Posts Tagged ‘Austerity’

Blame

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013

Baby Goats

Photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2013)

“Blaming speculators as a response to financial crisis goes back at least to the Greeks. It’s almost always the wrong response.” Lawrence Summers

Speaking of speculators and the Greeks, hundreds of thousands of the most highly educated and technologically skillful people in Greece have fled that country in the last two years, and more are leaving every day. Why? Because the austerity programs imposed by the European Union in response to Greece’s speculator-caused debt crisis have created such a severe economic depression that there is little hope of an economic recovery in Greece for many years to come. Greece only has ten million people, yet in the face of this massive brain drain and the elimination of tens of thousands of public sector jobs, the European Union has just decreed that Greece must amplify her austerity campaign and get rid of tens of thousands more public sector jobs.

Here in the United States, our own government is treating the public sector, including state and county governments, as if they are Greece and the federal government is the European Union. The postal service is being intentionally sabotaged and demolished, our social safety nets are being shredded, our states and counties have been bankrupted by vampiric private health care insurers and pension programs built on the shifting sands of hedge-funded banks, and we the people are as supine before the corporate oligarchy as are the Greek people. But where can we flee to in the face of this concerted attack on the public domain?

Most recently, as I’m sure you’ve heard by now, Ronald Obama, I mean Barack Obama, has proposed a budget that will severely reduce the amount of money that poor people, elderly people, and veterans will receive in Social Security payments. To celebrate this latest proof of Obama’s perfidy, I contacted a few friends who, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, have steadfastly insisted that Obama is a much better choice to ruin, I mean run, our country than the two Republican candidates he defeated, as well as being much better than the Democratic challengers he defeated prior to the 2008 election, including Billary, I mean Hillary, Clinton. For the record, I voted for Obama in 2008, but not in 2012.

“He’s good on gay marriage and…I just like the guy,” said one of my Obama-loving friends when I asked what he thought about Obama proposing to cut Social Security after vowing he never would. “And healthcare, he’s good on that, too.”

“That remains to be seen. But what about his proposal to reduce Social Security payments?”

“I’m sure he has a good reason.”

“Why are you sure of that?”

“He’s a good person and his wife is terrific. She cares about poor people.”

Another Obama-supporting friend said, “He’s way better than the Republicans on women’s reproductive rights and appointing liberal judges.”

“Maybe,” I said, “but what about his attack on Social Security?”

“It’s the obstructionist Republicans. They won’t let him do anything.”

“What does that have to do with his proposal to cut Social Security?”

“He’s got to do something to pass the budget, doesn’t he? This is all they’ll let him do.”

And a third Obama fan said, “I’m sure he doesn’t want to, but what choice does he have?”

“How about raising taxes on the rich and on corporations that currently pay little or no taxes?”

“They won’t let him. He would if he could. He can only do what they let him do and the Republicans won’t let him do anything.”

“Our culture peculiarly honors the act of blaming, which it takes as the sign of virtue and intellect.” Lionel Trilling

There was a fascinating article, fascinating to me, recently published in our own Mendocino Beacon with the catchy headline Alcohol Outlet Density Study. An alcohol outlet is defined as a place where the alcohol sold is taken elsewhere to drink, so not a bar or restaurant but a liquor store or grocery store. According to the study, Mendocino County has an extremely high density of alcohol outlets compared to the state average, and the authors of this study say that this higher density of alcohol outlets corresponds to a higher-than-state-average incidence of underage drinking, alcohol-related violence, unprotected sex, and driving after drinking. If I understood the article correctly, the authors of the study conclude from their data that it is not alcohol or drinkers of alcohol that cause these unfortunate behaviors, but the alcohol outlets.

We recently watched the movie Smashed, and when Netflix asked us to rate the film we gave it five stars. Smashed focuses on a young heterosexual alcoholic couple at a juncture in their lives when the woman in the couple, an elementary school teacher, decides to stop drinking and get with the Alcoholics Anonymous program, while the man in the couple continues to drink. The power of the film for me resides in the superb and subtle performances of the actors portraying the couple, and the truthful presentation of the alcoholic’s dilemma in the absence of violence, abuse, and other stereotypical behavior patterns most frequently portrayed in movies about people struggling with addiction. The end of the film, which I will not reveal, is one of the most perfectly honest endings to a movie I have ever seen.

“One should examine oneself for a very long time before thinking of condemning others.” Moliere

At a party in Berkeley some years ago, I found myself in conversation with two psychotherapists, a female psychiatrist and a male psychologist, neither of whom I knew. I cannot recall exactly what prompted me to say, “I think everyone is doing the best they can,” but I do recall that my saying this caused both therapists to look at me as if a large horn had suddenly sprouted from my forehead.

“You can’t be serious,” said the psychiatrist. “If that were true, I’d be out of business.”

The psychologist said, “Why would you ever think something like that?”

And I replied, “I am serious and I think everyone is doing the best they can because that’s the conclusion I’ve come to after being alive for fifty-five years.”

“That’s idiotic,” said the psychiatrist. “Most people barely scrape the surface of their potential.”

“Most people have no idea what they’re capable of,” said the psychologist. “And so they rarely fulfill their potential.”

“I’m not talking about potential,” I replied. “I’m saying that people, from moment to moment, are doing the best they can. The baseball player may be capable of hitting a home run, but in that particular at bat, he grounds out, and that was the best he could do. An alcoholic may have the potential to cease drinking, but in the moment the best he can do is drink. And I assume when you’re with a client or a patient or whatever you call them these days, you do the best you can and sometimes get a great response or a wonderful result, but sometimes nothing much happens or the person quits therapy, yet you were still doing the best you could.”

“What’s your point?” asked the psychologist, frowning at me.

“I need to sit down,” said the psychiatrist. “This is idiotic.”

“My point is that when I assume other people are doing the best they can, I am much less likely to dismiss them or objectify them or blame them or judge them, and I am much more likely to empathize with them as fellow travelers.”

“Beware the lowest common denominator,” said the psychologist.

“I need a drink,” said the psychiatrist, smiling painfully at the psychologist. “Get me a glass of red?”

Off went the psychologist to fetch the psychiatrist some wine, and the psychiatrist said to me, “I don’t really think you’re an idiot. It’s been a crazy week. Forgive me.”

“Of course,” I said. “You were doing the best you could.”

“There is only one time that is important—NOW! It is the most important time because it is the only time we have any power.” Leo Tolstoy

President Obama and Lawrence Summers and the corporate oligarchs and the shortsighted people in Congress are all doing the best they can. Try to wrap your mind around that idea. The last time I tried to wrap my mind around the idea that Obama is doing the best he can, I was reminded of one of my favorite Buddhist parables.

A long time ago, long before the invention of firearms, a ferocious warlord and his army invaded a defenseless town. During the rampage, the warlord came upon a Buddhist temple. The bloodthirsty warlord broke down the temple door and found a monk meditating in the presence of a statue of Buddha. Something about the stillness and calmness of this monk in the midst of the terrible pillaging and slaughtering infuriated the warlord even more than he was already infuriated.

So the warlord drew his sword, walked up to the monk, held the tip of his razor-sharp blade a few inches from the monk’s face and snarled, “You think you’re so smart, so enlightened. Well, if you’re so spiritually advanced, tell me the difference between heaven and hell.”

The monk remained unmoving, his face expressionless, which only made the warlord even more furious.

“Listen you pompous fool,” shouted the warlord, “tell me the difference between heaven and hell or I’ll cut your head off.”

But despite the warlord’s threat, the monk remained unmoving, his face expressionless. And this so enraged the warlord that he raised his sword to behead the monk and was just about to do the terrible deed, when the monk pointed at the warlord and said, “That’s hell.”

The monk’s words struck deep in the heart of the warlord and he dropped his sword and burst into tears.

“And that,” said the monk, “is heaven.”

Austerity

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2012)

“When we deeply understand that actions bring results, it can motivate us to take active responsibility for our actions and our lives.” Joseph Goldstein

Planting time: kale, lettuce, carrots, peas, beets, broccoli. Hearty potato plants rise from the ground and promise a good harvest of spuds in a month or so. Look! A hundred and eight beautiful garlic plants are nearing fruition after many months of growing. As I work in my little garden, I think about the lunatics running our state and national governments, advocates of what they call austerity (but what is actually senseless cruelty and greed), and I imagine a gang of these crazy people surveying my garden and proclaiming, “These seeds and plants aren’t producing anything we can eat right now. They need to be taught a lesson. They need to tighten their belts and pull themselves up by their own root straps. Stop watering them. Stop feeding them. Don’t give them anything until they learn to grow without any assistance from anyone.”

“But…” I try to argue, “…vegetables require time and nurturing to eventually…”

“No buts,” say the lunatics. “No time. No nurturing. Look at those redwood trees over there. You don’t feed or water them, do you? Yet they grow bigger every year. That’s how your broccoli should behave. That’s how lettuce ought to grow. Don’t coddle your sugar snap peas. Let them stand on their own.”

“At the end of his life, Aldous Huxley said that he had come to appreciate how most of spiritual practice is learning to be kinder to one another.” Joseph Goldstein

Years ago I read an article about an experimental program in a Swedish prison that treated inmates as people suffering from emotional and physical deprivations. Inmates were given massages several times a week, had frequent individual and group sessions with psychotherapists, got plenty of opportunities to exercise, learn new skills, make art, eat delicious nourishing food, and were treated with kindness and respect by a staff of skillful and compassionate attendants. Because exhaustive research showed that the vast majority of felons had been deprived of sufficient loving touch as children and adults, and were obviously starved for friendship and love, and because it was clear that punishing people for being emotionally wounded only exacerbated their emotional problems, this regimen of loving-kindness seemed a logical and humane approach. As you might imagine, nearly all the inmates treated for several months in this revolutionary way were positively transformed, so much so that five years after they were released, almost none of the felons had committed another crime.

“We really don’t need very much to be happy. Voluntary simplicity creates the possibility of tremendous lightness and spaciousness in our lives.” Joseph Goldstein

I am old enough to remember President Jimmy Carter delivering a famous speech in 1977 that began as follows. “Tonight I want to have an unpleasant talk with you about a problem unprecedented in our history. With the exception of preventing war, this is the greatest challenge our country will face during our lifetimes. The energy crisis has not yet overwhelmed us, but it will if we do not act quickly. It is a problem we will not solve in the next few years, and it is likely to get progressively worse through the rest of this century. We must not be selfish or timid if we hope to have a decent world for our children and grandchildren. We simply must balance our demand for energy with our rapidly shrinking resources. By acting now, we can control our future instead of letting the future control us.”

Jimmy wanted Americans, with the help of the government, to insulate our homes, conserve energy, and prepare for oil and gasoline becoming extremely expensive. He spoke eloquently about the global environment being under severe duress, and he suggested that people as well as corporations needed to make substantive changes in energy use so the transition to a post carbon future would not be too arduous. Jimmy was my hero after he made that speech. Never before nor since have I heard a President of the United States speak so truthfully and with so little concern for his political future.

That speech, for all intents and purposes, ended Jimmy’s political career and rendered him a largely ineffective president for the rest of his one and only term in office. He had committed the unforgivable crime in a nation controlled by amoral corporations. He had suggested that unbridled capitalism was no longer a viable response to a planet overtaxed by out of control humanity.

Ronald Reagan then came to power by attacking the basic premise of Jimmy’s truthful and heartfelt speech. Reagan declared a thousand times that there was a superabundance of everything and no need to conserve, no need to worry about the environment or the future. We were, he declared, the strongest and richest nation on earth and we, collectively and individually, could have anything we wanted. And so Reagan was elected by a landslide. Yes, Ronald Reagan, the great idol of the austerity lunatics, rode to power as the champion of unlimited consumption.

What I find most telling about the national rejection of Jimmy Carter’s suggestion that we make key changes in our personal and collective energy policies is that change itself was interpreted as austerity. People feared that if we couldn’t keep doing and having everything we wanted to do and have right this minute, and in ways we were accustomed to doing and having, we would be denying ourselves happiness. This was not Carter’s message, but rather how his opponents spun the message to tap the fears of people growing more and more accustomed to instant gratification and the superabundance of new things: gizmos, food, clothing, houses, cars, computers—stuff! And that was almost fifty years ago. Think of what we, the cell phone app people of 2012, have grown accustomed to.

“Practicing kindness means that we connect with people rather than dismiss them; kindness breaks down the barriers between ourselves and others.” Joseph Goldstein

Before moving to Mendocino, I rented an old house on the flats of north Berkeley, a block off Gilman Avenue. Homeless people, mostly men, with shopping carts piled high with cans and bottles were plentiful in our area because one of the main garbage transfer and recycling centers in Berkeley was on Gilman down near the freeway, about fifteen blocks from my house. Because I walked or bicycled everywhere, I got to know some of these scavengers and frequently gifted them with my empty bottles and cans, and less frequently I gave them a little cash if I felt I had some to spare.

Many of these homeless recyclers frequented a liquor and grocery store on the corner of Gilman and San Pablo Avenue, and it was not uncommon to find two or more of these entrepreneurs gathered on the sidewalk in front of the store with their wagon trains of shopping carts. Since I left Berkeley seven years ago, that area has undergone a profound gentrification, so I don’t know the current state of the homeless scene thereabouts, but in my day there were dozens of shopping cart scavengers using Gilman as their main route to the recycling center.

So…one day an old friend, a childhood pal I hadn’t seen in many years, came to visit me in Berkeley. Tina was married to an extremely wealthy man and lived in a mansion in Los Angeles—her life one of extreme luxury and privilege. Yet she was terribly unhappy and full of complaints. I, on the other hand, was not sure I would have enough money to pay my rent that month and buy groceries, so her complaints were not landing on sympathetic ears.

When I realized I had ceased to listen to her, I suggested we go for a walk and see the sights of my neighborhood. Tina was game, so off we went, and after I’d shown her my favorite front yard gardens, I decided (without knowing why) to take us by the liquor store on the corner of Gilman and San Pablo to see what we could see. And lo the gods had assembled five homeless scavengers with their many shopping carts in tow, three of the sweaty fellows having recently cashed in their treasure, the other two en route to do so.

Tina, I should add, was a beautiful woman as graceful as a deer and the object of admiring gazes from most everyone who saw her. And as we approached the liquor store, the gang of recyclers fell into reverent silence, as if to say, “Well lookee here, a goddess came down to give us thrill.”

Then one of the fellows hailed me. This was Jonah, a muscular black man who slept in a nest he’d fashioned in the heart of a massive blackberry bush not far from my house. “Yo! Mr. Todd. What’s doing?”

“Showing my friend the sights,” I said, leading Tina closer to Jonah and his compatriots. “Tina, this is Jonah. Jonah, Tina.”

“Where you from?” asked Jonah, his broad smile revealing a scarcity of teeth.

“Los Angeles,” said Tina, breathless with fear and excitement. “Near Santa Monica.”

Then we chatted a bit more, saying nothing of great import, Jonah doing most of the talking, Tina wide-eyed and smiling anxiously; and then we bid them adieu and headed home.

But before we had gone two blocks Tina touched my hand and said, “I want to give them some money. Do you think…would that be okay?”

I assured her it would be okay and we returned to the liquor store where Tina gave each of the men a twenty-dollar bill. Then two of the men began to weep, and Tina burst into tears, and so did I.