice: not to pander to it, nor to “help their constituents” line their pockets, but to pay attention to what is really going on in the country. That’s what representation means.

What’s perfectly clear right now is that they are not paying attention. They are paying attention to the money, and nothing but the money. As the money leaves the middle class and goes to the rich, the government has become an oligarchy. The unrepresented masses are getting restive.

The dysfunctional political parties are creating a disgruntled mob.

So let’s bring this back to the Bernie or Bust movement. A lot of people wouldn’t vote for Hillary on a bet. That’s fine — then they shouldn’t. But if the Donkey Party nominates Hillary, a lot of people who don’t really have such strong feelings about Hillary herself, will still want to punish the Donkey Party for being a Jackass. They want to confront the Jackass Party with an existential crisis, by pulling out their financial and political support. They want to make Hillary lose, to punish the Jackass Party for their failure to listen.

I know: I feel that way, too. But it’s the wrong way to go about this.

It’s time to form a new political party. One that will kick the Jackass Party from here to the moon, and give it a real existential crisis, and nightmares, and weak bowels. We need a true and enduring threat to their oligarchy and their corruption and their smugness. We need a party that offers us the kind of government we need, not the broken and out-of-touch kind we have.

Let’s call it a Progressive party.

In that context, we have to ask the question. If Hillary is nominated for the Jackass Party, which will aid the most in supporting the creation of a Progressive Party? President Hillary? Or President Donald?

Arguments can be made for either approach.

Electing President Donald will, if we survive the experience, unite a lot of people with a common enemy, but I think it will strengthen the Jackass Party in the end. And we might not survive the experience.

Electing President Hillary will buy time to set up a political party that has some clout. It will give people four (or eight) more years to see the flaws in the Jackass Party and its candidates’ policies. We still might not survive the experience, because our continuing out-of-touch oligarchy is actually destroying the country by inches: but I think we probably have eight years left.

I’m still waiting to see what happens at the Jackass Convention. The superdelegates should promote the stronger candidate, and that’s Bernie. I suspect they won’t. If they do nominate Hillary, I’ll probably vote for her. Just to buy some time.

But I’m good and ready to put the Jackass Party out of business. Who’s with me?

[1] Meaning a result other than the one the corporate media has been trying to push on us.

Feeding the Poor

Last Sunday, I went to the grocery store, and on my way from the parking lot to the front door, I was approached by a young man who asked me for money.

We have a substantial homeless population in the area. I’ve never gotten a convincing answer as to who these people are, though there are many opinions and theories. They could be homeless people from San Francisco. They could be the home-grown poor. They could be part of the itinerant population of illegal pot-harvesters in the area. There are some theories about how this is the only county in northern California that is “soft” on the homeless, so they come here because they get free stuff. There are other theories about mental patients from Ronald Reagan’s war on mental health care back in the ’80’s, still wandering the streets like zombies. There are still other theories about other counties actually busing their homeless problem here. Some of the homeless are clearly mentally ill: they walk down the street shouting angrily at people who aren’t there — or at least, who aren’t visible to me. Others look healthy and capable.

This young fellow was one of the latter. He said he was trying to raise $60. It was a complicated tale he tried to spin in the twenty seconds between me and the door, involving some official social program in Ukiah that had put him up in a hotel south of town that cost $60 a night to stay in, that he somehow had to come up with. He said that he had most of it, but he needed another $22.

I’ve been around long enough to not really believe anyone’s story on first hearing, especially when he’s asking for something. I knew I didn’t have any idea what the kid really needed the money for.

But it touched me that he was so specific. Twenty-two dollars. Not twenty. Not fifty. It wasn’t a sob story about getting back to his dying maiden aunt in Oregon, or how he hadn’t eaten in a week, or how he was a homeless veteran. It was a simple financial goal, to have a roof over his head tonight, and he said he was close to reaching it.

Doubtless a con, I thought. He’s figured out that people fall for the old I’ve-got-a-financial-goal approach. And this business of being in a program that sends him out, unsupervised, to drum up sixty bucks by begging stinks like bullshit. Just give him the brush-off.

The angel on the other shoulder whispered, What a fine Republican way to look at this. Congratulations! Why don’t kick him, while you’re at it, and scream, “Get a fucking job!”

The heart has its reasons. I stopped, pulled out my wallet, and handed him a twenty.

He thanked me, politely and sincerely, and then he said there aren’t many people like me around: most people would give him a quarter, or a small handful of change, or a dollar. He said it was hard to come up with sixty bucks, begging: an all-day, exhausting effort. When someone like me came along, it really, really helped.

I’ve been thinking about that interaction on and off all week.

UnknownEveryone cites the old metaphor about teaching a man to fish. If I knew how to fish, I could probably teach someone, and yes, that would be better than giving him a fish.

The problem is, I don’t know how to fish.

Yes, I know how to fish, that thing with the pole and the hook and the bait — at least well enough to get good and wet and come back to a cooler full of beer and brats without too much more injury than a sunburn and a rash of mosquito bites. I can even make up stories about how much I enjoyed every hot, itchy minute of it. But if I actually had to live on the fish I caught, I’d starve to death. So no, I don’t really even know how to fish.

But this metaphor isn’t about fishing, it’s about surviving in our modern US society. And I don’t really know how to do that, either.

The truth is, I’ve never had to struggle to survive. It’s partly this thing that racial minorities in the US call “white privilege.” It’s partly that I was raised in a stable middle-class family during that brief period in US history when stable, middle-class families were common, with enough to eat, enough to take an annual family vacation, enough for piano lessons, swimming lessons, and summer camps. It’s partly that I was fearsomely school-smart in that brief period of US history when public education was valued and funded and offered career paths. It’s partly that, pretty much by accident, I picked up some mad skills in software design and development, and then sleepwalked into that brief period of US history when those skills were not only in demand, but proved — unlike almost every other profession in the country other than larceny — to be relatively recession-proof.

Now, I have a killer resume, top-game skills, experience, strong personal references, and that white privilege isn’t going anywhere soon.

What if I had none of that? What if I’d never had it? What if it all became somehow worthless?

I don’t know this young man’s story. Abusive home? Meth problem? Mental illness? Police record? Running from bad people? A trust fund baby who spent it all on whores and whiskey and is now flat on his face in the gutter?

Or maybe just an ordinary guy who lost his job, his family, and his home.

What would I do in this young man’s shoes? I wouldn’t even know how to beg. I’d probably die of hypothermia before I starved. If flu didn’t kill me in the first year, depression would.

My so-called “survival skills” in the modern world are the lucky product of privilege and leisure, useful only in a profession that is the product of privilege and leisure, in a society that is the product of privilege and leisure.

I don’t know how to catch a fish — I buy my fish at the grocery store. I can’t teach someone else how to catch a fish if I don’t know how, myself.

What I can do is give someone who asks for help, twenty bucks to buy a fish.

A Working Man's Lament

This last year at work has been difficult.

I’ve reached an age where new things come to me with … greater difficulty. I’m still doing just fine, but I can see the shape of the road in front of me.

I pretty much stopped playing the piano in college, in the 1970’s. We bought a piano in 1982, and I played it from time to time, but I didn’t really pick it up again until the 1990’s. I was horrifically rusty: my fingers were weak, and slow, and I had no fine control. I decided to see if I could bring any of it back, and I did, and actually surpassed my earlier skill by quite a bit.

It was very hard work. But I also noticed something — memorizing new music came harder, and didn’t stick as well. That was in my 40’s.

I started doing contract software work in 1996, where every job required that I learn new things. One of my first gigs required me to dig into the interrupt structure for both HP-UX and Windows NT, and write a hardware driver for a new PCI board that would be used in both HP-UX and Windows NT systems. I was pretty familiar with the Amiga OS internals — they were a freaking work of art, by the way — but I’d never even seen NT or Unix drivers before, so I had a vertical learning curve.

But I was good, and I knew it, so I just dug in and got the job done.

In 2005, I started doing bits of contracting work with SGI, and eventually joined SGI as an employee in the spring of 2012. By that point, I’d already rewritten a major piece of the software product I was working on to multi-thread the code for performance, and I understood it pretty thoroughly.

Last spring, I left SGI to work for Cray. I had to learn an entirely new business environment, at the same time I was learning the Python language (and style) and a completely new product development process that was new to Cray as well, on top of learning (or inventing) ways to do things that no one at Cray knew how to do. It was kind of fun, and kind of nightmarish at the same time, because we had an impossible schedule to meet. I again noticed that climbing the learning curve was harder than it had been in the past, just as it had been on the piano. There were days I felt like I was pushing on a wall.

Then, at the end of last year, Cray squashed the entire project I’d been working on, and transferred all of us to other projects. Now, I’m working in the Linux kernel, in C again rather than Python, and the learning curve has been brutal. I’m just starting to become productive, in my fifth month.

I’m still ahead of the normal curve: they tell me that this particular product takes something like six to twelve months for newcomers to become productive, and I’ve found footholds after only four. So I’m not contemplating an old-age home any time soon.

But it’s been difficult. I would even say, painful. I’ve had days I’ve had to quit at three, because I could no longer focus.

I’m not looking for sympathy. My career is just like this, and has always been like this. It pays well, and I’m used to it. When I can’t do it any more, I’ll have to quit. I’ve always known that.

What brought on this posting was something in a comment that Bernie Sanders made, while speaking in coal-mining communities in West Virginia:

“In my view, we have got to invest $41 billion rebuilding coal mining communities and making sure that Americans in McDowell County and all over this country receive the job training they need for the clean energy jobs of the future.”

Clinton is singing much the same tune. All these politicians make it sound so damned easy. Just throw some money at a retraining program and declare “Mission Accomplished!”

The principal difficulty that an old (human) dog has with learning new tricks is not wrestling with less flexible brain matter.

It’s the loss of dignity.

The US doesn’t do dignity to begin with. We call our next generation a bunch of spoiled brats. We call our elders useless burdens. Our poor are parasites, and our sick should just get with the program and die, already, and stop wasting so much of our precious, precious money.

People can’t, and won’t, live like that. Force people to live without dignity, and a fair number will pick up a gun, put it in someone’s face, and say, “Respect me!” Some will point the gun at their own heads and pull the trigger. Still others will slide into addictions, or just curl up into a hopeless depression and die by inches.

People seek dignity where they can. And a lot of us seek our dignity in our work — assuming we have work, and can convince ourselves and others that we are good at it. It’s one of the few places in the US we can find any dignity at all.

When you take away a coal miner’s job, and offer a “retraining program,” you do two things.

First, you declare that the old job is no longer worth doing. You also call into question whether it was ever worth doing. It’s the same problem that returning soldiers face, when people line up and scream “baby killer” at them. It calls into question the value of their service, and leaves them with not so much as a fig leaf of dignity.

Second — and worse — you invalidate all of their accumulated expertise and experience. These are miners who know things about mining that are never written down in any book. They are men who have accumulated this knowledge through pain and effort, and they are now de facto experts in their field. Smart young miners look up to them for that experience. They share a professional camaraderie and mutual respect among their peers. Their wives, girlfriends, children, and relatives, look up to them for their position, their dedication, their hard-won wisdom as miners. They have dignity.

Suddenly, with a twist of a pen, they’re back in school, not really even an apprentice to their new trade. They’re all the way back in junior high school shop class, learning to … well, what is it, exactly, that we’re going to retrain these miners to do? Stamp ashtrays out of sheet metal? Make cabinets? Put labels on cans? Oh, no, that’s right, we’ll keep them in “the energy sector,” like there’s any crossover whatsoever between coal mining and wiring up solar panels.

Their dignity is gone, taken from them. They need to work hard to become an apprentice again. And if they don’t make the cut, competing against all those young kids with flexible brains and a long career path in front of them, rather than behind them — well, they are just one more useless burden thrown on the stack of obsolete, old-folk deadwood, a burden that we’ll all be better off without when they finally … well, you know.

Speaking of that, will you be needing your government-subsidized shared apartment next month? We’ve got a new batch of oilfield workers coming in and we need some beds for them, and as you know, funds are really, really tight.

If you want to personally contemplate what this is like, Mr. Sanders, or Mrs. Clinton — and I’d recommend it as an exercise — consider the idea that the United States has just been abolished, and you, as lawmakers, can keep working if you accept retraining in the new form of government, which is an imperial bureaucracy. By the way, you’ll need to learn Mandarin. Oh, and don’t let me forget to mention — your money isn’t any good any more, either. If you don’t want to work for your living, we’ve got some government-subsidized housing for you, and food stamps.

You’ll have to take a roommate, though, because we don’t have much space and, as you know, funds are really, really tight.

All Signs Fail

Unknown-1I’m a little irritated by all the media chowder-heads who are calling for either Bernie or Hillary to concede the race to the other.

If we’re going to do it that way, then let’s give up this ridiculous, expensive election process altogether and let the pundits and pollsters decide. Better still, let’s bring back the old practice of reading goat entrails, or rolling the Holy Dice — or my favorite, urticariaomancy, prognosticating the future based on patterns of hives and pimples1.

As the famous and well-loved Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over, ’til it’s over.”

So just suck it up, media chowder-heads, and wait for the fat lady to sing2.

It’s worth quoting another old adage my father used to repeat: “All signs fail in bad weather.”3

These pundits and polsters tout their mad predictive skills. X has correctly called every nomination in the last fifty years. Y has infallibly predicted the presidential winner for the last thirty years. Any candidate who gets Z, has never failed to win the election. Yada, yada.

Every one of these signs probably works just fine in fair weather. Except, of course, when it doesn’t, but we always ignore those cases, because hey, we predicted rain, and it turned out to be a nice day, so what’s your problem? But does anyone in their right mind want to call 2016 a normal, fair-weather election?

Is Hillary going to get the nomination? Then she has to earn it.

Is Bernie going to get the nomination? Then he has to earn it.

Right up to the bloody end, until the echoes from the fat lady’s last note die out.

Even if we wanted to call it early, these primaries are not a democratic process. They are a process by which a tiny minority of “political players” around the country choose a candidate to represent their Party, which is a private club that can set any rules it likes for membership and candidate selection.

There’s a Communist Party out there. There’s a Green Party. I’m sure there’s a Naked Druids Party. There’s probably a Ban Kitten Pictures On Facebook Party. Each Party makes its own rules for membership, and has its own rules for candidate selection. Each state has various rules for registering a Party to appear on the ballots, but the Parties themselves are self-ruled, and need not be democratic.

What distinguishes the Donkeys and the Elephants from all the other Parties is that they are enormously larger, well-established Parties with plenty of inter-state coordination throughout all fifty states. One of the ways they’ve garnered widespread support is by implementing certain “democratic” processes within their Party structure — that is, they make a big effort to look and feel like mainstays of democracy. They aren’t. They’re clubs, and they are not bound by democratic principles: they are bound by their Party rulebook.

When they meet at their Convention, they can change their rulebook. That is, in fact, how the highly undemocratic superdelegates were born, and it’s how superdelegates may go away this summer. However, whether the Convention changes these rules — or selects their candidates — using a democratic vote of conventioneers, or through single combat in a public arena, or by the Party chair’s decree after a thorough scrutiny of goat entrails, the matter is entirely up to the Party rulebook. Which can change.

In the end, Parties select their candidates to represent the Party in the general election, by whatever process they’ve decided upon. The different Parties’ candidates are then elected by — supposedly — popular vote: as ratified by the electoral college second-guessing the fraud-ridden results of a gerrymandered, racially- and economically-disenfranchised electorate, and possibly overridden by a partisan Supreme Court, but let’s just ignore all that for now. Separate issues.

Here’s the thing about US political Parties. None of the Parties other than the Donkeys and the Elephants plays to win the general election. It would take an even stranger year than this one to put a third party candidate in the White House. Third-party candidates know this (unless they’re crazy, which some of them are), and they play, not to win, but to make a statement.

But the Donkeys and the Elephants do play to win. In fact, nearly everything else about these two Parties is negotiable: winning is not negotiable. It’s the only thing they really care about.

So when the Convention gathers, its job is to pick winners.

Look at why the Donkeys have superdelegates. They say, “Remember McGovern.” They aren’t talking about a common criminal, like Richard Nixon, or an international war criminal, like George W. Bush. They are talking about a candidate who committed a truly heinous offense: he lost the election — badly. ::shudder:: They created superdelegates for the express purpose of preventing the idiot masses from ever nominating another loser.

Look at the Elephant Party this year. They’re going to nominate and support Donald Trump. If I understand this correctly — meaning, the Elephant Party rulebook — they don’t have to do this: under the circumstances, they could simply refuse to nominate anyone. Of course, that means they would concede this election cycle to the Donkeys, and that is the one thing they won’t do. Instead, they will put Elephant lipstick on the pig, print up lawn signs, and do everything in their power to put this nasty, narcissistic bully in the White House. If they succeed, they’ll have a big party with champagne, and then go home and hang themselves in despair.

The same rules apply to the Donkeys. They’re out to win. Period.

The Donkeys have a different dilemma than the Elephants this year. They have two very solid candidates. Despite the Internet bullshit flying around, both are experienced, smart, and (relatively) honest politicians. Despite the other Internet bullshit flying around, they are not interchangeable “liberals” — they have very different politics.

None of that matters.

The problem at the Convention is that they need to pick a winner. And that’s where it gets complicated.

The sad truth is that Hillary Clinton is not winsome to the US electorate.

This is one of the main things that Bernie’s campaign has brought out.

Last September, when Bernie threw his hat in the ring4, practically no one had even heard of the man. On the first Super Tuesday on March 1, Bernie was still an almost complete unknown, nationally.

By contrast, Hillary was well-known, nationally and internationally. She’d already schmoozed and won over the Donkey superdelegates, long before the primaries started. She had the full support of the Donkey Party machinery. Everyone knew she’d be the Donkey Party candidate in 2016.

In the last two months — two months — Bernie has gone from zero name recognition to being internationally recognized, and has almost tied for actual (non-super) delegates with Hillary. In nearly every state where Hillary has won the primary race, she has done so by a small handful of hard-won percentage points, in some cases (Arizona, New York) augmented by what appears to be outright voting fraud on the part of the Donkey Party. In a few states (Nevada, Missouri) her reported win was flipped to a loss after the state Party convention. Bernie has also eked out a couple of close wins, but in other states, he’s won by landslides. I’m sure that more than one March primary voter has reconsidered their vote for Hillary, now that they’ve heard of Bernie, but of course it is too late. I think it is fair to say that if Bernie had had today’s name recognition back in February, the Party would now be pressuring Hillary to concede.

She simply isn’t winsome.

Everyone has a theory about why this is true. It’s patriarchal misogyny. It’s Benghazi and Whitewater and e-mails. It’s her dishonesty. It’s her honesty. It’s her politics. It’s her screechy voice. It’s Bill and Monica. It’s her hair. Yada, yada.

Why Hillary isn’t winsome is a matter of opinion. But that she isn’t, is an unfortunate fact. The evidence is that a late-arrival, previously-unknown, grumpy old democratic socialist Jew from Brooklyn came within reach of beating her to an uncontested nomination, and is now forcing her into a contested nomination. If she were winsome, he wouldn’t be there — he would be down in the single-digits. Hillary would have finished mopping the floor with him back in March. Based on conventional punditry, she should have finished mopping the floor with him back in March.

She didn’t. She’s actually struggling to hold her lead. She isn’t winsome.

I don’t hold that against her as a personal flaw, given that the Elephant Pig is winsome to the US electorate. Somehow. God help us.

But it is a glaring candidate flaw.

This is the dilemma the Donkey Convention will face this summer. They need to pick a winner. And that is going to be a tough choice for them. Bernie is the stronger candidate with the public, and against the Elephant Pig. But they have a huge political investment in Hillary. Who will win?

All signs fail in bad weather.

I have no idea how they’re going to make this choice, nor what choice they will make. And shhh… don’t tell anyone, but the pundits don’t have a clue, either.

Until the conventioneers choose, we all have to wait for the fat lady to sing.

[1] Yes, that’s real. People are weird.

[2] Another enduring expression, of contested origin. Some attribute it to Samuel Goldwyn, commenting on one of his infrequent opera attendances. Others think it comes from the woman singing God Bless America at the end of US WWII newsreels. Still others think it refers to the steam boiler (the Fat Lady) in early steamships, which would signal final docking with a whistle blast.

[3] The expression that shows up on the web is, “All signs fail in dry weather.” My father was probably deliberately misquoting.

[4] Another idiom, this time from boxing. One way to ‘sign up’ for a boxing bout was to literally throw your hat into the boxing ring.

The End of Capitalism

Unknown-2In a previous post, I offered a simple and flexible definition of capitalism:

Capitalism is the idea that ownership, in and of itself, entitles the owner to the work of others, combined with the idea that ownership can be bought and sold.

I then noted that capitalism expects sustained exponential economic growth, which cannot be supported in nature. This unrealistic expectation is disguised by ignoring or denying the following principle:

Wealth is never created or destroyed. It is only moved and transformed.

Capitalism’s success over the last five centuries has been based, not on creating wealth, but on transforming natural wealth — usually irreversibly on any human time-scale — into human wealth.

Economists have long dismissed the entire natural economy, the source of all human wealth, as an unquantifiable “externality.” Economists don’t even think about what happens when our exponential appetites come up against the finite boundaries of the physical world.

So I’d like to talk for a moment about yeasts.

Yeasts are fascinating little beasts, with two distinct metabolisms; they can switch between these metabolisms depending on their environmental conditions.

The aerobic metabolism is used when the yeasts have plenty of oxygen in their environment. They eat sugars and oxygen, excrete CO2 and a small amount of complex organic chemicals, and produce more yeast cells.

The anaerobic metabolism is used when the yeasts become oxygen-starved, but still have food to eat and space to expand into. In this case, they continue to eat sugars, excrete CO2 and large amounts of ethanol as a waste product, and the yeasts stop reproducing.

Capitalism likewise has its aerobic and anaerobic metabolisms.

Aerobic capitalism occurs when capitalist enterprises have access to plenty of resources, and demand for the goods or services is strong. Growth potential in an aerobic business is exponential.

Anaerobic capitalism occurs when access to resources, or demand, or both, are restricted. Growth potential is now limited to sub-exponential growth, or no  growth at all.

Every successful business goes through aerobic and anaerobic stages.

My first job out of school was with the Gates Corporation R&D division.

Gates was founded in 1911, and the Gates Story is told as a typical Horatio Alger story. Charles Gates Sr. drifted into Denver, Colorado in 1911 with a mere $3500 in his pocket (actually, quite a lot of money in 1911, but let’s ignore that), bought the Colorado Tire and Leather Company, started selling a single, innovative product for the newfangled horseless carriage, and created a billion-dollar multi-national corporate behemoth within his lifetime.

By 1982, when I started working, Gates’ growth had slowed to 1% annually, and in Ronald Reagan’s Morning In America, this was deemed an unacceptably low return. Gates expanded its profits by purchasing other companies, notably the Uniroyal Power Transmission Company, and by closing the Denver manufacturing facility to reduce costs.

In 1996, Gates was purchased by the British firm, Tomkins, and in 2014 it was sold to The Blackstone Group, which (basically) buys companies and sells them off in pieces for salvage profit. There is still a “Gates” brand of product out there, manufactured somewhere by someone — a brand-name is one of the more profitable items of salvage from company — but the exponentially-growing company that Charles Gates Senior founded is gone.

This is a very normal progression for capitalist businesses.

Let’s look a this process in a little more detail.

When a new demand appears in the marketplace, lots of companies compete to satisfy that demand. These businesses are all aerobic, and they expand rapidly. If the demand is huge — say, for cars — and they run out of natural wealth — say, steel — then they create a voracious market for steel  that funds new technologies and legal excuses and even military excursions to transform more natural wealth into steel, faster, more cheaply, and (usually) more destructively. So long as the businesses all remain aerobic, there will be a lot of competition, technological innovation, and exponential economic growth.

Then the businesses saturate their market, meaning they’ve essentially satisfied all of the paying customers: I’ve already got a car, you talked me into buying two more, but dangit, I really don’t want a fourth one — I’ve got no place to park it. It’s also possible to reach a hard limit on natural resources, in which case the dynamics are a bit different, but that doesn’t happen much in the modern world. It is almost always the demand that tops out.

What happens next is called “the shake-out,” where smaller competitors are forced out of business. The larger companies — the ones that will eventually survive the shake-out — start to invest in targeted marketing, service plans, and economies of scale that allow them to lower production costs. They pass all of these benefits to their customers.

These strategies are not intended for the good of their customers — they are intended for the destruction of their competitors. More specifically, the big companies are trying to exponentially expand their slowing demand, and the only way to do that is to take out their competition, and eat their slice of the demand-pie.

The business has started to go into its anaerobic metabolism.

The shake-out eventually takes the entire industry down to a small handful of major companies that service all of the demand. Think the Big Three automakers in Detroit, Coke and Pepsi, Microsoft and Apple. Sometimes geography or government regulation will partition the markets, such as for airlines, allowing a larger absolute number of competitors to co-exist. But within any “free” segment of that market, you end up with an effective monopoly or duopoly. These can vie for “market share” with advertising, marketing gimmicks, or enhanced services, but they are essentially all fighting for a fixed pool of consumers, and any gain by one company is a loss for the others.

At this point, pretty much the only way for the dominant companies to expand further is to diversify, by buying other companies, which may or may not have anything to do with their core business. Most of the largest multi-national companies today are merely holding companies that take profit from all of their holdings, in a very pure exercise of capitalism: they have bought the ownership rights, so they are entitled to a cut of the profits. Whether they provide any real benefits to the businesses they suck profit from is at best arguable; but as I’ve pointed out before, capitalism has nothing to do with merit, and everything to do with ownership.

Here are a few stark contrasts between aerobic and anaerobic businesses.

Aerobic businesses create jobs. Anaerobic businesses eliminate jobs.

During the aerobic phase of a business, the quickest way to expand your business is to employ human labor. You can even offer travel expenses, signing bonuses, a company car, or free lodging and whiskey — the contribution of each person more than pays for such trivial expenses. You are always looking for more people.

Once the business becomes anaerobic, companies turn to cost-cutting, automation, outsourcing, offshoring, layoffs, and budget cutbacks to maintain growing profits.

It’s worth noting that people — employees — are considered financial liabilities for any business; it’s a universal accounting practice. Let this sink in: employees are liabilities. A company always improves its financial standing by reducing liabilities, such as by laying off workers.

The only way to change this — the only way to make employees into assets — would be to allow the company the right to buy and sell their employees as capital assets, just as they would buy and sell their office furniture. Last time I checked, this was called slavery.

Aerobic businesses grow by expanding to meet demand. Anaerobic businesses grow by cannibalizing other businesses.

A business that buys another business in a merger shows paper growth: it’s a simple matter of paying less for the acquired company than it is worth (on paper), resulting in immediate profits. You also get a new set of customers, a new stream of income, and a new source of ongoing profits. If those profits aren’t as high as you’d like, you can cut the least profitable portions of the new business, and sell those off for salvage, which is additional short-term profit. In the worst case, you sell off the entire acquisition for salvage and force all its old customers to use your product instead.

This is a great strategy for eliminating competition. Very large companies can even purchase another company at a loss, simply to capture their competitor’s customers and eliminate the cost of competing with them.

Most employees in a merger are kept for a short period of time, during which they are assured and reassured that their jobs are safe, after which they are let go. Mergers are job-killers. It’s just business.

Vulture capitalism and mergers became one of the main sources of “economic growth” in the 1980’s, but it was not actual economic growth at all: one company grew, another company disappeared. Stockholders profit, but the economy as a whole remains the same, or even shrinks a little because of the inevitable layoffs, which destroys demand across a wide range of businesses.

Aerobic businesses represent a tide that lifts all boats. Anaerobic businesses represent a wave that beaches all but the largest yachts.

Aerobic capitalism views a “rising tide” of capital growth as a bunch of tiny toy boats in a bathtub, where the “magic of wealth creation” is the spigot that keeps pouring more financial syrup into the tub. This syrup forms a growing heap right under the spigot, where the ownership class moors its boats, and provides a smaller but still-growing puddle even at the far end of the tub where the non-owners (the scum) live. Aerobic capitalism doesn’t expend much thought on where the money comes from: it presumes that the spigot is simply “creating wealth” through “the magic of the marketplace,” and will continue to do so forever.

In anaerobic capitalism, the spigot is shut off, and the “rising tide” is produced by pumping the financial syrup from one end of the tub to the other: it lifts some boats while forcing others to beach themselves on the bare porcelain. The art of being an anaerobic capitalist is being far enough from low end of the tub that you stay afloat, even as the pile of syrup grows higher and narrower, and the expanse of bare porcelain broader.

This last contrast — the “rising tide” contrast — is particularly important at this moment in history.

Capitalism goes into anaerobic behavior when faced with the need for growth, without adequate opportunity for growth. Successful capitalists switch from exploiting natural wealth, to exploiting human wealth. We see corporate acquisitions instead of business expansion, corporate reduction of head-count, benefits, and pay rather than increased production, increased use of debt to finance operations, and outright fraud. The overall result is that the fiction of economic progress through wealth creation becomes straightforward wealth concentration, leading to an increasingly stratified society based on growing extremes of wealth and poverty, based in turn on the principle of the rich stealing from everyone else.

This kind of runaway wealth-gap is not isolated to capitalism: it’s common in human societies, and it is typically a precursor to some kind of dramatic social readjustment. The immensely wealthy who live at the top of the pyramid are incapable of sustaining their wealth without the support of the rest of society; the rest of society cannot support itself, because it is trapped in maintaining and increasing the wealth of the few at the top. The poor eventually break under the burden of maintaining the wealthy, and then the whole system collapses.

What’s notable about this is that the wealthy almost always remain clueless right up to the end. As far as they are concerned, everything is working just fine: their portfolios are increasing right on schedule. The rising grumble they hear from the lower classes is dismissed as the work of rabble-rousers, general laziness, and moral decay among the poor: nothing that a few lashes, jail terms, hangings, or a bit of real hunger won’t cure, and right bloody quick. Why in my day, we worked thirty-hour days, and we liked it….

It doesn’t matter whether I’m talking about Mitt Romney carping about the 47%, Marie Antoinette advising the poor to “eat cake,” or Nero enjoying music in his garden while the poor parts of Rome burned. It’s the same pattern.

Our global capitalist economy is following that pattern faithfully.

Of course, predicting exactly when and how capitalism will end is a fool’s game. Accurate data is mixed with lies and fraudulent accounting. More importantly, we have seven billion people trying to fix, break, and game the system, all at the same time. Even if we had perfect data, we could not predict the precise unfolding of events.

This is one of the reasons I try to stick to the overall process, such as the collision between exponential growth and a finite world. It’s obvious that capitalism will end. It’s not obvious when it will end, or exactly how. In fact, I could argue that capitalism has already died, and been revived, several times.

Karl Marx predicted the end of capitalism in the mid-1800’s, and any one of the banking collapses in the late 1890’s could have spelled the end of capitalism.

But capitalism didn’t die. Various financial fixes kept the system going, and led to the vast speculative financial bubble of the 1920’s, the “Roaring Twenties,” taken as evidence of the triumph of capitalism.

It was easy to see the final, bitter end of US capitalism in the bread-lines and homeless migrations of the early 1930’s — a little later than Marx thought it would happen, but the Stock Market Crash of 1929 was a suitably catastrophic ending, even by Marxist standards.

But capitalism didn’t quite die. The democratic socialism that followed the Great Depression of the 1930’s did not outlaw capitalism, as the Soviet model of Communism did — instead, the New Deal allowed a heavily-taxed, heavily-regulated form of capitalism to survive. The massive government spending on infrastructure through the CCC and WPA programs, heavy expenditures in science and technology, and (of course) continuing to expand the US military under Cold War justifications, combined with the complete disappearance of competition from war-ravaged Europe, allowed US capitalism to draw new breath on its deathbed. As a bonus, this government spending spree created an entirely unexpected new market: a vastly-expanded middle class, which created the consumer mass-market.

By the 1970’s, even regulated capitalism was in trouble again after having completely saturated the US consumer market, despite the invention of television advertising, suburban envy, and the throwaway society. It was easy to see the end of capitalism in the runaway inflation of the late 1970’s.

But capitalism didn’t quite die. Capitalists turned to creative accounting, corporate mergers, and debt to keep the system running. None of that actually helped the economy, any more than the financial tinkering had done in the late 1800’s. So it would have been easy to predict the demise of capitalism by the early 1990’s.

But capitalism didn’t die. The entirely unexpected computer boom brought a giddy decade of capitalist profits — Moore’s Law combined with a slightly elevated tax rate and Al Gore’s public funding of the national (public) Internet backbone, plus a lot of creative government accounting to hide the effects of inflation. That boom came to a sudden end in the tech bubble collapse of 2001. It would have been easy to write the epitaph for capitalism, right there.

But capitalism didn’t quite die. Aggressive deregulation, financial speculation, and massive fraud through the first decade of the 2000’s supplied a way to keep the corpse inhaling and exhaling a little longer.

We’re currently in a cycle of enriching the ultra-wealthy by sucking money out of the poor through a combination of underreported inflation, outsourcing labor, personal debt (particularly educational debt), and outright financial fraud — a cycle which bounced hard in 2008, but is still in progress after a direct government bailout that further impoverished the poor by spending tax money to pay off bankers’ gambling debts, which are again accumulating. It would be very easy to predict the demise of capitalism in a flaming Wall Street catastrophe before 2020.

But then, we have renewable energy development right around the corner, and the potential magic silver bullet of LENR, either of which could afford capitalism the burst of pure oxygen needed to extend its life yet again. Or, should Bernie Sanders successfully kick off his political revolution and his movement transform government over the next decade, we just might see a revitalization of the consumer mass market through a kind of New Deal redistribution of wealth.

So predicting the precise end of capitalism is, as I said, a fool’s game.

However, it’s worth noting that when capitalism died in the 1930’s, the natural world was in, at most, mild danger from human activity — something easily handled by creating a few national parks and wildlife refuges. When capitalism went back into the hospital in the late 1970’s, we had nuclear armageddon hanging over our heads, acid rain, DDT, and superfund cleanup sites. As we approach 2020, we have global CO2 buildup from human activity, sea level rise, widespread genetic tampering, and biodiversity depletion at a rate that’s being called the Sixth Great Extinction.

The natural economy we depend on — the fundamental economic externality that economists won’t even talk about, much less quantify — is growing increasingly fragile as capitalism continues to destructively convert natural wealth into human wealth. Capitalist enterprises on the whole are slipping into anaerobic behavior: almost all of the top companies on the Forbes lists are either in the financial sector, or are multinational holding companies. Given the degree and ubiquity of fraud already involved in keeping up the appearance of solvency, I suspect the true end of capitalism — with no subsequent zombie revivals — is pretty near.

In a future post, I will offer a few constructive thoughts on where we can go from here.

Feeling the Bern

I came out for Bernie Sanders nearly a year ago. I’ve actually been donating money to his campaign, which is something I’ve never done in my life. I plan to vote in the California primary; I’ve never participated in a primary, anywhere. I’ve even registered as a Democrat, which is not merely something I’ve never done, but something I thought I’d never do.

I have relatives who are in love with the idea of Hillary as President, and we’ve exchanged some interesting viewpoints. I’m writing this mainly for them, not to sway their vote — it would be a dull world where everyone agreed on everything — but simply to clarify a few things that Facebook posts can easily obscure.

The United States has been in the midst of a strange economic experiment for the last forty years. It’s actually not so much an experiment, as a recurring fever, like malaria: I call it a fever, because it potentially has as dire consequences as a malarial fever. Our current episode started about the time I came of age as a voter, so my entire political life has been lived under its influence.

It has a lot of names. During the episode we suffered in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, they called it laissez-faire.  The current episode has been called “trickle-down,” or “supply-side,” or simply “deregulation,” all of which refer to various fits and tics the fever produces. But the basic thrust of the process could be called “privatization.” It’s a process by which public property becomes private property, and private property becomes political power to turn still more public property into private property.

More simply still, it’s the process by which “ours” becomes “mine.” It’s the gradual theft of something called “the common wealth.”

My concern isn’t really with the theft, as such — though it’s obnoxious — as with the consequences of that theft. Let me see if I can explain the concern simply, by talking about medicine.

We have some fabulous medical technology. A cancer diagnosis was a death sentence when I was a child — now, cancer is largely curable. Clogged arteries are now a routine matter of balloons and stents. We cut open the skull to relieve pressure from a hematoma or do various kinds of brain surgery, and we’re even fitting people with mechanical limbs that respond to their nerve impulses. Modern medicine is like something out of a science-fiction story of the 1960’s.

Modern medical practice is built on the knowledge and skills of physicians who practice medicine. The reason we have these physicians is that there is a huge body of people who are so well-paid, or have such princely insurance benefits, that they can afford to be treated by these physicians.

Let’s skip the question of whether the masses deserve such princely medical care. Maybe they do. Maybe they don’t. But without these masses puffing up the ranks of people who need heart surgery, for instance, and who can pay for heart surgery, we simply would not have the heart surgeons that we do. We would have fewer heart surgeons. We would have fewer schools teaching heart surgery. We would have fewer hospitals and clinics that support heart surgery. We would have less research, less practice, less experience. The entire field of heart surgery would suffer if there were fewer paying customers.

In the ultimate end-case of privatization, we might have, say, four hundred wealthy families that could afford these advanced medical procedures. Perhaps one individual, maybe two, in those four hundred families would actually need heart surgery in a decade. That’s not enough to support an entire specialty of heart surgery. Even if you decided to create a captive market, and kept dozens of heart surgeons on permanent retainer, just in case you needed one, none of them would have actually performed heart surgery on a human being — they’d have read about it in a book, and perhaps practiced on a dog, or a cow. Unless you kept the surgical facilities right in your mansion, and never left it, you’d need EMTs to follow you around who knew how to handle a sudden heart attack. You’d need to pay for all the equipment and medicines. Just in case.

We can extend this across the entire economic spectrum.

If you want something as humble as take-out pizza, there has to be a market for take-out pizza, which means lots of customers with plenty of easy money to waste on pizza.

Even indoor plumbing is about the masses. The busy royalty of old would just hire someone to follow them around with a bucket — they didn’t need indoor plumbing. The commoners couldn’t afford indoor plumbing even if it had been available.

We need a thriving middle class. It isn’t just about the money — it’s about the shape of our civilization itself.

Though it’s also about the money. Some of the top end investors get it: they call it “the velocity of money.” They call it a lot of different things.

But it has an older and far simpler name: prosperity. Prosperity is the common wealth. Not the private wealth.

To be a strong nation, we must be a prosperous nation. We must have a great deal of common wealth. If there is only private wealth, the wealthy will find nothing to buy with their wealth. If they rule a flea-bitten empire, they will, themselves, have fleas.

No one in politics would openly disagree with any of this, but our experiment — our fever — of the last forty years has been based on a recurrent delusion, a fever-dream, that if you give money to the rich, they will give it all back in the form of jobs and technology and an improved standard of living. It’s a delusion, because the rich will only create as many jobs as they absolutely must to meet demand for their products, “demand” meaning paying customers. If paying customers can no longer afford pizza, the pizza parlors will lay off workers — they don’t hire more people when demand drops off. With that layoff, there are now even fewer people to buy pizza.

It’s a vicious cycle.

The way out is fairly simple. You collect taxes from the people who have money — the rich — and you create what we now call “infrastructure.” Infrastructure is part of the common wealth: it’s available to everyone at no cost beyond the taxes. Things like highways, which facilitate trade. Things like military forces and police, so that we can trade and be prosperous without worrying about invasion and theft by force. Things like power networks and internet backbones and regulated airwaves. Things like clean water and sewage treatment and education.

What the infrastructure investment does is to create business opportunities. They are real opportunities, because they are freely available to anyone with nothing but a dream in his heart, and the ambition to follow it, and the willingness to work for it. They don’t have to already possess the patent, and the brand name, and the customer base, and the vast sums of old money.

Because of my intended audience with this post, I’d like to talk about one very particular piece of the common wealth: publicly-funded scientific research.

I’ve worked, in one sense or another, with privately-funded research for most of my life, and the first thing you learn is that you never call it research: it’s called “development.” There’s a reason for that — it’s always targeted toward profit margins. If it doesn’t “pay out” in a “reasonable” amount of time — usually a year or at most, two — it’s abandoned. It takes a very large and tolerant company to put up with even a year of unprofitable development.

Almost the only time a company will do real research is if it receives direct government funding to do so. Even then, it will often try to farm out the hard thinking to a publicly-funded university researcher. Management wants a green light — US dollar green — on all the speculative parts of a project before investing any of its own money in development.

I recently posted on Facebook a comment by none other than Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, who observes pretty much the same thing.

Our forty-year fever has caused most of the serious and worsening pathologies in the university research community. Funding has become tighter, and tighter, and tighter. Funding committees have closed ranks against “frivolous” research — meaning research that won’t yield immediate, spectacular, and guaranteed scientific “profit.” This gives researchers a strong financial incentive to commit scientific fraud and hope that they don’t get caught. Research papers have vanished behind abusively-priced paywalls. Universities now patent discoveries, rather than making them part of the public domain.

Publicly-funded research is being privatized right out of existence.

Bernie Sanders is the first US politician I’ve heard in forty years who seems to actually get this — the fact that we are, and have been, headed in exactly the wrong direction regarding common and private wealth for at least forty years.

Q: Do we tax the wealthy, or give them tax cuts? A: We tax the hell out of them, and plow the taxes back into real public research, and infrastructure development, and the common wealth.

Q: Do we let the banks grow large, or cut them down to size? A: We cut them into itty bitty pieces, because banks exist only to facilitate the flow of money in a free economy, and you don’t need large banks for that. Large banks take large risks, including fraudulent risks, and then when they fail, they impede the flow of money fatally, like a blood clot in the heart.

Q: Do we allow universities to put students into lifelong debt for an education? A: No. Education itself is part of the common wealth, the infrastructure, and should be tax-paid, all the way through the highest levels.

Q: Is health-care a right or a privilege? A: It’s a right. Not for weepy reasons about how sick people somehow deserve it, poor things — though there is that — but to ensure that the medical profession itself remains robust.

Q: Should trade deals reduce — directly or indirectly — the wages of US citizens? A: No. That only forces the pizza parlors to close, and the doctors to drop out of medicine. It reduces the common wealth.

I see no evidence that Hillary understands any of this.

Maybe she does, someplace deep in the secret places of her heart.

But she has taken the political route of paving her path with the money of the wealthy, most of whom are deep in the convulsions of the fever-dream — it’s the foundation of her entire campaign strategy, both in 2008 and in 2016 — so even if she really gets it, she absolutely cannot say that she gets it. Not out loud. She can’t spook her fevered donors; she has to reassure them.

In fact, the only way that Hillary could take us in the right direction as a nation is to flat-out betray her donors. She has to reassure, and reassure, and reassure, and then when she gets into the White House, turn around 180º and slap them with high taxes and bank breakups and debt forgiveness for student loans and a national public healthcare program.

She’s too honest to do that. She’s courting the wealthy because she believes in the wealthy. She is not dishonest: she is fevered. She will do nothing to turn the country around, because she doesn’t think it’s going in the wrong direction.

If I felt Hillary and Bernie were headed within even forty-five degrees of the same direction on these hard-core policy issues, and others, I could consider putting my vote behind Hillary.

But I don’t see it. I think they are headed in opposite directions, and I think Bernie’s direction is the right one. It’s why I’m “feeling the Bern.”

There are two objections to Bernie’s platform that I hear a lot of, that are worth addressing:

“This is just Utopian wishful thinking.”

I’d agree with that, and run the other way screaming, except for the fact that the US went through this fever in the early 1900’s, almost died in the 1930’s, and recovered with exactly the same medicine that Bernie is prescribing. It’s called democratic socialism, and it’s what I grew up under as a child. It’s what most of the European nations are taking these days. It’s safe, and effective.

“There is no way Bernie is going to get his policies enacted.”

That remains to be seen. The truth is that neither Bernie, nor I, are wild-eyed visionaries crying out in the desert. Look to the rallies. Look to the enthusiasm and political engagement of the Millennials. Look to the widespread support among political Independents and even moderate Republicans. This is not an election, it’s the formation of a movement. It is bringing together a lot of support.

Yes, it’s possible that democracy in the US is dead, and that this whole attempt will fail completely. In which case, our economy will continue to rot out from under us, until the multinational corporate owners decide they can’t stand the stink of poverty among the US masses any longer and move somewhere else, leaving the US as a burned-out third-world nation. In that case, at least we’ll be able to say that we tried. By God, we tried.

But my expectation is that what Bernie will accomplish is to give the tiller a hard pull to what the fevered call “the left.” It will likely take a decade or two to complete the turn, and Bernie will of course have to leave the task to others. The point is not to finish the job. The point is to start it.

Because ultimately, this isn’t about me, nor even about us.

It’s about our grandchildren.