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Yes, our problems are more than just gun problems

In Friday’s Washington Post, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) writes of the comprehensive approach that must be taken to solve the problems that we as Americans have with gun violence. He suggests that any approach that only targets guns and gun owners and ignores mental health and our violence-soaked culture is doomed to fail.

I tend to agree, but I think the problem lies much deeper — and is much more difficult to solve — than anyone is saying.

Let me illustrate what I want to discuss with an anecdote. Back about 1998, when a lot of people with home computers were switching first to DSL and then to cable modems, my wife and I were still using dial-up Internet at home. Our modem was pretty good for the time — 57,600 baud — especially considering the fact that the first modem I ever used as a journalist was 300 baud. My 500-word stories to five minutes to send to my newsroom. Of course, that was 1980. Still, it made me appreciate 57,600.

My son didn’t have that experience, so all I heard from him was how deathly slow our modem was.

And that is the root of our problem. Most of us know that Marshall McLuhan said “the medium is the message,” but how many people understand what McLuhan meant by that? McLuhan wasn’t much concerned with whether people chose to watch “Masterpiece Theatre” or “Gilligan’s Island.” He knew that within reason, it didn’t matter what you watched. What mattered is that watching did to your brain.

In his wonderful book “The Shallows” (we’ll get to it in a minute), Nicholas Carr wrote that McLuhan understood media aren’t just channels of information. “They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought.” Numerous studies have shown that watching large amounts of television affects our brains in a way almost nothing else does — it makes us more passive. We sit in the dark and absorb information without having to think about it at all.

“The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” is an expansion of an Atlantic Monthly cover story titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid,” and it’s pretty obvious what Carr’s take on it is. He has interviewed numerous people who say — as he says for himself — that it has become much more difficult to read for any length of time. “Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles,” Carr writes. “Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

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posted by Mike in Politics,Ranting,Technology,Tragedy and have No Comments

Problems not simple, but they’re not insoluble either

The truth isn’t always simple, especially when people look for answers as to why something terrible happened.

When the news came from Newtown, Conn., that a shooter had murdered 26 people — 20 of them small children — and then had taken his own life, people had lots of answers. Depending on their own personal agendas, the answers ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. Former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee said it happened because we had taken God out of our schools, but he backed off some from that when people started asking him if he meant God had been responsible for the death of 20 6- and 7-year-olds.

Liberals are blaming guns, conservatives are blaming everything except guns and some folks are even blaming the mental health system.

I love the ones who try to blow off responsibility completely by running some ancient quote from Ronald Reagan that when a crime is committed, it is the fault of the individual who committed it and not society overall. The irony there is that it was during Reagan’s administration that the mental health system got decimated.

That was also the period when the National Rifle Association became one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington, and when the culture seemed to fall off a cliff.

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posted by Mike in in God's name,Politics,Ranting,Tragedy and have No Comments

Time to demand common sense from our politicians

It seems like one thing we could use a lot more of in this country is common sense.

As we approach the end of a pretty nasty year, with 20 little kids murdered at school in Connecticut, our politicians in Washington are trying to find a way to extend the longest, stupidest spree our government has ever been on. For the last 12 years, we have been spending too much and taxing too little, and all we have really done is totally destroy people’s confidence that elected officials could possible be concerned with anything more than perpetuating their careers.

When Bill Clinton left office in January 2001, if we hadn’t exactly solved our deficit and debt problems, we at least seemed to be on the right track. We had a federal budget that was at least technically in surplus and it looked as if we would be able to pay down the national debt.

Then we lost our common sense.

George W. Bush came into office and said that if we have these surpluses, it means people are paying too much in taxes and we need to cut the rates to give money back to them.

The emperor had no clothes, but nobody would listen.

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posted by Mike in Future,Politics,Ranting and have No Comments

Stand up to the gun nuts and take reasonable steps

It’s tough enough being a kid when all you have to worry about is other kids.

When my son was in second grade, he was getting bullied by a couple of kids a year or two older. Rather than complaining, he found a tiny little penknife that he had bought as a souvenir at the Roy Rogers Museum in Victorville, California. The blade was less than an inch long, and he would never have stabbed anyone with it. But he thought if he showed these kids he had the knife, they would leave him alone.

I didn’t find out about it until the school called to tell me my son had brought a knife to school. I didn’t argue with them, although I probably could have pointed out that it was so small and the blade so dull that I probably could have swallowed it and had it pass through my entire digestive system without doing any damage. I told them I would talk to him, and he made it through the rest of his school years without taking a weapon to school.

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posted by Mike in Family,Politics,Ranting,Tragedy and have No Comments

The rich are different, some good and some bad

One of the political subjects on which I tend to write a great deal is the quest by conservatives to pass lower and lower taxes on the wealthiest among us.

I have always been a strong believer in the progressive income tax, and I am convinced that it has been one of the major factors to the creation of the middle class in America. Between a progressive income tax and a meaningful estate tax, we have at least restricted the size of massive hereditary estates being handed down from generation to generation.

Darrell Issa

I don’t have a bully pulpit anymore — millions of people blog and most don’t have more than a handful of readers — so I write the occasional piece on All Voices and I snipe on Facebook. The other day I commented on a news story in which California Rep. Darrell Issa, who became fabulously wealthy selling car alarms, had suffered a loss of $100,000 in jewelry from his California home.

Now on his financial disclosure forms in Congress, Issa has listed his net worth as somewhere between $135 million and $770 million, so $100,000 is probably about as much as he loses in his couch cushions in an average year. In fact, I pointed out, it probably would be fair to say that the average upper middle-class American probably has a worth somewhere between $135 thousand and $770 thousand; the same proportional loss for them would be $100.

To take it one step farther than I did the other day, a lower middle-class family may have a net worth somewhere between $13,500 and $77 thousand; their proportional loss would be $10.

That’s right, ten dollars.

So I posted a comment on Facebook about how it might horrify 98 percent of the people in the country to be robbed of $100,000, it wasn’t much more than an annoyance — at least financially — to Issa.

So my Facebook friend John Rummans, who seems like a really good guy even if he is a conservative Republican, responded to my post by saying, “You really don’t like wealthy people, do you?”

The plutocrat

Well, there are plenty of rich people I don’t like, but it isn’t because they’re rich. The people I dislike are folks who think they are better than other people because they’re rich and who spend millions of dollars supporting politicians who will keep their taxes as low as possible. And to hell with the rest of the country.

Too many rich people today are like 19th century robber baron Jay Gould, who once said he could hire half the working class to kill the other half, or like Cornelius Vanderbilt, who said “The public be damned!”

My favorite robber baron was steel mogul Andrew Carnegie, who said any man who didn’t spend all his money on good works by the time he died had led a failed life. He built thousands of public libraries in American towns too small to afford their own.

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posted by Mike in Politics,Ranting and have No Comments

Is ‘traditional America’ really gone for good?

Traditional America?

“Is traditional America gone for good?”
– BILL O’REILLY

To answer that question, the first thing we have to do is determine exactly what “traditional America” was. When O’Reilly used the question above for an explanation of why the Republican Party’s message didn’t resonate with voters in the recent election, he was referring to a lack of personal discipline.

“People want free stuff,” he said.

Unlike traditional America, where people would rather die than accept welfare. People worked hard in those days and made an honest dollar for an honest day’s work.

But which traditional America does O’Reilly mean? Could it be 1789, when only white men voted, when black people were slaves and when 95 percent of all working people were their own bosses? Or how about 1880, when the Industrial Revolution had changed everything and people were expected to do menial jobs for low pay? That was the era in which robber baron Jay Gould famously said he could hire half of the working class to kill the other half.

I doubt he meant the 1930s, when much of our present-day safety net was created. Since many people tend to see the “good old days” as the years when they were young, let’s say for the sake of argument that he means the 1950s. The ’50s are perhaps the most misunderstood of all decades, loved by the right primarily because they were the last “normal” decade before everything changes.

Let’s look at the ’50s for a moment:

– According to the 1950 census, there were 150,697,361 people in the United States. That’s less than half of our current population of 309.2 million. Our three most populous states — California, Texas and Florida — had as combined population of just over 21 million then, as opposed to 81.5 million today.

– Unemployment in the ’50s was as low as 3 percent in 1952 and peaked at 6.8 percent during the recession of 1958. By 1966 it was back to 3.8 percent.

– In 1950, American CEOs made 50-60 times as much as the average worker. In 2011, the ratio was 380-1.

House for everyone

– In the 1950s, it was still possible for a man with an eighth-grade education to get an entry-level blue collar job and work his way up to a position where he could support a family, own a home and live the American Dream.

It was a time when anyone who wanted to work could find a decent job, something that certainly isn’t true anymore. There are a couple of things that didn’t exist in the ’50s that made all that possible.

First, many businesses were locally owned and nearly all businesses that operated in the United States were American-owned. We didn’t have multi-national corporations doing business in the U.S. then, so the people who owned businesses felt a certain responsibility to their community and their country.

Second, financial speculation wasn’t anywhere near what it became starting in the ’80s. Far fewer people were in the stock market, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average was around 500 for most of the decade.

So the biggest difference was that our rich people were a lot less wealthy than they are today, but average folks lived a lot better. Far more jobs included meaningful benefits like pensions, and even people who didn’t have medical insurance could usually afford doctor visits and other preventative medical care.

'50s ladies

Now the last thing I want to do is say the ’50s were wonderful for everyone. They weren’t. We still had a system of apartheid every bit as rigid as South Africa in parts of the country, and women who wanted to have anything other than the traditional “kinder kueche kirche” life that came from the old country (children, kitchen and church), could expect to have a difficult time of it. As for those of different sexual proclivities, they were firmly closeted and could expect to be called nothing much better than “degenerates.”

But most folks knew their neighbors, and they had enough local networks that there were people they could rely on to help them if they needed it.

And they took pride in their families and their neighborhoods. General Colin Powell, who grew up in a poor neighborhood in New York, said that people behaved well even in bad neighborhoods because they didn’t want to bring shame to their families.

“A sense of shame is not a bad moral compass,” Powell said.

That’s a good thing, and certainly it’s one of the things to which O’Reilly refers when he speaks of traditional America. But if you want tradition, you’ve got to have it on both sides. You can’t criticize people for behaving badly when you have taken away all their options.

And when you live in a country where the population has more than doubled in 60 years, and where the population of the three largest states has nearly quadrupled, you really can’t be all that surprised when things change.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

posted by Mike in American Dream,history,Politics,Ranting and have No Comments

Of birthers, bicycles and wonderful Trick or Treaters

Short takes from a journey through a disorganized mind:

I’m pretty fed up with these idiots who keep insisting that President Obama wasn’t born in the United States and thus should not have been eligible to serve the last four years as president. I mean, he had three major obstacles to overcome if he were hiding something. I find it impossible to believe that if there was something to the claims, Hillary Clinton wouldn’t have used it against him in the primaries. Then Republicans certainly would have used it in the general election campaign. Finally, the “birthers” filed suits in court after court that were thrown out.

To believe that Obama really was ineligible, you almost have to believe that everyone is in on it, including numerous Republicans.

The whole thing is ridiculous anyway. The idea that a president had to be native-born was an 18th century fear of European royalty ruling our country. The American people should be the ones to make the decision, and if at various times people might have wanted to vote for Republicans Arnold Schwarzenegger (Austrian born) or Henry Kissinger (German born) or for Democrat Jennifer Grantholm (Canadian born), they should have had that opportunity.

Admittedly, I’m prejudiced. I have a daughter who I honestly believe could have a great career in politics should she so desire, but even though she has been in this country since she was 7, she wasn’t born here. I shudder to think of a world where brilliant, personable people can’t run for president, but Michelle Bachman can.

***

Halloween in Jamaica

Speaking of my daughter Pauline, aka the mother of my grandchildren, she and husband Ryan made a big deal out of Halloween in their first year of three stationed in Jamaica. They ordered costumes online. Ryan was something called a Tauntaun, which is a character I failed to remember from the “Star Wars” movie, while Pauline and little Lex have costumes from “Star Trek” and Maddie is a princess.

I get a kick out of the look on Lex’s face. Halloween is three months before his birthday, and he is 1 year old now.

***

I am very impressed by Performance Bicycle. As I wrote last week, I ordered a road bike online. I was told it would be shipped from North Carolina and I would be able to pick it up from the Atlanta store in three weeks.

They cut 16 days off the time.

My bike arrived last Thursday — 16 days ahead of schedule.

I picked it up Saturday, and while I haven’t been on it yet, it’s only a matter of time.

It’s a lot different from my first bike — no basket on the back to carry things, for one thing.

But damned if it isn’t beautiful.

***

Tuesday is election day. Exercise your right to vote, whether you’re supporting the guy I like or the guy I don’t like.

Later.

 

posted by Mike in American Dream,Exercise,Family,Politics,Ranting and have No Comments

Boy, could we really use another FDR these days

“God watches out for drunks, little children and the United States of America.”

I don’t remember the first time I heard that, but it made me laugh knowingly. All throughout our country’s history, in its hour of greatest need, there have been great presidents. In the beginning, when we weren’t even sure what kind of country we would have, there was George Washington to refuse a crown and set precedent after precedent for the way presidents should behave. In 1860, with the Union falling apart, there was Abraham Lincoln to hold it together.

At the end of the Gilded Age, when the robber barons had all but raped the country, there was Theodore Roosevelt to step up with his big stick and shut them down.

The unfinished portrait

And then there was FDR.

Ever since the age of Reagan, conservatives have done their worst to downplay the effect of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 12 years in the White House. They claim the New Deal did nothing to lift the United States out of the Great Depression, that the economy didn’t really turn around until World War II started. They call him a socialist or even a fascist, but the one thing none of them seem to want to admit is that if Roosevelt hadn’t done what he did, it’s likely we would have gone down the same road as Germany, Italy or even Russia.

He was a wealthy man, no doubt, but his own misfortune — he contracted polio when he was nearly 40 years old — gave him great empathy for all the people who were suffering during the Depression.

Contrary to what you’ll hear from right wingers these days, Roosevelt didn’t start the welfare state. The money people got from the government so they could eat was money they worked for. Sure, maybe some were only doing things like sweeping the sidewalks, but FDR understood that people needed to do something to feel that they had earned the money.

Yes, there was another recession in 1937, but that was because Roosevelt — a traditionalist at heart — tried to keep a campaign promise and balance the federal budget. Austerity was the last thing the economy needed.

It was his true empathy for the poor and suffering that made the Democrats a majority party for a generation. That they don’t really seem to be one anymore speaks more to the fact that they have tried to cater to the wealthy, and as Harry Truman once said, give the voters a choice between a Republican and a Republican and they’ll vote for the Republican every time.

FDR had a real connection with the people, and he did a better job of communicating with them in his Fireside Chats than any other president before him or since him. He was the one man who could make a reluctant nation prepare for a war he knew would one day come to them, and he was the one who led them through the dark days after Pearl Harbor all the way up to his death on April 12, 1945.

The New York Times said it best in a eulogy editorial, telling its readers that a hundred years in the future, Americans would get down on their knees and thank God that Franklin Roosevelt had been in the White House when America had to stand up to barbarism.

Some will, of course, but what amazes me more than 67 years after his death is how much his legacy has been subjected to revisionist history by the descendants of the people on the far right who hated him beyond all reason. Oh, they don’t say the same things the haters did while he was alive. For one thing, all the ridiculous lies about how Roosevelt was secretly a Jew wouldn’t fly anymore. What anti-semitism that remains in this country is pretty much underground these days.

But the whole idea that we should help people who are down on their luck has come under attack. It’s amazing how many people treat a third-rate thinker like Ayn Rand as if she were a philosophical equal to Christ himself. People talk about makers and takers and look at the people who are struggling as if they were somehow morally inferior to those who are successful. When a major party candidate talks of 47 percent of Americans as people he could never convince to take responsibility for their own lives, it says as much about our country as it does about the man who said it.

Fifty years ago, Mitt Romney would have condemned himself to the far right fringe with that remark.

Today he’s probably got one chance in three of being elected president on Tuesday.

America has certainly changed.

We certainly are pressing our luck.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

posted by Mike in American Dream,history,Politics,Ranting and have No Comments

If you work and treat people well, are you a sucker?

There are two kinds of people in this country …

Wow, there’s an original thought. You can divide people in about a billion ways, starting with men and women and finishing with who watches Honey Boo Boo and who doesn’t.

Give me a minute. I’m hoping to be a little more profound than that. The way I would divide the country is into people who think that if you’re honest, work hard and treat other people well, you’ll get ahead, and people who would call folks like that “suckers.”

Maybe they are, although I think that’s a little like blaming the victim for the crime. There have certainly been plenty of American workers whose companies made good products and turned a profit who absolutely couldn’t understand why people would close their factory and send the jobs to China — just to increase profits.

Average folks simply look at money differently than the uber-entitled rich. People living from paycheck to paycheck and deciding which bills will have to wait till next month might say that if they had a million dollars, all their problems would be solved. The main reason that isn’t true is that lifestyles expand to fit incomes. When I got my first full-time newspaper job in 1979, I was getting paid $180 a week. Less than $10,000 a year. I remember thinking if I could make $20,000 or even $30,000, that would solve my problems. Well, I had nicer apartments and a better car, and I paid my bills on time, but I knew I hadn’t exactly reached tall cotton.

But in general, if a working-class person comes into a windfall, they don’t all of a sudden step up and buy a Learjet or a Bentley. The ones who do are the ones who generally lose it all in the end.

The other side of the coin is the really wealthy, the ones who insist they built everything they have on their own without any help from anyone else. It’s funny, the ones who inherited their wealth are the ones who seem to be the most obnoxious about it. The four children of Walmart founder Sam Walton have spend tens of millions in campaign contributions to try and eliminate the estate tax. The sons of Fred Koch, who made billions in energy and then helped found the John Birch Society, have provided much of the funding for right-wing political groups in recent years.

Australia's $19 billion woman.

But the worst person of all isn’t even an American. Australian Gina Rinehart, who is worth about $19 billion, is the world’s richest woman. Her money comes from mining, and she has been whining about how much she has to pay Australians to work in her mines. She also had some good advice about class envy:

“There is no monopoly on becoming a millionaire. If you’re jealous of those with more money, don’t just sit there and complain. Do something to make more money yourself — spend less time drinking, or smoking and socializing and more time working.”

Of course, Rinehart didn’t have to worry about any of those things. She inherited her money.

Now if you’re like me, you find yourself wondering why anyone would need $19 billion. I went through a thing with my friend Mick a few years back where we were talking about an insurance CEO who had made about $110 million the year before. Even figuring about half of it would go in taxes, the executive would still have more than $1 million a week.

So try this:

You get $1 million every Friday. The first Friday you buy a nice house. The second Friday you buy a nice car and set up college accounts for your kids. The third Friday …

You get the picture. Very soon, you’ve got more money piling up than you can spend — unless you decide you need four or five houses, 10 or 12 cars and all the other things that go along with being fabulously wealthy.

Some people read stuff like this and accuse me of hating rich people. That’s just not true. I’ve always been a fan of the “build a better mousetrap” types who come up with a product that improves our lives. But in the last 30 years or so we have seen the advent of jobs where people get rich just by moving money around. And when they move the money around, they try to increase the return on their investment.

That’s why there aren’t steel mills in Pennsylvania anymore, and why most of the textile mills have left the South for South Asia. Not because they can’t be profitable here, but because the profit margin is higher when the labor costs are lower. A business can be running a 10 percent profit margin, but if the “experts” think it should be making 12 percent, then something has to be cut somewhere.

What annoys me the most about it is the people who see unfettered capitalism — what former French President Jacques Chirac called “capitalisme sauvage” –  as the purest of all human motives. It’s as if we’re fine with assuming the worst of people. At least that way we can’t be disappointed.

The true irony is that a lot of these people who seem to worship at the altar of Ayn Rand and rugged individualism also claim to be Christians. It seems amazing to me that in this era that has lasted for about 30 years — back to Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority — the one part of Jesus’ teachings they seem to ignore is the most important part.

Helping the poor.

We don’t judge nations by the quality of their rich people. Nobody thinks America is a wonderful country because we have Donald Trump. The true measure of a country is the quality of life of, for lack of a better term, its middle class. And the real irony is that after doing pretty well in the post-war era, for the last few decades the American middle class has been on life support.

Average folks used to have pensions. Not anymore.

Average folks used to have healthcare through work. Not so much anymore.

For all the ridicule thrown at European “socialism,”  middle-class workers in Germany, Sweden or France generally aren’t filled with anxiety over medical bills, they aren’t wondering if they’ll ever be able to retire and they’re getting more than twice as much vacation time as American workers.

The one thing about the middle class in both Europe and here is that most folks play by the rules. They don’t look at other people as potential victims, or suckers, or steps along the road to getting rich.

There’s really nothing wrong with this country that better rich people couldn’t fix.

 

 

 

 

 

posted by Mike in American Dream,Politics,Ranting and have No Comments

Politics isn’t going to save our country

” Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge – they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion… love actually is all around.”
– OPENING LINES OF “LOVE ACTUALLY”

If there is one thing that bothers me these days, it’s that people seem so angry. Angry and judgmental, quick to say that people who choose to live differently than them are somehow evil.

And of course when you’re defending your way of life from evil people, politics becomes brutally important.

Except that it isn’t. Politicians on both sides of the aisle spend most of their time defending the status quo. Does anyone in Congress really debate whether the free-market system — basically unfettered capitalism — is really good for our country? If you listen to the bleatings about “Obamacare,” you would think we had just turned our country over to Karl Marx, Joe Stalin and the rest of the crew. But who benefited most from the act? The insurance companies, who you may have noticed aren’t saying anything bad about it.

In fact, most of the principles of Obama’s reform were identical to ideas generated by the conservative Heritage Foundation. If they had been proposed by a Republican president, they would have had full GOP support. Instead, we have two parties in Washington that won’t do much of anything if it means their opponents will share the credit at all. So nothing gets done and our problems just become worse and worse.

The irony is that I don’t think most people really care all that much about politics, one way or the other. I think most people just want to be left alone to live their lives, and I think there’s a lot more respect among people of opposing views than talk radio or the cable squawk channels would have us believe. Add up all the audiences of all the talk shows and cable news on both sides and it’s not much more than 10 percent of the country.

Just as we have been hearing lately about the 1 percent and the 99 percent, we really ought to stop worrying so much about the folks who get all excited about politics. Let them have their fun. Sadly, it really doesn’t seem to make that much difference anymore who is ostensibly in charge in Washington. Republicans block the Democrats and I’m pretty sure the Democrats will do the same the next time they’re out of power.

Politics won’t save our country.

Neither will money.

Maybe we would be better off if we could manage to start liking each other again.

 

 

posted by Mike in love,Movies,Politics,Ranting and have No Comments
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