Just Say No to an Economy of Exclusion

Pope Francis53. Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.

Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “disposable” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised—they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers.”

54. In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase; and in the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.

—Pope Francis (Jorge Mario Bergoglio)
First Apostolic Exhortation: Evangelii Gaudium

Normally, I don’t comment on these and even here I have nothing to add except that it is hard not to love this man. What he says is very much what I’ve been saying the last few years: our economic system kills. He has a more expansive view, of course—as you would expect. The Catholic Church must really be worried about its image to put this thoughtful man in charge. And it isn’t about what he believes; it is about what he emphasizes. I’m sure he’s against abortion. But he rightly sees that (1) poverty is a bigger problem and (2) abortion has been way over-emphasized for the last 30 years.

Two Great Vincent Price Murder Films

Theatre of Blood / MadhouseBefore there were slasher films that systematized violence to the point of pure boredom, there were great horror films in the 1970s. Unlike great murder fests of earlier times like House of Wax, these films were quite graphic—not, “cutting off a limb with a chainsaw” graphic, but lots of blood and some pretty cool gore. And this last week, I happened upon one I do not remember seeing. (But I might well have when I was a poorly supervised kid!) The film is, Madhouse. Looking at the poster brings to mind the film Vincent Price made right before it: Theatre of Blood.

When I was younger, I loved the Plaza Theater in Petaluma. All they showed were double features, which changed each night. So one night they might show Yojimbo and Sanjuro. The next: Wizards and American Pop. And then: Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and Get Crazy. I wish I owned a theater where I could put together cool double features. If I did, I would run Madhouse and Theatre of Blood.

Madhouse would have to be the first film, because it just isn’t as good. Don’t get me wrong: it’s great fun. Vincent Price plays a hugely successful actor known for the character “Dr. Death.” He’s about to be married when his fiance turns up dead. (I won’t ruin it by telling you how.) He goes crazy but then we jump ahead many years when he is trying to restart his career in a British television show. There are more murders. It is all bizarre and wonderful—including a victim’s extremely silly parents who seem only interested in being compensated for their loss and the amazing spider woman. The problem with it, from my perspective is that it is a whodunnit. But the whole way through I was thinking, “It’s can’t be that obvious!” It is.

Theatre of Blood is one of my very favorites. It combines two of my favorite things: Shakespeare and horror. It is a much more straight forward film: Vincent Price is the “bad” guy. He plays a rather overwrought Shakespearean actor driven to kill himself by bad reviews. But somehow he managed to survive. So one by one he kills off his critics using scenes from Shakespeare’s plays. It is absolutely delightful. I often use Theatre of Blood to cheer myself up. And the fact that a large number of critics get their grisly due makes it all a very happy experience.

It turns out that I am not the only person to think that these two delightful revenge films would work as a double feature. MGM Home Entertainment’s Midnite Movies has them available on one DVD: Theater Of Blood/MadHouse. But as usual with these releases, there are no special features. That’s a shame. These aren’t just fun B films; they are the films that brought us to where we are. There would never have been Evil Dead or Dead Snow without them.[1] And are we really to believe that there isn’t some Vincent Price biographer who isn’t itching to watch these films with us?

But if you are not up for buying anything, Madhouse is currently available to stream on Netflix. Currently, Theatre of Blood is not. But it has been in the past. So look out for it. But the best thing is to get all your friends together and make an evening of the two films.


This scene is not from Madhouse, “It’s a madhouse! A madhouse!”

[1] You are absolutely not allowed to talk about Night of the Living Dead! I’ll just force you back to Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price anyway. But we should just admit that all these are all important films leading us forward.

Many People Just Hate Iran

John McCainI have a great fondness for Iran. Or maybe it is just that I really like the food at Maykadeh Persian Cuisine in San Francisco. Whatever. But the truth is my impression of Iran is as a modern people who would very much like to throw off the chains of their theocratic overlords and rush as fast as possible to their own variation of modernity. And what I say to all such people is, “Welcome!” And the best way to do that is to include Iran in our world, not exclude it. Our long-running tiff with Iran has been a disaster.

So the fact that we are talking to Iran in some capacities and that we have at least a short-term deal with them is great. So I’m being honest. I’m really not terribly worried about Iran getting a nuclear weapon. I wish they would not. We need to be destroying nuclear weapons not creating them; we certainly don’t need more countries with them. And Iran acquiring one would start a Middle East arms race. But fundamentally, I want good relations with Iran—which I think will solve the nuclear issue anyway.

People on the other side of the issue are not being honest. None of this is about a nuclear armed Iran. What these people want is a weak Iran. People in the region have their reasons. If Iran’s economy took off, it would be a powerhouse. That would understandably make Israel nervous. And with a strong economy would go much of the power of the theocratic state. And the other despots of the region wouldn’t like to see that.

In America, most of the hatred of Iran goes back to the embassy hostage crisis. But that was 33 years ago. Get over it! The country had a revolution. These things happen. It’s time to get on with the business of nations. Think: detente. I know that most people here claim that their problem with Iran is concern for Israel. But that makes no sense. Israel can take care of itself. And if it gets into problems, the United States is totally behind it.[1] What’s really going on is seen very clearly with John McCain. He just hates Iran and wants to do anything he can to harm it. I understand that, but that is no way to run a country’s foreign policy.

Matt Yglesias wrote an excellent short article this morning, The Risk Is the Iran Deal Will Work. And that’s definitely what I see. If this deal works, then all the people who want sanctions against Iran for its nuclear program will have to admit that it wasn’t about that at all. The nuclear threat was just a cover.[2]

[1] I remember this same kind of bullshit during the Persian Gulf War. Iraq was held up as this big bad military. It was nothing of the kind. But it was good for selling a war.

[2] Last week I was listening to NPR and a caller said that we shouldn’t reduce the sanctions on Iran because the regime is about to fall. There are several issues with this. First, the sanctions are hurting the people, not just or even primarily the regime. Second, we don’t want to see revolution; incremental improvements are best for the world and for the Iranian people. And third, are you fucking kidding me?! In the minds of conservatives, governments and movements they don’t like are always on the verge of collapse. All that is needed is a little more bombing, a little more starvation, a little more whatever. This is why we waterboarded Kahlid Sheik Mohammed 183 times; after 182 times, some asshole was there saying, “He’s about to break, I just know it!”

Income Inequality is Government Policy

Dean BakerOne thing I still hear a lot is that the reason there is so much income inequality is education and lack thereof. This goes along with the idea that there is “structural unemployment.” It isn’t that companies aren’t hiring, it is just that workers don’t have the skills that companies need! This is, of course, a supply side analysis of the problem. It amazes me with the utter failure of supply side theory over the last three decades that people still push these ideas.

Today, conservative economists want us to believe this nonsense even when this is exactly what they were saying during the Great Depression. I would think they would be embarrassed about this. But they are so wedded to their ideology that they just dig in further. They can’t be wrong—their models say so!

Another part of this madness is the idea that robots and computers are the cause of widening inequality and high unemployment. In other words: accountants are no longer necessary since we have QuickBooks. Dean Baker has been arguing against this fantasy for years now. As he says, “This story is comforting to elites because it means that inequality is something that happened, not something they did.” But he showed the lie to this in a Guardian article yesterday, Technology Didn’t Kill Middle Class Jobs, Public Policy Did.

It is mostly based upon some research by three of his colleagues at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Baker highlights the work on the disappearing middle class during the 2000s. What has happened is that middle-wage jobs have disappeared, only to be replaced by low-wage jobs. If this was just the economy adjusting to a new normal, we should have seen the earnings of low-wage workers increase. But we don’t see that at all. Basically: money that used to go to wages now simply goes to profits.

Baker mentions two reasons for this. First is the inequality of trade deals. Our government has signed onto deals that put manufacturing workers in direct competition with similar workers in other countries. This has caused wages to decrease. But at the same time, our government has held onto protections for high-wage earners like doctors, lawyers, and the like. It has also strengthened copyright protections. So while the middle class has gotten poorer, the cost of living has increased.

The second issue, and the most important in my opinion, is the decline of trade unions. And this is absolutely, positively not natural. Starting with the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 and getting a huge boost by Reagan’s firing of the air traffic controllers, it has been open season on unions since about the time when they got established. (Note: the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization stupidly supported Reagan in 1980.) This one is extremely simple. Businesses have costs and receipts. They try to minimize costs and maximize receipts so that they can maximize their profits. Strong unions can force some of that profit to be spent on costs—namely workers. This is why businesses generally don’t like unions.

But it isn’t just about worker pay. CEO salaries can be kept in line by unions. There was a time when a company would have been afraid of all the bad press they would get when a CEO got twenty million dollars. Unions used to be a check against corporate greed and malfeasance. What’s more, strong unions would be a force against unfair trade agreements. I think basically all of our income inequality problems would be solved (directly and indirectly) with strong unions.

The point is that we have the income inequality we have because it has been government policy. This isn’t the “free market at work!” This is the power elite controlling government for their own purposes. The first step to fixing our broken system is to recognize this. Things don’t just happen to be bad; they are bad because the rich want it that way.

Peanuts and Secular Humanism

Charles SchulzOn this day in 1895, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill “W” Wilson was born. I understand the reason for starting the group. These were serious drunks who needed help. But there is no doubt that Bill W was a pernicious force in the 20th century. To begin with, the whole program is based upon religious teachings and the search for spiritual redemption. He could have followed in the non-religious tradition of the Washingtonian movement. And here’s the thing: Alcoholics Anonymous doesn’t work. People are forced into this quasi-Christian cult and the only thing it clearly does for them is make their relapses longer. Basically, Bill W was a charlatan and the snake oil he sold was Alcoholics Anonymous. Thankfully, there is finally starting to be institutional push back against the whole 12-step “program.” I have no doubt that in 50 years, people will look back and ask, “Why did anyone think a religious program was a cure for drug addiction?” One might as well perform an exorcism on an addict.

Other birthdays: physician and activist Mary Edwards Walker (1832); inventor Willis Carrier (1876); botanist Ruth Patrick (1907); actor Robert Goulet (1933); the British Russ Meyer, Stanley Long (1933); comedian Rich Little (75); puppeteer Wayland Flowers (1939); singer Tina Turner (74); novelist Marilynne Robinson (70); and cartoonist Roz Chast (59).

The day, however, belongs to the cartoonist Charles M Schulz who was born on this day in 1922. He is my hometown hero. One of the few things that haven’t changed here is the Redwood Empire Ice Arena, which is designed to look like a Swiss chateau. When I was a kid, it seemed so big. Now when I drive past it, it seems tiny. Anyway, it is still used all the time, even as each rollerskating rink has vanished. It’s all kind of campy, as are all the Peanuts statues throughout the town. It could be worse.

When I was a kid, I loved Charlie Brown and the rest of the gang. In its time, it was the best comic strip going. Bill Watterson said that it defines the modern strip and that everyone who came after Schulz was just following his lead. I think that’s about right. The one thing that eventually turned me off the strip was its marketing. I can’t bear to watch the TV shows anymore. The insurance and junk food commercials are terrible. I am forever grateful that Watterson doesn’t market Calvin and Hobbes. Making those characters concrete would just ruin it.

I was happy to learn today that Schulz grew out of his Christianity. For the last decade plus of his life, he referred to himself as a secular humanist. I had always assumed that he was a hardcore Christian, because of all the explicit Biblical references in the strip. And indeed, he was once a Christian. But I suspect he valued the Bible the way a lot of us atheists do. It’s got a lot of good material in it—for good and bad. Schulz was a profound guy:

Peanuts - Democracy of Rain

Happy birthday Charles M Schulz!

Calm Down

Sitting quietly in class all day is a very difficult thing to do! Being 9 years old and adding ADHD on top of it makes it almost impossible but somehow my son manages with the help of DAYTRANA patch, self-control and lots of concentration. He really deserves a medal as far as I’m concerned!

There’s no wonder why he bounces off the wall when he gets home. We try to get his energy out by playing basketball, throwing the football or going to a near by indoor trampoline place but even after all the activity he still has a difficult time to slow down for his evening routine. This has caused me to start doing some research on calming supplements, herbs and techniques that I wanted to share.
Lemon Balm – Lemon Balm has several benefits, including reducing stress and calming effect.

Lavender Oil – Scent has calming effect to help promote relaxation and reduction of stress.

Magnesium – A mineral that’s non-existent with my son’s intake due to being a picky eater. Having anxiety and being under stress actually depletes your magnesium level, I actually might need some of this too. Magnesium helps you sleep better, gets rid of stress and helps your brain work better.

Calming Techniques – Deep Breathing, stretching, listening to music, walking (in case of my son running), squeezing a stress ball, drawing and/or writing. The calming techniques are a work in progress for us since my son has a hard time slowing down to recognize that he needs to implement them.

We are now starting my son on magnesium supplements and applying lavender oil to his temples to help him slow down in the evening, hopefully, one of them or both will help him slow down. It hurts to see my son struggling with all the obstacles that accompany his ADHD but I know we will be stronger and more educated with our hands on experiences. I will keep you posted on our new path to calmness!