Allen Ginsberg

Allen GinsbergOn this day in 1808, Jefferson Davis was born. He lived to be an old, rich, and respected man—despite the fact that he was a traitor. Because, you know, he was a rich white man. We don’t do anything to people like that. After the Civil War, he got a slap on the wrist and then he was pretty much back to the style of life that he had been accustomed to before he committed treason against the United States.

It’s really interesting how many great female blues guitarists and singers came out of the south during the Great Depression. Of course, throughout history, poor women have always had to be strong. And these women were certainly that. You can hear it in their music. One of the best and most recorded was Memphis Minnie who was born in 1897 in Algiers, Louisiana. Here she is doing “Chauffeur Blues,” a song she used to wow the blues scene in Chicago in 1933. (This version is from 1941.)

Dancer and more Josephine Baker was born in 1906. Actor Colleen Dewhurst was born in 1924. Tony Curtis was born in 1925. And musician Curtis Mayfield was born in 1942.

Game show innovator Chuck Barris is 84 today. He wrote an amazing autobiography, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, in which he claimed to have been an assassin for the CIA while he was simultaneously creating shows like The Dating Game. Clearly, he’s not serious. The book is even subtitled, “An Unauthorized Autobiography.” But it is amazing that so many people take is seriously. That is, seriously enough to make even the CIA feel it must counter the claim. And that’s hilarious.

Guitarist Ian Hunter is 74 today. Actor Penelope Wilton is 67. And comedian Jason Jones is 46.

The day, however, belongs to poet Allen Ginsberg who was born on this day in 1926. I’m not that big a fan of his poetry. What I’m more impressed with is that work that he and Jack Kerouac did in bringing Naked Lunch to fruition. But there are poems by Ginsberg that I admire, especially “The Green Automobile.” Here is the beginning of it:

If I had a Green Automobile
I’d go find my old companion
in his house on the Western ocean.
Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!

I’d honk my horn at his manly gate,
inside his wife and three
children sprawl naked
on the living room floor.

He’d come running out
to my car full of heroic beer
and jump screaming at the wheel
for he is the greater driver.

We’d pilgrimage to the highest mount
of our earlier Rocky Mountain visions
laughing in each others arms,
delight surpassing the highest Rockies,

and after old agony, drunk with new years,
bounding toward the snowy horizon
blasting the dashboard with original bop
hot rod on the mountain

we’d batter up the cloudy highway
where angels of anxiety
careen through the trees
and scream out of the engine.

We’d burn all night on the jackpine peak
seen from Denver in the summer dark,
forestlike unnatural radiance
illuminating the mountaintop:

childhood youthtime age & eternity
would open like sweet trees
in the nights of another spring
and dumbfound us with love,

for we can see together
the beauty of souls
hidden like diamonds
in the clock of the world,

like Chinese magicians can
confound the immortals
with our intellectuality
hidden in the mist,

in the Green Automobile
which I have invented
imagined and visioned
on the roads of the world

more real than the engine
on a track in the desert
purer than Greyhound and
swifter than physical jetplane.

Happy birthday Allen Ginsberg!

Fuck Monsanto! The Kids Are Alright!

Monsanto Car

On my way out of Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve last week, I came upon this car. And I knew I had to get a picture of it. I agree with the sentiment, but that isn’t the reason I was photographing it. I have a great interest in people who are ostentatious about their political beliefs. As you must know, I have extremely strong political opinions. Yet I would not generally put a bumper sticker on my car. It strikes me as being provocative for no good reason. I’m not the greatest driver so I don’t need to give people more reasons to hate me. But even if I see someone with 15 Tea Party bumper stickers all over his car, I’m impressed; we might disagree about everything in particular, but we at least believe in taking a strong stand.

Just after I took the picture above, a man came out of an RV that was parked across from the car. He said, “Yeah, that’s a great thing for my kids to see.” He seemed to think that I was photographing it because I was offended. Truly, until he said that, I had not even noticed that “Fuck Monsanto” was printed various times on the car. I smiled at the man and walked away. But I was no longer thinking about Monsanto!

A lot of people I like very much have the same belief that the RV man had: the rest of the world should be looking out for their kids. I don’t accept this—at least not in the way they mean it. Understand: I have a fondness for kids that I think is a lot more respectful than that of most adults. I interact with kids as though they are equals. And that means that I don’t try to hide uncomfortable parts of life from them: death, sex, or naughty words. In my experience, if you answer these kinds of questions honestly, children will honestly find that they aren’t that interested and move on to another subject.

The problem with coarse language comes up because, as much as I try not to, they sometimes slip out. But the situation usually goes like this. I throw in an unintended “fuck” into the middle of a sentence. The parent suddenly stiffens as though I just accidentally revealed that his beloved mother was dead. And as a result, the child who was blissfully unaware of what I said starts looking around eagerly, “What did I miss?!” Because the kid knows it must have been good or else daddy would not be freaking out.

But I do try because I have personal relationships with these people. I don’t at all understand why I should give a shit about the children of the RV guy. The truth is that I would never print a coarse word like “Fuck” on my car. It rude. But that’s my sense of social obligation. I’m sure the “Fuck Monsanto” guy feels that the issue he is highlighting is important enough to be provocative. But where did this guy in the RV get the idea that his right to keep naughty words out of his children’s vocabulary trumps everyone else’s rights?

In this country we have a distorted view of parental rights. There is this idea that no expense is too great if it is for our children. But they aren’t our children. They are their children. In addition, their children already know those words. They even know how to spell them, “F U C K, tell her I’m fine.” I think I learned that in the second grade. What’s more, the whole idea of shielding kids is offensive. They are growing. They are learning. And Pete Townshend knew the truth: the kids are alright.

David Frum’s Five Essential Tasks

David FrumDavid Frum has announced that he going to discontinue his blog at The Daily Beast at least through the summer for personal reasons—among others, his father’s recent death from metastatic lung cancer. But in signing off, he presented “five essential tasks” that conservative reformers must commence before they can make progress.

There is a distinct cognitive dissonance in the article. He wrote, “As Ross Douthat has perceptively observed, the cause of conservative reform has gained increasing coherence and force since the 2012 election.” And that “every day in 2013 we seem to see a new green shoot emerging from once-frozen soil.” Given how fundamental these five essential tasks are, I can only see his claims of “coherence and force” and “green shoot emerging” as sugarcoating the very real problems that he sees not just with the conservative movement but with its would-be reformers.

His first task is most revealing:

There remain too many taboos and shibboleths even among the conservative reformers. If the only policy tool you allow yourself to use is tax credits, your reform agenda will sputter into ineffectuality. Conservative reformers need to do a better job of starting with the problem and working forward, not starting with the answer and working backward.

In the past, I’ve been extremely critical of David Frum—especially regarding just how “reasonable” he is. But this paragraph shows that at least in the abstract: he gets it. And what he is talking about here is the critical problem with conservatives in general and the reformers in particular. They never look at a problem and think, “What is the best solution?” A good example of this is the Heritage Foundation’s idea of the individual mandate, which is now codified in Obamacare. That was working backwards. First come the limits and then comes the policy solution. And what they came up with is a policy that is far more invasive and problematic for individuals than straight up government insurance would have been. No one would have come up with that solution if they didn’t start with the idea that the insurance and medical industries mustn’t lose any profits.

The argument against liberals that they want to throw money at every problem is not wholly without merit. And 40 years ago, it had a good deal more merit. But those ideas were in general straightforward efforts to solve problems. And often their ideas of throwing money at a problem cost far less than the conservative ideas. For example, it is cheaper to improve various forms of opportunity than it is to continue to build more and more prisons. What’s very clear is that the liberal approach to problems—especially coming from liberal reformers—is not working backwards.

This of course is the classic problem, “When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” This is usually applied to foreign policy. But in terms of economic policy, it is not much of an exaggeration to say that every problem has become a justification for a tax cut. That’s how Romney’s big idea for economic growth was to give rich people more money. No one thinks the answer to the question of poor people is to make the rich richer. At least it isn’t if you are actually trying to answer the question. If you are trying to justify another tax break, it is another matter.

Frum’s second task is a bit of a muddle:

Conservative reformers are understandably allergic to arguments about income inequality. The conservative project at its best has worked to raise the floor beneath the American middle class, not to lower the ceiling upon the middle class. But one of the lessons I think conservatives should take from the 2012 Romney defeat is that the increasing concentration of wealth in America has dangerous political and intellectual consequences. I’m not so worried that the oligarchs will pay for apologetics on their behalf. That’s politics as usual. I’m more concerned that so many people will identify themselves with the interests of oligarchy without being paid, without even being conscious that this is what they are doing. The whole immigration debate, for example, is premised on the assumption that the only interests that matter are the interests of the employers of labor.

Most of this is entirely correct. But what is that about the conservative project at its best? Surely he is not talking about Eisenhower. Since the modern conservative movement gained power 35 years ago,[1] the floor beneath the American middle class has at best stayed the same. I’m curious how Frum justifies saying that the conservative movement has done anything but change the country from one where productivity growth was broadly shared to one where almost all, and in many cases even more than all went to the rich. When he says that he’s worried about people doing the bidding of the oligarchy without payment, does he mean that it is okay for him to do it because he is being paid?

Other than that bit of confusion, he is highlighting a huge problem in our society. But he’s only implying what it ought to mean to the would-be conservative reformers. I guess he is afraid to come right out and say that if we don’t deal with income inequality—And fast!—we won’t have a democracy to reform. But other than Bruce Bartlett, none of the reformers seems at all interested in this kind of stuff. In fact, they mostly think it is hippy nonsense that should be left to Occupy Wall Street.

Frum’s third task deals with climate change:

Conservative reformers must not absent themselves from the environmental debate. Humanity’s impact on the climate —and how to address that impact—is our world’s largest long-term challenge. If conservatives refuse to acknowledge that challenge, they only guarantee that the challenge will be addressed in ways that ignore conservative insights and values.

This is interesting, coming from a man who has long tried to claim the “reasonable” middle ground while in fact being a global warming denialist. And I’m unclear what those “conservative insights” might be. After all, the Democrats have accepted the great conservative idea of a carbon tax. And this caused—What a surprise!—the conservatives to claim that their own plan was “cap and tax” and that global warming isn’t happening anyway. As Frum himself wrote in 2009, “Everything important about global warming remains disputed”! (Note: the original article on CNN will not display, so you will have to accept the secondhand Get Energy Smart Now article.)

Next up is Frum’s fourth task where he seems clueless of his fellow conservative “reformers”:

Conservative reformers should make their peace with universal health coverage. It’s the law, and it won’t be repealed. Other countries have managed to control costs while covering everyone, and the US can too. A message of “protect Medicare, scrap Obamacare” reinforces the image of conservatism as nothing more than the class interest of the elderly.

The reformers, as I noted this morning, are offering universal health coverage. They are in the business of providing plausible-sounding schemes that will allow conservative politicians cover to just repeal Obamacare and replace it with nothing—or at least something much worse.

Frum’s final task is for conservative reformers to tone down the anti-Obama rhetoric and to push back on the scandal mania:

I appreciate that conservative reformers must pay lip-service to shibboleths about Barack Obama being the worst president of all time, who won’t rest until he has snuffed out the remains of constitutional liberty, etc. etc. Dissent too much from party orthodoxy, and you find yourself outside the party altogether. Still… conservative reformers should admit, if only to themselves, the harm that has been done by the politics of total war over the past five years. Now Republicans are working themselves into a frenzy that will paralyze Congress for the next 18 months at least, and could well lead to an impeachment crisis. As it becomes clear that the IRS story is an agency scandal, not a White House scandal, conservative reformers need to be ready to do their part to apply the brakes and turn the steering wheel. There will be a Republican president again someday, and that president will need American political institutions to work. Republicans also lose as those institutions degenerate.

That’s the one place where I think the supposed conservative reformers have been okay. They generally try to seem reasonable and so they don’t go to extremes about this kind of stuff. Just the same, late last year, Frum himself was (in his quiet but insistent way) pushing the Benghazi scandal.

That gets to another aspect of the conservative “reform” movement. I don’t think they care any less for the extreme policies of the Republican Party generally. But they are all smart and they are very much aware just how bad it looks when a Republican politician gets on television and screams about that Kenyan Socialist in the White House. Frum may well be right that the reform movement is coming along. But thus far, all we see are careful words in support of the same vile policies. I do hope that Frum’s time off will help to heal himself and the rest of his family. But I don’t know the man, so my wish is the same as it is for any fellow human being in his situation. But in a much more meaningful way, I hope that his time off allows him to rethink reform and get rid of the excessive amount of dissonance in his positions.

[1] Carter was actually the beginning of the conservative economic agenda. Yes, it was Reagan that really put it in gear. But the ideological movement started with Carter. See Winner-Take-All Politics.

Bernanke’s Hypocrisy for the Kids

Ben BernankeBen Bernanke went to Princeton to talk to the graduates. And he said some interesting things. He took on the notion of meritocracy. I thought he hedged way too much. For example, he said, “Putting aside the reality that no system, including our own, is really entirely meritocratic.” Did he really have to throw in “really entirely”? The gazelles on the savannas of Africa are a much better meritocracy than our country. The rich get to send their kids to better schools. The rich get to feed their children better. The rich get to provide better healthcare to their kids. The rich provide better social networks to their kids. Bernanke would have been more accurate to say, “We don’t even come close to being a meritocracy.”

From there he went on to the obvious point that seems to terrify most Americans: all people are not created equal. Some are smarter than others, prettier than others, stronger than others. I still don’t understand how a society can justify allowing people to live in abject poverty for the sin of being born slow witted or just in the wrong place. I do understand providing incentives for the more capable among us, but the level of inequality we except and even applaud is totally unacceptable. Conservatives especially, but not exclusively, really do think that brilliance (for example) is a sign of moral superiority. Bernanke said that how smart we are is just a matter of luck. That is an obvious point, but somehow shocking to most people.

One thing that Bernanke does not discuss are luck in traits that is just as obviously but even more repellent to most people. We normally esteem people like Bernanke not just for their brilliance but for all of their hard work. The problem is that the hard work (if it really was) is as built into Bernanke as his brilliance. To take another example: imagine you are trying to lose weight. If you stay on your diet, it doesn’t mean that you are morally superior to your friend who did not. The best you could say is that your will was greater than your temptation and his was not. You absolutely cannot say that your will was greater than his. We were all born with different crosses to bear.

Later in the speech, Bernanke provided a jaw-dropping moment. He said:

I think most of us would agree that people who have, say, little formal schooling but labor honestly and diligently to help feed, clothe, and educate their families are deserving of greater respect—and help, if necessary—than many people who are superficially more successful. They’re more fun to have a beer with, too.

Right away, I’m annoyed: the impulse to feed, clothe, and educate your family is commendable. And we should encourage it in our society. But that man who does not have such an impulse is just as much a prisoner of his brain and his environment as the good family man. I understand that most people are not as focused on issues of agency and free will as I am. What bothers me about this is how much Bernanke cares about this man—Even to the extent of blowing smoke about being more fun!—when Bernanke’s policies have been a great big “Fuck you!” to these kinds of men. Bernanke has accepted high unemployment while working to keep inflation excessively low. That’s doing the work of the rich at the expense of the “people who have, say, little formal schooling but labor honestly and diligently to help feed, clothe, and educate their families.”

I’ve noticed a lot of press recently trying to make Bernanke look good and relatable. I think it is all part of a PR campaign to assure his renomination as the chairman of the Federal Reserve. Not that it matter to me. Whoever might reasonably replace him would be cut of the same clothe. He or she would be dedicated, as Bernanke was been, to the status quo and making America as little like a meritocracy as possible.

No, Conservative Reformers Don’t Exist

Jonathan ChaitOver the weekend, Jonathan Chait wrote yet another article defending his new thesis, Yes, Conservative Reformers Exist. In this installment, he argued that the issue is one of tactics: some try to reform from the inside and some from the outside. This is missing the fundamental issue. Regardless of where the “reformer” is arguing from, if his policies don’t deviate from conservative orthodoxy, there is no reform. Any political party will have differences of opinion about core issues. For example, some Republicans believe in universal background checks for gun purchases. That isn’t a reform position, it’s just a more moderate position than that held by Ted Cruz.

What we have with the vast majority of Chait’s reformers are people who really do like what the Republicans stand for. Consider Avik Roy. He’s willing to make nice about Obamacare once in a while, but the moment he has the opportunity we spews lies and deceptions about the program. The truth is that he is just one of the storm troopers for the Republican Party. Whether that is just affinity bias or that Roy just doesn’t believe in universal health insurance, I can’t say. But there is no doubt that in the Republican Party, he always acts to strengthen the given policy, not to reform it or the party.

Most of Chait’s article centers on Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam. What I think he is missing is that these guys really like the modern Republican Party. It is not just their relationship to the party that is tactical; their relationship for is also tactical. They aren’t trying to make the party better, in the sense of having policies that are more in line with those that most of the nation accepts. Rather, they are trying to make the party more effective by making the policies sound more appealing.

The case of Douthat on Obamacare is instructive. Before Obama was in office, Douthat was all for the idea. But once it became a credible bill, Douthat turned on it. And now he has a new scheme:

A repeal or revision of Obamacare that aims to ease us toward a system of near-universal catastrophic health insurance, and includes some kind of flat tax credit or voucher explicitly designed for that purpose.

This is not a real plan; this is just an excuse to destroy Obamacare. Remember: the conservatives first embraced the Obamacare type plan only to stop the country from getting a single payer health insurance plan. Once Obamacare was on the table, they had nothing. All Douthat is doing is providing another plausible sounding alternative. If Obama embraced it, the conservatives (including the “reformers”) would suddenly find that it was an evil socialist plot to destroy our very way of life.

In a sense, the real reformers in the Republican Party are people like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. They are the only ones I see who are really trying to push the party in major ways. Of course, most of those ways would lead further right, but still: they are real ideas.

The truth is that I don’t think there is any hope of the Republican Party reforming itself. The problem is the Democratic Party. By moving steadily to the right in terms of economic and foreign policy, it has given the Republicans nowhere to go except the proto-fascist crazy land where they now reside. The real question is how the Republican Party can move away from the far right when the Democratic Party is crowding its left flank. The Democrats can easily move to the left. And only by doing that will they provide the political room for the Republicans to stretch out.

One thing is certain: the Republican Party will not be saved by “reformers” like Douthat nibbling around the edges.