Archive for August, 2020

Obstacles to a new New Deal

August 31, 2020

The USA is heading into an economic crisis with evictions, foreclosures, small-business failures and unemployment rates like those of the onset of the Great Depression of the 1930s, made worse by the pandemic and catastrophic climate change.

But Thomas Ferguson, a political scientist whose specialty is money and politics, said that a second Great Depression will not necessarily result in a second New Deal.

The Great Depression was touched off with a crash in the financial markets.  Banks closed.  Business profits fell.  This weakened both the credibility and political power of big business.

No such situation exists today, Ferguson noted.  The Federal Reserve is propping up the banks and the financial markets.  The super-rich are actually richer and more powerful than ever.

President Roosevelt’s first response to the crisis was the National Recovery Act, a kind of democratic corporate state.  It was only when big business turned against him that the New Deal as we remember it emerged. with Social Security, the Wagner Act and so on.

The impetus for the true New Deal came from the new labor movement organized by John L. Lewis and the CIO.

Conditions today are different. Ferguson said.  Big business is entrenched in both parties and is able to block popular and necessary reforms such as Medicare for all.

There are wildcat strikes and a few militant unions, but nothing as yet like the labor movement of the 1930s.

Ferguson saw some long-range hope in the insurgent movement in the Democratic Party as represented by the Justice Democrats and other factions.  But in the long run, as someone said, we are all dead.  The crisis is not going to put itself on hold until 2022 or 2024.

LINKS

Biden Blurring Almost Everything, an interview of Thomas Ferguson for theAnalysis.com.

Joe Biden’s Platform for 2020: Anti-Populism by Bill Scher for POLITICO.

The Non-Voter by Chris Arnade for American Compass.

A coronavirus near-death experience

August 30, 2020

A 29-Year-Old’s Strange, Unforgettable Trip Into a Covid Coma and Back by Luke Mullins for The Washingtonian.

Mozart Serenade No. 10 for winds

August 29, 2020

I’ve been holding this one back too long.  I lifted it from Decker’s Dispatches from the Asylum blog, whose posts always end with a great musical selection

The violent George Floyd protests will backfire

August 27, 2020

Civilization is not so stable that it could not be easily broken up; and a condition of lawless violence is not one out of which any good thing is likely to emerge.  For this reason revolutionary violence in a democracy is infinitely dangerous.
  [==Bertrand Russell, in 1922]

A protest movement accompanied by vandalism, looting and mob violence will not persuade the public to de-fund the police or impose restrictions on them.

I believe the violence accompanying the George Floyd protests is worse than being generally reported.  The destruction caused in the name of George Floyd will not be balanced by any public good.

Instead it will make the re-election of Donald Trump and the Republicans more likely.

News reports say the protests are “mostly nonviolent.”  I am willing to believe that most of the protest demonstrations are non-violent and most people taking part in demonstrations are non-violent.  But this doesn’t matter.

If you have a crowd of 200 protesters, and 10 of them throw brickbats at the police and two of them throw gasoline bombs, it is not a non-violent protest—especially if the rest of the group refuses to disassociate themselves from the brick and bomb throwers.

This is why the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. exercised such tight control over the demonstrations he led.  He did not want anything to happen that interfered with his objective.  Malcolm X differed from Dr. King in many ways, but he, too, insisted on discipline among his followers.

I am an elderly tax-paying, law-abiding, middle-class homeowner.  I am not a revolutionary.  I do not condone vandalism, looting or mob violence.

But I know enough of history to know that violent and terrorist movements have sometimes brought about social change.  This requires a structured organization that is capable of taking power or of negotiating a set of demands and keeping its side of the bargain.  The BLM movement does not have such a structure.

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What the Republican Party stands for now

August 27, 2020

The Platform the GOP Is Too Scared to Publish by David Frum for The Atlantic.

The Real Republican Platform by Ian Welsh.  Comment on Frum’s article.

The Lost Republicans by Rod Dreher for The American Conservative

The swamp wasn’t drained—-it expanded by Albert Hunt for The Hill.

Are bread riots coming to America? by Ryan Cooper for The Hill.

A constructive future for the GOP

August 26, 2020

When Donald Trump was campaigning in 2016, the most powerful thing he said was, ‘We don’t make things in this country anymore.’

He campaigned in the Rustbelt and promised to rebuild American manufacturing.  He said the leaders of China, Mexico and other countries are laughing at us for allowing our industrial base to decline.

He promised to repeal and reject pro-corporate trade treaties.  He promised to stop illegal immigration.  He promised a trillion-dollar infrastructure program. He promise to ‘drain the swamp’ of special interests.

He promised to repeal and replace Obamacare with something better.  He promised to wind down the forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East and improve relations with Russia.

Nobody else was talking about these issues except Bernie Sanders.  Npbody, including Sanders, talked about them in this year’s election campaign.

Trump did do some things to carry out his promises.  He rejected the pro-corporate Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.  He canceled NAFTA and replaced it with a new agreement that was less bad.

He imposed new tariffs on Chinese imports in a willy-nilly way.  He did not propose a systematic industrial policy to rebuild American industry.

On the other hand, he worsened Obamacare instead of improving it.  He did not end the wars.  His administration stepped up the Cold War with Russia.  He did not clean house of special interests; just the reverse.  But it is not as if his Democratic opposition was proposing something better.

Trump benefited from the economic recovery that began under the Obama administration.  If not for the COVID-19 pandemic and his failed response, he would have an excellent chance of winning a fair election.

If I were a Republican strategist, I would be content to see the Democrats win the 2020 election, have them take the blame for the impending economic crash and pick up the pieces in 2024.

There is an emerging school of thought in the Republican Party called National Conservatism.  It consists of an industrial policy to rebuild industry and infrastructure, cancellation of free trade agreements, a non-interventionist foreign policy and social conservatism.

With such a policy, and with a candidate who did not make a fool of himself on a daily basis, like Trump., the GOP could win and deserve to win.

I don’t think a hypothetical national conservative administration would do everything I think needful.  I can’t imagine Republicans supporting a Green New Deal or strong labor unions.  But if such an administration was serious about ending the wars and reversing de-industrialization, it would be an improvement over what we’ve got now.

A certain amount of economic nationalism is needed because all international economic institutions are controlled by global corporations and banks.  At this point in history, the nation-state is the highest level subject to democratic control.

I am not predicting the Republicans will actually choose this path.  I am speculating on the best path open to them.

LINKS

The New Populist Right Imagines a Post-Pandemic America on BIG by Matt Stoller [Added 8/28/2020]

National Conservatism Conference Draws Big Names by Emma Green for The Atlantic.

National Conservatism Conference: ‘Intellectual Trumpist’ Movement Takes Shape by Jimmy Quinn for National Review.

Getting Behind Enlightened Nationalism by Patrick J. Buchanan from his new book.

Joe Biden is already planning a failed presidency by Ryan Cooper for The Week.

“Celui qui tombe” (He who falls)

August 24, 2020

Dancers guided by choreographer Yoann Bourgeois used a spinning turntable and centrifugal force to do things not ordinarily possible.

LINKS

Turntable Acrobats Performing Centripetal Illusions by Jason Kottke for kottke.org.

He Who Falls (Celui qui tombe) review – hyper-skilled and remote by Luke Jennings for The Guardian.

Katharine Hepburn as Joan of Arc

August 23, 2020

This is a digital restoration of an RKO screen test that Katharine Hepburn took in 1934 for a role in an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan.”  It was shot in Technicolor, which was new then, and was restored by the Museum of Modern Art.

The movie wasn’t made then because Shaw wouldn’t agree to cuts in the script that the directors wanted to make.  A movie version of Shaw’s play was finally made in 1948, with Ingrid Bergman in the title role.  I take nothing away from Ingrid Bergman, but Katherine Hepburn would really have been great in the role.

“Stormy Weather” in color

August 22, 2020

These is a colorized scene from the 1943 movie “Stormy Weather.”  Cab Calloway and his Cotton Club Orchestra play “Jumpin’ Jive.”  The tap dancers are the Nicolas Brothers.

LINK

Stormy Weather Rolled Into Theaters 75 Years Ago by Troy Brownfield for the Saturday Evening Post (2018)

Sabotage of Postal Service can risk lives

August 21, 2020

A number of people on my neighborhood association list-serve report problems with their mail delivery, including not getting medications and pension checks in a timely way.

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s recently took a lot of mail-sorting machines out of service and stopped overtime work, which he admits will slow down mail deliveries.  Delays in delivering medications can risk lives.

Some e-mails blame our local post office staff, but this is something that only happened in the past month or two and I don’t know of anything that has changed there at that time.

One of the under-reported aspects of the Trump administration is how he and his crew have undermined the normal workings of government.  We see this in Trump’s undermining of efforts to fight the coronavirus pandemic.  Now we see it again in his support for DeJoy’s policy.

LINKS

USPS slowdown delays delivery of life-saving meds by Christina Farr for CNBC.

Postal changes delay mail-order medicine for vets by Hope Yen for the Associated Press.

It’s Very Hard to Rebuild a Bridge Once It’s Torn Down by Jason Kottke for kottke.org.

Why I Love the Post Office (And You Should, Too) by Mindy Isser for Current Affairs.

The political scene: Links & comments 8/20/2020

August 20, 2020

What kind of a President would Joe Biden be?

Andrew Bacevich, a political scientist and retired career Army officer, outlined what Biden could do to turn the country around in a constructive way.  Bacevich’s article would be a good benchmark with which to measure Biden’s actual policies—assuming he is elected, that is, which is far from certain.

Biden Wins, Then What? by Andrew Bacevich for TomDispatch.

It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that Biden would do what Bacevich recommends, or at least some of it, but I would be surprised if he did. Maybe Bacevich would, too.  Unlikely isn’t the same as impossible, but I think the pessimistic view of David Sirota, editor-at-large of Jacobin magazine, is more realistic.

He says the Democrats’ choice of Biden over Bernie Sanders is an explicit endorsement of the pre-Trump status quo over progressive change.  It means that, no matter who wins, we Americans will not have Presidential leadership equal to the coming crisis.

Did Americans Want a Revolution? by David Sirota for Too Much Information.

When Donald Trump ran in 2016, he expressed reservations about the U.S. forever wars, but did not do anything concrete to end them.  Even so, both Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden have attacked him as an appeaser.

The continuing wars at best will spread more pointless death, destruction and misery through the world, and at worst will create military confrontations leading to use of nuclear weapons.  For the next four years, the only hope of winding down the wars is in Congress.

A Bold Foreign Policy Platform for the New Wave of Left Lawmakers by Phyllis Bennis for In These Times.

Thomas Frank’s new book, The People, No, is about the history of populism and the anti-democracy backlash against it. He gave a good interview with Lewis Lapham, in which he discussed some material not in the book.  Matt Taibbi wrote a good review of the book.

The World in Time: Thomas Frank, a broadcast interview for Lapham’s Quarterly.

The People, No, a review on Reporting by Matt Taibbi.

The Postal Service and its last-minute defenders

August 19, 2020

Click to enlarge.

Democratic leaders are rightly angry because the U.S. Postal service might not be able to deliver mailed-in ballots in time to be counted in the 2020 election.

Postmaster-General Louis DeJoy has cut overtime pay and taken mail sorting machines out of service, even though he acknowledges this will delay mail deliveries.

This is supposedly an economy measure, but a Monmouth University poll says 72 percent of Democrats say they might vote by mail, while only 22 percent of Republicans say so.  DeJoy’s policy just might change the outcome of the 2020 elections.

The reason the U.S. Postal Service is in dire straits in the first place is that Congressional leaders, both Democratic and Republican, have deliberately made it so.

The only reason Democratic leaders are concerned now is their perception that Postal Service failure will affect their chances of winning this year’s elections.

Don’t get me wrong.  All their outrage is fully justified.  But if they hadn’t been willing to put the Postal Service on the slide to privatization in the first place, while selling off its prime real estate at bargain prices, there wouldn’t be a problem now.

Here’s the back story, as reported by the great Matt Taibbi.

During the Bush years, the U.S.P.S. was put on the “high risk” list by the General Accounting Office, headed at the time by a future Pete Peterson foundation CEO named David Walker who would later come out in favor of privatizing the post office. The GAO recommended cuts and other measures to address the “rapidly deteriorating” financial situation of the U.S.P.S.

But when an analysis by the Office of Personnel Management was released in November, 2002, it turned out the U.S.P.S. had a “more positive picture” than was believed. The U.S.P.S. was massively over-paying into its retirement fund, headed for a $70 billion surplus.

Then in 2003 the Postal Pension Funding Reform Act was passed, which among other things forced the U.S.P.S. to pay the pension obligations of employees who had prior military service.

A few years after that, in 2006, the “Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act” passed with overwhelming support in both houses, forcing a series of incredible changes, the biggest being a requirement that the U.S.P.S. fully fund 75 years worth of benefits for its employees.

The provision cost $5.5 billion per year and was unique among government agencies. “No one prefunds at more than 30%,” said Anthony Vegliante, the service’s executive vice president, at the time.

The bill also prevented the post office from offering “nonpostal services” as a way to compete financially. This barred it from establishing a postal banking service, but also nixed creative ideas like Internet cafes, copy services, notaries, even allowing postal workers to offer to wrap Christmas presents.

Coupled with the pre-funding benefit mandate and other pension changes, this paralyzed the post office financially, making it look ripe for reform.

By 2012, there were calls for the U.S.P.S. to eliminate 3,700 post offices (a first step toward eventually closing as many as 15,000) and 250 mail processing centers. [Senator Bernie] Sanders, along with other Senators with large rural constituencies like Jon Tester and Claire McCaskill, managed to change the bill and save a lot of the mail processing centers.

The Senate that year also cut the amount of required pre-funding for benefits and began refunding the U.S.P.S. for about $11 billion in overpayment for retirement costs.

A few years after that, in 2015, the Post Office Inspector General issued a blistering report about CBRE, the company that had served as sole real estate broker to the U.S.P.S. from 2011 on.

The report found that CBRE had been selling and/or leasing post office properties at below-market prices, often to clients of CBRE – a company chaired by Richard Blum, the husband of California Senator Dianne Feinstein.

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Reading the short stories of O. Henry today

August 17, 2020

In search of some pleasant reading while waiting for the current crisis to unfold, I picked up a copy of THE BEST SHORT STORIES OF O. HENRY.

O. Henry was the pen name of William Sydney Porter, who flourished from 1902 to 1910 and was possibly the USA’s most popular fiction writer in his day.

He was noted for his good-natured interest in people on all levels of society, and his knack for surprise endings.

He wrote more than 600 stories, not all of them of top quality, but his best hold up well.

His two best-known stories are “The Gift of the Magi,” about an impoverished newly-wed in New York looking for money to buy a Christmas present for her husband, and “The Ransom of Red Chief,” about two men who kidnap a hellion of a 10-year-old boy and get more than the bargained for.

I still found the first one still sweet and touching and the second still hilariously funny, even though I knew how they were going to come out.

O. Henry’s stories were not brutally realistic.  Rather his characters reflected regional and ethnic stereotypes—desperadoes along the Texan-Mexico border, penniless ex-plantation owners in the Deep South, feuding clans in the Cumberland mountains of Kentucky and hoboes riding the rails.

His beloved New York was full of rich socialites who fretted about standards of etiquette, genial Irish politicians, policemen and bartenders and struggling shop girls fantasizing about marrying millionaires.

He had a special sympathy for shop girls.  He knew just how much they were paid, how they budgeted to pay for food and rent, and how many meals they had to go without to buy a theater ticket or pretty blouse.

One of his best stories is “A Trimmed Lamp,” about a couple of young women who seek their fortunes in New York.  One gets a job in a ritzy Park Avenue shop; the other gets a higher-paid job in a laundry.

The first thinks taking the lower wage is a fair exchange for the chance to see high society and meet rich young men. But the fate plays a trick on both of them.

“An Unfurnished Room” is about a girl trying to decide whether to go out with a man she despises just for the sake of having a good dinner in a restaurant and an evening’s entertainment.  At the end, the narrator dreams he is in heaven and faces judgment.

The angel Gabriel asks him if he is an employer who paid working girls five or six dollars a week to live on.  No, replies the narrator, “I’m only a fellow that set fire to an orphanage and murdered a blind man for his pennies.”

I don’t think anybody in that era felt insulted about O. Henry’s portrayal of different ethnic and regional types.  Stereotyping is not necessarily malicious; it can be just a crude form of sociology.

Only one of the 38 stories in this collection has an African-American character.  Uncle Caesar in “A Municipal Report” is a carriage driver for hire in Nashville.

He is an ex-slave, but reportedly the grandson of a Congolese king.  He speaks in an exaggeratedly subservient and playing-the-fool manner, which I heard many times in real life in the 1940s and 1950s and which, thankfully, exists no more.  But at times the mask slips and the narrator can see the concealed sense of pride and dignity underneath.

Remarkably, Uncle Caesar murders a white man for justifiable reasons and gets away with it.  This is all right because his motive was to protect a sweet, helpless white woman from her exploitative and abusive husband.

Another short story, “The Last Leaf,” is about a pair of nice young women artists who, it is plainly hinted, are lesbians.  In a couple of respects, O. Henry may have been ahead of this time.

On the other hand, he wrote “A Harlem Tragedy,” in which Mrs. Fink, whose husband is indifferent to her, envies her neighbor, Mrs. Cassidy, because Mr. Cassidy regularly demonstrates his masculinity by beating her up, then shows his affection by making love and buying things that she wants.  Mrs. Fink tries to rouse her husband to violence and passion, with unexpected results.

O. Henry’s stories are a picture of a vanished America, not that America as we see it today, but as Americans of the time saw it.  He called his beloved New York City “Baghdad-on-the-Subway.”   Back then, the name Baghdad evoked thought of Scheherazade and the Tales of a Thousand and One Nights, not a violent, devastated war zone

The Best Short Stories of O. Henry is what I would call a good waiting-room book or bathroom book.  The stories were good enough to hold my interest, but not so compelling that I couldn’t bear to put them down.

William Tell Overture performed on Tesla Coils

August 15, 2020

For those who did not understand what is going on this video, here’s a brief explanation from the Franzoli Electronics YouTube Page: The main loud music really comes from the Tesla coil sparks. They are literally playing the music due to the programmed phase, pulse width and firing frequency! So, there are no speakers, no audio / video special effects. It looks even better in person and sounds almost the same, just without the beat / percussion backing track.

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President Kamala Harris?

August 13, 2020

Joe Biden’s political record consists of support for banking and finance and support for the police.  Kamala Harris’s record is the same.  I don’t see any reason to think they would change while in office.

I can’t see any reason for voting for them except the belief that virtually anyone would be better than Donald Trump or Mike Pence.  Or the symbolic value of electing someone who is a woman, a person of color and the descendant of Jamaican and south Asian immigrants.

As for myself, I don’t intend to vote for either a Democratic or Republican presidential candidate unless they give me a positive reason for doing so.

The United States faces multiple crises—a pandemic, catastrophic climate change and an economic crisis comparable to the Great Depression of the 1930s—and it faces with a government that is locked into perpetual war and serving the interests of the financial elite.

No matter which candidate wins, he is likely to be remembered as the Herbert Hoover of the 2020s.  Recall that Hoover’s Vice President Charles Curtis, a hard-line right-wing Republican, was partly of American Indian ancestry and spent part of his childhood on a reservation.  That is an indication of how much and how little a public official’s ancestry matters.

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A Canadian on the end of the American era

August 12, 2020

Ford’s WIllow Run plant during World War Two

When people are faced with external threats, they need to pull together.   A Canadian anthropologist named Wade Davis pointed out that this once was true of the United States.

In 1940, with Europe already ablaze, the United States had a smaller army than either Portugal or Bulgaria.

Within four years, 18 million men and women would serve in uniform, with millions more working double shifts in mines and factories that made America, as President Roosevelt promised, the arsenal of democracy.

When the Japanese within six weeks of Pearl Harbor took control of 90 percent of the world’s rubber supply, the U.S. dropped the speed limit to 35 mph to protect tires, and then, in three years, invented from scratch a synthetic-rubber industry that allowed Allied armies to roll over the Nazis.

At its peak, Henry Ford’s Willow Run Plant produced a B-24 Liberator every two hours, around the clock.

Shipyards in Long Beach and Sausalito spat out Liberty ships at a rate of two a day for four years; the record was a ship built in four days, 15 hours and 29 minutes.

A single American factory, Chrysler’s Detroit Arsenal, built more tanks than the whole of the Third Reich.

That was then.  This is now.

COVID-19 didn’t lay America low; it simply revealed what had long been forsaken.

As the crisis unfolded, with another American dying every minute of every day, a country that once turned out fighter planes by the hour could not manage to produce the paper masks or cotton swabs essential for tracking the disease.

The nation that defeated smallpox and polio, and led the world for generations in medical innovation and discovery, was reduced to a laughing stock as a buffoon of a president advocated the use of household disinfectants as a treatment for a disease that intellectually he could not begin to understand.

As a number of countries moved expeditiously to contain the virus, the United States stumbled along in denial, as if willfully blind.

With less than four percent of the global population, the U.S. soon accounted for more than a fifth of COVID deaths.

The percentage of American victims of the disease who died was six times the global average. Achieving the world’s highest rate of morbidity and mortality provoked not shame, but only further lies, scapegoating, and boasts of miracle cures as dubious as the claims of a carnival barker, a grifter on the make.

Some of these statements need asterisks.  Latin America has overtaken North America as the center of the coronavirus infection, and several advanced countries have higher coronavirus-related deaths per million people than the USA does, at least so far.

Davis, like many Canadian critics of the USA, is somewhat blind to the problems of his own country.  An American who has lived in Davis’s Vancouver pointed out that it is far from being the semi-utopia he claims it is.

But none of this disproves Davis’s general point.  U.S. industrial and governmental capacity has been unraveling for a long time.  This process won’t reverse by itself.  The first steps in change are for us Americans to understand our situation, pull together and stop accepting excuses for failure from our supposed leaders.

LINKS

How Covid-19 Signals the End of the American Era by Wade Davis for Rolling Stone.

The Unraveling of “The Unraveling of America” by Deanna Kreisel for Medium.

A Lego sculpture that seems to float in midair

August 10, 2020

For details, click on Build Your Own Magically Floating Lego Tensegrity Sculpture by Jason Kottke on kottke.org.

A short story of the haunted Internet

August 9, 2020

The Basilisk by Paul Kingsnorth for emergence magazine.

The world’s largest signature

August 8, 2020

In the late 1990s, a Texas farmer named Jimmy Luecke cleared out some grazing land, but decided to leave enough trees standing to spell out his name in giant letters.  His signature is three miles across.  Today astronauts about the Space Shuttle use the signature as a means of checking the resolution of satellite imagery.

LINK

How the World’s Largest Signature Is Used by NASA to Analyze Satellite Imagery by Spooky for Oddity Central.

A Japanese sculptor’s devotion to Antonio Gaudi

August 7, 2020

Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue

August 7, 2020

A brief history of the arms race

August 6, 2020

Kulning, a beautiful medieval Nordic herding call

August 6, 2020

For details, click on Kulning, a Beautiful Medieval Nordic Herding Call by Jason Kottke for kottke.org.

A high-resolution look at Mars

August 5, 2020

This panorama was created by combining hundreds of still photographs.  For details, click on Gorgeous 4K Video of Mars by Jason Kottke for kottke.org.

Life is a mystery

August 4, 2020

For more like this, click on Zen Pencils.