Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Entropy (Generalization, Part One)

The photograph is of a general-store-cum-luncheonette late on a hot summer’s day. Its windows stare blankly at the empty street in front of it.

Left of center of the picture are two lean, blond young men (they are in their twenties), dressed in light-colored t-shirts and shorts; they lie on their backs, reclining on sacks of potatoes. 

All is still. There are no other figures in the photograph. No other people caught in a moment of arrested movement. It is a scene of purposelessness; nothing is being done; nothing will be done. It is a picture of decay.

The photograph is in black-and-white.
It is part of an exhibition.
The exhibition is entitled “ENTROPY.”


The meaning imputed to the photograph is untrue.

I know it is untrue, because I am one of the men in the picture—the one on the left. 
I know that it is not a depiction of laziness, of purposelessness. My companion and I have just completed a stage of our trip to view the eclipse. Our bicycles and backpacks are on the left, outside the frame of the picture. 


But what I have just written is also untrue. I am not one of the lean, blond men in the picture. Yes, I had dark-blondish hair in my younger days, but I have never been lean. And, besides, I have never ridden a bicycle. 

The black-and-white photograph is not part of an exhibition entitled “ENTROPY.” The photograph and the exhibition do not exist. They were in a dream I had early this morning. The men seen in the photograph have never existed. The country store has never existed. The heat and the stillness of the air have never existed.

And the female photographer—who is left-handed—never existed.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Both Sides Now

“If thou be'st born to strange sights, 
    Things invisible to see . . .”
John Donne


(Note: You may stick in “alleged” wherever you see fit.)

What follows was inspired by the heinous vehicular attack today on innocent people in Barcelona, an event similar to at least a half-dozen earlier attacks in Europe. Once again, ISIS claimed responsibility for the atrocity. 


“The United States condemns the terror attack in Barcelona, Spain”—so responded America’s tweeter-in-chief. But, as ABC News points out, “Trump faced criticism over the weekend for not labeling a similar attack in Charlottesville, Virginia, as terrorism.”* 

Instead of finding an equivalence in terrorism between the murderous ISIS vehicle attacks and the murderous Virginia car attack by a White Supremacist, our panoramic president claimed to see a different equivalence: that “many sides” were responsible for the violence of that day in Charlottesville.

I, myself, confess that I don’t see, as I survey the American political landscape, equivalent malignity, hatred, and terrorism on “many sides.”** 

However, I am willing to change my mind the next time a Birkenstocked tree-hugger plows his Prius into a Daughters of the Confederacy cake sale.


Thursday, August 10, 2017

They're writing songs of love

But not for me.*

How terrible it is not to be loved. The abject wretchedness and hollowness of one’s life. What is the best analogy to invoke to try to explain the misery? Perhaps the invasion of Poland by the Nazis? (Bringing in its wake the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto and the construction of death camps.) 

Well, I wouldn’t go down that metaphorical path, and I trust that you wouldn’t either. But that was the image in the mind of Stephen Schwarzman, the chairman and CEO of the Blackstone Group, a global private-equity firm. As James Surowiecki wrote in the New Yorker three years ago,** Schwarzman was at that time “worth more than ten billion dollars. You wouldn’t think he’d have much to complain about.” But he did; he was unloved by the American middle class, who were blaming his class—the wealthy—for its problems. Schwarzman’s own problem was a proposed repeal of the carried-interest tax loophole, from which, Surowiecki noted, Schwarzman personally benefits. (Raising taxes isn’t always bad in Schwarzman’s eyes, as he has in the past suggested that it might be a good idea to raise taxes on the poor so they had “skin in the game.”)

In this article, entitled “Moaning Moguls,”  Surowiecki yokes Schwarzman with venture capitalist Tom Perkins and Kenneth Langone, the co-founder of Home Depot, (both of whom “compared populist attacks on the wealthy to the Nazis’ attacks on the Jews”). They are members of the plutocratic set who “believe that they’re a persecuted minority.” (I have just looked out my window, but I failed to see any billionaires on their hands and knees forced to clean the streets with toothbrushes.) 

“Moguls complain about their feelings,” Surowiecki concludes, “because that’s all anyone can really threaten.”

They ought to feel lucky that it’s only their feelings that are hurt. After all, they could be sent to Auschwitz.


*George and Ira Gershwin, of course.

Friday, August 4, 2017

God, Sex, and Money

“My religion? Well, my dear, I am a Millionaire. That is my religion.”

George Bernard Shaw, Major Barbara


I have never been the most modest of persons, but I’ll be damned (figuratively and most likely literally) if I'm going to claim that I know God’s will. The absolute chutzpah of it. It is hubris asking for a lightning strike.

But, of course, there are other people who are celestial mind readers. Apparently, an abundance of them in the state of Michigan. There is the woman in Ypsilanti, Michigan who informs us: 

“I’m a firm believer that God sent that turkey to bring me friends.”*

And then (on a more serious note?) there is the Michigan billionaire father-in-law of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Richard DeVos, who has read the deity’s mind as clearly as the Dow Jones Industrial Average: 

“Being a capitalist is actually fulfilling the will of God in my life.”**

(I leave aside here the petty discussion about how slaves, Holocaust victims, battered wives, etc. fulfill the will of God.)


In an Atlantic article exploring “[t]he intense focus on sexuality, purity, manhood, and womanhood in certain faith communities—and its consequences,” Emma Green quotes Amy DeRogatis, an associate professor of religion at Michigan State University (it figures):
“Many American evangelicals have come to believe that good marital sex is not just ordained by God, but is healthy and leads to strong self-esteem, financial prosperity, and heightened spiritual awareness.” (Emphasis mine)***
OK. As I read it: God wants you to have (marital) sex, which will get you money. (Outside of marriage that sounds a lot like prostitution.) 


What the theological telepathists who focus on their financial bottom lines seem not to understand is the major religious point of the great 600-year-old allegorical morality play The Summoning of Everyman. In the opening speech God proclaims:

I hoped well that Everyman
In my glory should make his mansion,
And thereto I had them all elect;
But now I see, like traitors deject,
They thank me not for the pleasure that I to them meant,
Nor yet for their being that I them have lent;
I proffered the people great multitude of mercy,
And few there be that asketh it heartily;
They be so cumbered with worldly riches,
That needs on them I must do justice,
On Everyman living without fear.(Emphasis mine)

“The first time I ever heard the word ostentatious, someone used it about Richard DeVos”: Richard Mouw, “prominent Evangelical intellectual.”

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Don't Do Something--Just Stand There. PLEASE!

"I called an extra session of the 80th Congress in 1947 and asked them to take action on the housing shortage. They didn't do it. They didn't do it at the regular session.

"Then I called another special session of the 80th Congress, after they had given us a platform in Philadelphia. In that platform, they stated that they were for certain things. When I called them back into session in July, what did they do? Nothing. Nothing. That Congress never did anything the whole time it was in session . . ."

President Harry S Truman
San Diego, California
September 24, 1948 

With the collapse of the Republican attempt to strip at least 20 million Americans of their health care insurance, I was put in mind of President Harry S Truman’s excoriation of the 80th Congress. He contributed to the American lexicon the term “Do-nothing Congress.” 

In a fine turn of historical irony the GOP, which once claimed to be the party of ideas, has turned into the party of nihilism—or perhaps it might be called, more fittingly, the Marxist party. Groucho Marxist, that is. In the 1932 movie Horse Feathers Groucho sings the following song (written by Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar):

I don't know what they have to say
It makes no difference anyway
Whatever it is, I'm against it
No matter what it is
Or who commenced it
I'm against it

Your proposition may be good
But let's have one thing understood
Whatever it is, I'm against it
And even when you've changed it
Or condensed it
I'm against it

I'm opposed to it
On general principles
I'm opposed to it
(He's opposed to it)
(In fact, he says he's opposed to it)

For months before my son was born
I used to yell from night to morn
"Whatever it is, I'm against it"
And I've kept yelling
Since I first commenced it
"I'm against it”*

Considering what an absolute shower** Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, the Freedom Caucus, and almost the entirety of the rest of the GOP congressional delegation are, I shout, “Thank goodness for a Do-nothing Congress!”

Because it’s what they want to DO that’s the danger.

* Here’s Groucho singing it in the movie:

**Nobody surpassed Terry-Thomas in his rendition of this Briticism. Here he is in I'm Alright Jack:

I will admit that calling a political party Groucho Marxist was used many years ago about the British Labour Party. I don’t recall who wrote it or what magazine it was in (it may have been Punch, and that dates it). I have never forgotten it (or used it before). I figured that it was so long ago that it’s in the Public Domain.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Does Anything Go?

Times have changed 
And we've often rewound the clock 
Since the Puritans got a shock 
When they landed on Plymouth Rock. 
If today 
Any shock they should try to stem 
'Stead of landing on Plymouth Rock, 
Plymouth Rock would land on them.

Cole Porter, “Anything Goes” 1934
Approximately a century-and-a-half after the landing of the Puritans in what today is the state of Massachusetts, colonists angry at the actions of the distant British Parliament rebelled against the mother country—one of the most famous cries against their perceived political injustices being, “No Taxation Without Representation!” 
“If today . . .”

Times have indeed changed. We have today in this country a major effort to disenfranchise millions of citizens. Those threatened with denial of access to the ballot are mostly minorities, the poor, and the elderly (of course, there’s a great overlap here).

Other than a progressive income tax, most taxes fall disproportionately harder on the poorer members of our society.  Consider the sales tax (we’ll take the 7 percent sales tax of my state of New Jersey as an example). Let’s assume that three citizens of the Garden State (one earning $20,000 a year, another $200,000, and the third $2,000,000) each purchase a total of $1,000 worth of taxable goods (whether in a single purchase or multiple purchases doesn’t matter for the sake of this argument; neither does the time frame). Each of the three would pay the same amount in sales tax: $70. But that $70 would represent the following percentages of each person’s income:

For the $20,000 a year person—.0035 percent
For the $200,000 a year person—.00035 percent 
For the $2,000,000 a year person—.000035 percent.

Thus, while each is taxed the same amount of money, the poorest person is shelling out a greater percentage of his income. And who could doubt that the $70 out of the pocket of the poorest person would be the subtraction most greatly felt? 

Some might argue, however, that the richer two persons would spend more money and thus pay more in sales tax. OK, let’s look at the question from that angle:

That $70 the poorest person paid in tax is .0035 percent of his income. He would be left with $18,930 (after subtracting the $1,000 spent and the tax). 

For the $200,000 earner to pay .0035 percent of his income in sales tax, he would have to spend $10,000. BUT he would still have $189,300 left (after subtracting the $10,000 spent and tax of $700).

For the $2,000,000 earner to pay .0035 percent of his income in sales tax, he would have to spend $100,000. Now, $1,893,000 left to pay one’s golfing green fees (after spending $100,000 and paying tax of $7,000) isn’t too shabby. Even with tipping the caddy well, one isn’t likely to go hungry.

Let’s sum this up:

The poorest are hit the hardest by regressive taxes and at the same time they are under threat of being pushed off the election rolls.* In other words:

Taxation Without Representation!
But we’re not finished yet. There’s been a concerted effort by the Republicans, in their attempt to gut Obamacare, to cut the taxes of the rich**. And that’s before Trump’s new tax plan:
"Rich could get nearly $2 trillion tax cut under Trump's tax loophole."***
And so, a final summing up (talk about tautologies!):

The richest get relieved of their tax burden while commanding the ballot boxes through massive PAC donations and the disenfranchising of those with the least political and financial clout. In other words:

Representation Without Taxation!

Plymouth Rock has landed on us! 

*Don’t take my word for it; Google something like “Restricting voting,” and see what comes up.

**Again don’t take my word for it; Google something like “Cutting payments by rich into Obamacare.”

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Empty Hearts, Empty Plates

In my previous post I mentioned, in a footnote, Mick Mulvaney, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget. As it was irrelevant to the subject of that post, I didn’t mention how captivated I was by the picture of Mulvaney that accompanied the Atlantic article I was quoting from.* In the picture, Mulvaney is wearing a black suit (quite different from the inordinate number of bar mitzvah suits in Trump’s wardrobe) with a white shamrock in the lapel, a white, french-cuffed shirt with a sharply-raked collar, and a gold-ish tie decorated with a foreign text. The only thing spoiling Mulvaney’s immaculate appearance is what looks to be a misplaced stash of celery leaves in his breast pocket. 

This was obviously not a man who himself need scrabble for a meal or ever fear going hungry. What he was doing here, though, was spouting forth the notion that, in the paraphrase by Emma Green, the author of the Atlantic article, “even small amounts of federal funding for programs like Meals on Wheels, which delivers food to house-bound seniors, may not be justified.” Or as this tweet directly quoted:
Domenico Montanaro@DomenicoNPRMulvaney just said that Meals on Wheels is one of those programs "not showing any results"3:30 PM - 16 Mar 2017
In response to Mulvaney, Sarah Jones in The New Republic exclaimed: “The sole objective of Meals on Wheels is to feed elderly people and keep them alive.”** 

Now of course we know that Mulvaney and the other dudes who fashioned Trump’s budget proposals have no skin in the game; they’re gonna eat their steak and lobster tails whatever happens. But what about those beneficiaries of the Meals programs, were they (the ones who would know best) consulted about the efficacy of the programs and whether there were any “results”—such as keeping them alive? 

How silly of me to ask. 

I can’t say that I have any skin in the game either, in that I can make it to the supermarket and continue to load up on eats that would drive a nutritionist around the bend. But my mother did avail herself of the Meals program of a local charity when she was too frail to shop. And when solicited by a charitable organization in my county, I usually earmark my contribution for the Kosher Meals on Wheels program. 

I’m just one guy, making a little donation now and again. However, I’m doing more good than Mulvaney and his gang are doing. I know that, at the very least, I’m not taking food off anybody’s plate.