From Frank’s Notebooks: April 2010

Frank's NotebookI was talking to Andrea recently when I mentioned that no one reads my fiction when I post it here. She seemed surprised by that. I’m not sure why. But it may not be so true anymore. Frankly Curious is now a destination for a fair number of people. For whatever reason, they think I should be checked in on. I do hope the NSA is checking on me, because a revolution (of despair) could break out at any moment.

Just as a lark, I went looking through some old notebooks for one of my Nixon puppet plays. But I got sidetracked in reading my thoughts from April 2010. My notebooks have always been a mess of lists, diary, random projects, whatever. Some of the descriptions of my life at that point are heartbreaking. I don’t remember feeling that sad. But mixed in are lots of fragments to my second novel “Treading Asphalt” — which is still fragments. But crammed in the middle of it is the beginning of a short story I had completely forgotten about. I rather like it. I wrote later, “I have no idea what the plot is about.” But it seems pretty clear to me now.

Here it is:

No one had ever explained what dyslexia was to Rene. Even now at 26, watching her PhD graduating class marching into the auditorium, her gut told her that it had something to do with falling down. She was also very clumsy as a child. But that was wrong. At some time she had confused dyslexia with vertigo and had only the vaguest notion that it had something to do with dangerous birds. This, of course, was due to three things: Alfred Hitchcock, growing up in Bodega Bay, and being more than a genius when it came to developing theoretical systems — even silly ones. All of this was on her mind as she took notes for the article she was writing for the school newspaper about the graduation ceremony.

She would be paid fifty dollars for the article. This alone made the ceremony worth missing, but it wasn’t the main reason she wasn’t marching with her colleagues in those stupid dresses — which they made the students pay to rent. The title of her dissertation was, “Four Investigations into Strong Force-Weak Force Interactions in Strong Magnetic Fields at Relativistic Speeds.” It was just four papers she had published that were impressive enough to get her several post-doc opportunities without seeking them out. And she had accepted Dr Ahmed’s offer at UT Austin. But she still hadn’t decided if she would show up. She really didn’t like physics — so soiled as it was by “reality.” She should have gone straight with her strengths — pure math — or her weaknesses — literature. Now she had this ridiculous degree. And it seemed no one would ever again let her do anything fun.

And then, almost without missing a beat, the journal goes back to “Treading Asphalt” — into Brian’s first person description of what is for me, the most creepy part of the book. I think poor Rene would be shocked. But they are joined in being lost souls. But I think I have a happier ending for Rene. For Brian, it will be as it always seems to be for my male characters — the way it is for all of us: a muddle.

How to Lessen Inequality in Three Short Paragraphs

Dean BakerSince the rise in the dollar in the late 1990s, the US has had a large trade deficit, which creates a big gap in demand. This gap in demand was filled by a stock bubble at the end of the 1990s and a housing bubble in the last decade. When the housing bubble burst, there was nothing to fill the demand gap created by the trade deficit.

Since it is not politically acceptable to talk about large budget deficits, and there is little interest in work sharing and other policies to reduce supply, the economy is likely to remain well below full employment levels of output. When the economy is below full employment, workers lack the bargaining power to secure their share of productivity growth, leading to upward redistribution. Upward redistribution is also helped by stronger and longer patent and copyright protection, special tax breaks that cultivate niches for finance, and subsidies to top management at non-profits (eg universities, hospitals, and foundations) in the form of tax exempt status.

We could reverse the situation by either having the government spend more money, pushing legislation that will tighten the labor market by reducing average hours worked per worker, or by measures that will reduce the value of the dollar against other currencies, thereby reducing the trade deficit. All of these measures would boost growth and led to stronger wage growth, thereby lessening inequality.

—Dean Baker
What’s This “We” Jazz, Robert Samuelson?

Republicans Not Concerned About King v Burwell

Repeal Obamacare!I think that the Supreme Court will find for the government in King v Burwell — the silly case where four words in the Obamacare law are supposed to trump everything else said and implied in the law. I just don’t think that any reasonable person could could find the challenge to be anything but laughable and that is why I think only three justices on the Supreme Court will find for the plaintiffs — because three of the justices of the court are unreasonable (and unreasoning) ideologues. But that’s just what I think. What I know is that I can’t predict what the Supreme Court will do — especially in such politicized cases. Who could have predicted the Supreme Court would decide to take Bush v Gore — much less that it would decide as it did.

On Monday, Jonathan Bernstein wrote a compelling argument about what would happen if the court does decide to end subsidies on the federal exchanges, How the Obamacare Subsidies Battle Could Play Out. He thinks that the Republicans will put together a bill that fixes the problem but add to it some kind of poison pill that damages the law. My bet would be that it would be a repeal of the medical device tax. The Republicans hate it, even though it is a very fair tax, given that the medical device manufacturers are getting a government sponsored increase in sales. But if it isn’t this tax, it will be something else. And then the Republicans will “dare the president to veto it.”

But as Bernstein noted, it is very likely that the Republicans won’t even manage to do that. They have shown themselves to be incapable even of passing legislation to embarrass the president, because such a large number of them don’t think any given act of embarrassment is enough. In this case, many Republicans won’t want to do anything to help the healthcare law, even if on balance, they manage to hurt the law. The Republicans are, after all, the party of all or nothing. “Some Republicans, on the other hand, would prefer chaos, even if they take the blame…” Meanwhile, the Republicans do nothing.

Over the weekend, Jonathan Cohn wrote, The Clock Is Ticking and Republicans Still Have No Serious Obamacare Alternative. He puts it in his usual understated but clear manner:

Leaders of the Republican Party have cheered on the lawsuit, in some cases filing formal friend-of-the-court briefs in support of it. They have also promised — in op-eds, speeches and interviews — to craft a “transitional” plan, or some kind of “off-ramp,” if the lawsuit is successful. The goals of such plans, Republican leaders have said, would be to minimize disruption for the people who now depend upon Affordable Care Act tax credits for their insurance, while crafting a long-term replacement scheme that would serve the public better than President Barack Obama’s health care law has.

But what have the Republicans done in the six months since the Supreme Court first announced that it would take King v Burwell and potentially deprive health insurance from eight million people? To quote Cohn, “Zero.” He speculated that the Congressional Republicans may talk about fixing the problems just for cosmetic purposes. I don’t think there is any speculation: they aren’t serious about fixing this problem. If they were, they wouldn’t be supporting the lawsuit.

As I’ve written before, the Republicans have backed themselves into a corner. Obamacare is as conservative a plan for healthcare reform as there is. So the moment they labeled their own idea of an individual mandate as a communist plot, they were doomed. So the only thing they have to offer is a pretense of caring “to insulate the party from a political backlash should millions of people suddenly lose health insurance.” But what is really going on is that the Republicans do not care and will do something only in the event that they absolutely have to. In this case, I hope they don’t have to.

Good News for Low Expectations: Jeffrey Sterling

Jeffrey SterlingWe seem to have had a couple of good days this week regarding politics. Of course, a large part of this is due to my greatly reduced expectations. Obama’s slap with regards to the TPP was good news, but there is little doubt that the Senate will eventually approve fast-track authority for the TPP. And on Monday, Jeffrey Sterling was given three and a half years for his leaks to James Risen. Now that’s still a good deal of time to be locked in a cage, but it is nothing compared to the two decades that the government was pushing for.

You should watch the following ten minute documentary by the great Norman Solomon, which was shown on Democracy Now! At this point, I’m not even certain that Sterling is guilty of these “crimes.” One thing is for certain: the government has had it out for him for well over a decade. It all started with a discrimination suit he filed against the CIA. It was thrown out of court for the usual reason: it could compromise “state secrets.” That is, of course, the government’s great “get out of jail free” card where it can never be held accountable — even though decades in the future, we will find out that there was nothing to the claim.

The prosecution of Sterling clearly had nothing to do with any leaks. It was all about getting back at him. The whole thing happened under the Bush administration, and seems to have ended there. It was only under our “liberal” president Obama that the Espionage Act was pulled out of World War I and used against Sterling and others. The whole thing is an outrage. But I hope that Sterling is the leaker. As retired CIA officer Ray McGovern said in the documentary, “I don’t know whether he did it or not, but whoever did it did a service to our country, because our country needs to know.” If Sterling was the leaker, he’s a hero and he deserves a parade. If he isn’t, he’s a martyr. Regardless, he deserves far better than this country is giving him.

The fact that the judge in the case gave Sterling such a relatively moderate sentence has been widely seen as a rebuke to the government. On Wednesday, The New York Times ran an editorial, Overkill on a CIA Leak Case. It described the sentencing as “a significant rebuke to the Obama administration’s dogged-yet-selective crusade against leaks.” As usual, the government argued that the leaks had put the United States in great peril. Of course, that is what the government always argues. Peter Maass noted the ridiculousness of this, Obama’s War on Leaks Faces Backlash in Court. He quoted Harvard Law School professor Jack Goldsmith as noting what ought to be obvious, even to the authoritarians in the White House: that it is “jeopardizing vital credibility through exaggerated claims about the national security harms of disclosure.” In other words: it the boy who cried wolf.

But it is worse than that, of course. As The Times editorial put it:

In light of these prosecutions, it is worth considering the degree to which this White House seems to value secrecy over accountability.

It fixates on certain leakers, and the reporters they work with, even as it neglects to prosecute anyone for, say, the torture of the detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and elsewhere, or for the intentional destruction of videotapes documenting that torture.

In fact, as we know, John Kiriakou was given two and a half years in prison for revealing our country’s torture program, but not one person has even been prosecuted for doing the torture. This is our legacy. The Tea Party thinks that the United States isn’t being true to itself? Where is the outrage about this? Nowhere, of course. That’s because to them, the United States is most pure when we never admit to our mistakes. And in that regard, the Tea Party and President Obama are very much in agreement. Let’s look forward, not backward! (Except when it comes to whistleblowers, of course.)

Morning Music: Christine Pizzuti

Christine PizzutiAs you may know, I have a special fondness for Geeshie Wiley. She was the young and apparently volatile blues singer who traveled around the south with Elvie Thomas. They are both legends — in both senses of the word. I wrote about them in some depth last year, Elvie Thomas and Geeshie Wiley. They must have been quite the pair. Thomas was a lesbian of about 40 and Wiley was 20 years younger and murdered her husband. It is thought that it was in self-defense, because Wiley did not go to jail for it. But you can imagine the great movie Russ Meyer could have made out of the bare facts.

Geeshie Wiley’s best known tune is Last Kind Words. Of course, there is no actual video of her performing. In fact, we only have a single picture of Elvie Thomas as quite an old woman, which you can see in the article mentioned above. But I’ve heard countless other performers do the song. And recently, I came upon a guitarist named Christine Pizzuti, out of Germantown, New York. I’m always amazed at the incredible talent you find everywhere. And her version of the song is really compelling. She doesn’t know all of the lyrics, but that’s understandable. Check out Wiley’s Skinny Leg Blues — a song no one can seem to agree about the lyrics.

Anyway, I just love Pizzuti’s playing. And she manages Wiley’s voice pretty well too!

Anniversary Post: Jamestown

Jamestown Irony!On this day in 1607, the first permanent English settlement in “the new world” was started in Jamestown. It was started in a bad location. The local native kingdom, the Tsenacommacah, didn’t want it because they considered it inappropriate for agriculture. I love reading about this stuff, because it always brings me back to Ayn Rand’s ignorant and racist claims that the Europeans had the right to take native tribal lands because they didn’t have a concept of private property and they weren’t using the land the way Ayn Rand thought they should. But the truth is that the native tribes were quite diverse, most definitely had the idea of property rights, and were generally quite willing to interact economically with the Europeans. The only thing that caused problems was that the Europeans had more advanced technology. So regardless of what Ayn Rand and her apologists claim, it was just a matter that might makes right.

Anyway, the colony was only in existence for twelve years before it got its first African slaves. They were put to work in the tobacco fields. It was too early for cotton. It was not until 1640, that slavery of Africans was codified with the trial of John Punch. He had been, supposedly, an indentured servant. He ran away with two European indentured servants. When they were caught, the Europeans just had their sentences extended. Punch became the first official slave. (But he certainly wasn’t the first de facto slave.)

I think these have something to do with the fact that we make such a big deal about the Plymouth Colony and the great big feast. But look around at our country, fellow Americans! Is the story of this country us getting along with the rest of the world? Or is it about us eating up every resource we come upon? The Plymouth story is another aspect of America: the aspect that ignores our bad behavior and makes up pretty stories about how wonderful and “exceptional” we are.

But lest you think that I am just another self-hating American: this is not true. I don’t think that America is worse than other empires. Given the times that we’ve lived, I would even put us slightly above average. What I won’t do is ignore our troubling history just because it is ours. The greatest thing about America is that I’m allowed to write this kind of article. (Of course there is a huge fraction of the people in this country who don’t think I ought to be allowed.) And the fact that I can write about this stuff means that we can improve. I love this country in an aspirational way. We are great only to the extent that we try to be great. And if we stop aspiring, we die. Those who think America simply is great, want America to die.

Happy continued birthday America…