Posts Tagged ‘Social Security’

Solar Postage Socialist

Monday, November 21st, 2016

goldens

Goldens photo by Todd

“At a time when the Post Office is losing substantial revenue from the instantaneous flow of information by email and on the Internet, slowing mail service is a recipe for disaster.” Bernie Sanders

I recently sent a little book, not much more than a glorified pamphlet, to Switzerland. The least expensive way to send the little thing was via the Post Office for twenty-three dollars.  Not very many years ago, the postal service offered inexpensive international mail service, but that was eliminated because…

No one seems to know or remember why the slow boat option was eliminated, but I suspect the cessation went hand-in-hand with all the other things Congress, in service to the Evil Ones, did to wreck our once great postal service.

As a cottage industry artist who sells my books and CDs via my web site, and then ships those goodies to lucky buyers, I am grateful for the wonderful and inexpensive Media Mail option offered by our postal service, with free tracking, but I lose several international sales every year because the cost of shipping books and CDs abroad is more than the value of my products. International postage turns a twenty-dollar book into a forty-five dollar book, and a five-dollar CD becomes a fifteen-dollar CD.

Well, Todd, if you’d make your books available as e-books…no, I don’t want to. I understand why large publishers make e-book versions of books, but the books I sell are limited edition, signed and numbered, actual three-dimensional coil-bound books. Original intriguing well-written fiction. What a concept. I rarely sell more than fifty copies of each book, and I rarely make a profit. And with international postal rates being what they are, I rarely sell to people abroad who express interest in my work. Such is modern life.

Speaking of modern life, I’ve been reading about Morocco, specifically the Moroccan government, turning to solar and wind power to free the country from a dependency on imported energy. In just a few more years, Morocco will go from importing 97% of their fuel and electricity to importing less than 50% of their fuel and electricity. This government subsidized conversion is not only creating thousands of jobs and boosting the economy, but eliminating pollution, saving billions of dollars a year and…sounds like socialism to me.

Why can’t we have a massive conversion to solar and wind and tidal power in the United States? And why can’t we have affordable international postage? And why can’t we have Single Payer Healthcare? Well, we can. But we won’t.

Many people I know are still reeling from the election of Donald Trump. I find it fascinating that most of these folks see the election of Trump as some sort of wholly unexpected and surprising event, rather than the inevitable conclusion to a long-developing process, the effect of a cause. This has been coming for a long time, and I think it behooves us to look beyond the person who got elected and remember (know) his election is the end result of a long-developing process of privatization and the decimation of our foundational socialist institutions.

Next in line for demolition are Social Security and Medicare. The Evil Ones encountered little resistance to wrecking the postal service, and they are having no trouble stalling the conversion to solar, wind, and tidal power. And now that they control Congress and the Presidency and will soon control the Supreme Court, we will watch them attempt to privatize/destroy Social Security and Medicare. Will we stand by and let them do it? I think we probably will, in the same way we stood by and let them do all the other rotten things they’ve done since 1980.

So now millions of Americans are looking into migrating to Canada to escape the corporate takeover of the United States. Canada, however, does not want Americans moving there and taking advantage of Single Payer Healthcare and other groovy socialist programs that benefit everyone. Create your own socialism, they say, but we won’t.

Ten years ago, I was contacted by a Canadian movie director who wanted to make a movie of my novel Forgotten Impulses, from a screenplay by an American writer, the movie to be set in Canada. The Canadian government was considering funding the project, but after much preliminary excitement, they decided there were too many Americans involved to qualify for Canadian government funding. Darn.

However, a few weeks ago, I was contacted by that same Canadian director, and he said he was interested in making a movie from an original screenplay of mine. He thought if the film was set in Canada and I was the only American involved in the project, perhaps the Canadian film board would this time be open to funding the project. Turned out not to be the case, but for a few days the possibility got me interested in the script again.

And while I worked on the script, I kept wanting to feel excited by the possibility of a movie being made from my screenplay, but after so many near misses with movie producers and publishers over the last thirty years, I found I was far more interested in my latest coil-bound creation that will actually come out into the world and be read by actual people. What a concept.

However, the fact that I was dealing with socialists, as opposed capitalists, gave me a nice tingling feeling—so I let my imagination run wild. I saw myself taking a train to Montreal to watch the filming of my script, the movie became an international sensation (with a cult following in America), and the Canadian government invited me and Marcia to become Canadian citizens so long as I promised that all my future books and screenplays would be set in Canada.

In reality, Trump really did win the election and I’m sending out my annual holiday shopping reminder to my few avid fans, reminding them that no matter how many books and CDs or art cards they purchase, shipping to anywhere in the greater United States will only cost them five bucks. Socialism strikes again.

Crazy Money

Tuesday, December 29th, 2015

Greed Redux

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2015)

“The lack of money is the root of all evil.” Mark Twain

Just got the annual news from Social Security about how much they will be sending me each month in 2016. Last year, they upped me from 565 dollars to 575, not much of an increase, but this year the powers that be have declared: there was no increase in the cost of living in 2015. Thus zero increase in Social Security for me, though my Medicare payment is going up, so actually less money for me.

For our own government, I mean our own corporate-controlled Congress and President, to claim the cost of living did not go up in 2015 is akin to saying peanuts grow on trees and rain falls upward from the ground. The absurdity of their claim is more than enough proof we have been taken over by a bunch of amoral sadistic poop heads. How, you may wonder, did they come to the startling conclusion that the cost of living did not rise, given that food prices have gone through the roof, ditto rent, healthcare, insurance, you name it. They came to this startling conclusion because they do not count food and insurance and healthcare and rent in their calculations. What, you may ask, do they count? Nothing that matters to most people.

“When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is.” Oscar Wilde

In oddly related news, the San Francisco Giants just signed a six-year deal with pitcher Johnny Cueto for, I hope you’re sitting down, 130 million dollars. That comes to 21.6 million dollars a year. Now in a good year, Johnny will throw about 2700 pitches that count, which means he will make 7,777 dollars per pitch. That means every time he throws a pitch in a regular season baseball game, he will make eight hundred dollars more than I get in an entire year from Social Security. Per pitch. I know, I know. There’s nothing stopping me from getting down to work and making of myself an elite major league baseball player. Okay. So I’m lazy.

“Life’s two great questions: “Why me?” and “What do I do now?” William L. De Andrea

Marcia and I recently spent two nights in Santa Rosa visiting Marcia’s mother, and while we were there I went into a Safeway store for the first time in almost forty years. Yikes. We were questing for a particular soap Marcia’s mother likes and beer. Everything in the store had a price and a club price, and the club price was much lower than the non-club price. Everyone in the market seemed to be in a huge hurry, a life-and-death kind of hurry; as if they thought the store might explode at any minute.

Just for fun, we decided to dip our toes in the future and try the self-checkout line where a customer, theoretically, doesn’t need to interact with a human being to buy things. But they won’t let you self-checkout alcohol in Safeway because you might be a minor and the machine wouldn’t know that, so we ended up going through a regular checkout line.

When we got to the regular checker, he rang up the soap and beer and said, “Run your club card through the slot to get your discount.”

“We don’t have a club card,” I admitted. I was going to say this was my first time in Safeway in forty years, but I thought he might call Security if I said that, so I left things at not having a card.

“You could ask your neighbor?” said the checker, smiling at me and then smiling at the man in line behind us, a fellow buying an eight-pack of bottles of wine.

And before I could ask the checker what on earth he was talking about, the fellow buying the wine reached over and swiped his club card through the slot and our total went down from 22.84 to 18.37.

“Now go get your own card,” said the checker, winking at us. “Just takes a minute at the club registry. Right over there.”

But since we probably won’t be going to Safeway for another forty years, we made a beeline for the exit, and right outside the store we came upon a man and a woman and their two small children huddled in the freezing cold together with three suitcases, the man holding up a sign saying he had just lost his job, they had been kicked out of their apartment, they were hungry and cold, please help.

We gave them five dollars. The woman thanked us, but the fact is our neighbor in the checkout line had just saved us almost five dollars we would have been glad to spend on beer and soap, so why not give the money to these cold hungry people?

“The only way to be absolutely safe is never try anything for the first time.” Dr. Magnus Pyke

We’re giving Bernie Sanders some money to help him run for President of the United States, though I’m fairly certain, no, I’m absolutely certain there is no chance he will be given a chance to win the nomination. So why give Bernie money? Because we think his attempt is a valiant one, and though the overlords have directed their media managers to give Bernie as little coverage as possible, he does speak for a vast majority of Americans, even if many in that majority don’t know he does.

Furthermore, I believe Donald Trump is being used to clog the media so those who need most to hear Bernie will not. Yes, that sounds like a conspiracy theory because anything suggesting we’ve been taken over by amoral sadistic poop heads is labeled a conspiracy theory.

But imagine if Bernie had the money to buy some prime time television hours to talk directly to the American people without Hilary or some other corporate stooge interrupting him. Imagine Bernie having as much money as Johnny Cueto to make his pitch.

Food Prices

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014

apples for happiness

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2014)

“U.S. food prices are on the rise, raising a sensitive question: When the cost of a hamburger patty soars, does it count as inflation?” Ben Leubsdorf and Jon Kilsenrath

The sentence above opens a recent article in The Wall Street Journal and illuminates one of the most despicable practices of our government: not counting food prices when calculating the rate of inflation. Imagine not counting rainfall when supposedly measuring rainfall.

I have avoided listening to audio of Janet Yellen, the new chair of the Federal Reserve, because the articles wherein she is quoted make her sound like a dupe of epic proportions, and listening to dupes is one of my least favorite activities. In the Wall Street Journal article of which I speak, she is quoted as saying she is not certain that food prices are relevant to discussions of inflation.

How can anyone, let alone the person in charge of national fiscal policy, not be certain if food prices are relevant to inflation? What do Americans spend most of their money on? Food and shelter last time I checked, and driving to and from shelter to work to get money for food, and driving to and from shelter to grocery store to buy that food. Claude Levi Strauss, the famous anthropologist, said that 98% of all human activity is related to growing, gathering, preparing and eating food. Without sufficient food, we perish. And food prices have been skyrocketing for the last several years, which is the only inflation of any relevance to most people on earth.

You will recall the famous Arab Spring of the recent past. The same nincompoops who neglect to include the rising cost of food in discussions of inflation also rhapsodized about the Arab Spring being caused by the people of Tunisia and Libya and Egypt yearning for democracy, when the actual cause of those uprisings was desperation over the meteoric rise in food prices and the inability of many people in those countries to afford bread.

Our government also just released figures showing that national unemployment has dropped to 6.1 per cent. Who do they think they’re kidding? Or put another way: what is the purpose of such blatant falsity? We know that a pack of power hungry sociopaths fabricated a story about weapons of mass destruction to justify going to war, but what purpose is served by cooking the books about inflation and unemployment? Answer #1: Increases in Social Security payments are determined by the rate of inflation. If the government lies and declares the rate of inflation 1%, that is how much they will increase Social Security payments, which is what the government has been doing for the last several years. Answer #2: Jiggle unemployment rates downward and the stock market goes up. Steal from the poor and give to the rich.

“Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons.” Woody Allen

I was not particularly conscious of food prices when I was a child because my mother did the food buying, though I do remember that for most of my childhood Mom would not buy watermelon until the price dropped below ten cents a pound. At the height of summer, watermelon sold for three cents a pound. Yes, a big juicy delicious twenty-pound watermelon in Menlo Park California circa 1955-1960 cost sixty cents, those fabulous melons grown just down the road in Gilroy.

When I began supporting myself in my late teens, I became keenly aware of food prices and remain so to this day. I also have a quasi-photographic memory and know immediately when food prices go up or down. Fruit and vegetable prices fluctuate seasonally, of course, but overall fruit and vegetable prices are more than twice what they were eight years ago. A good price for organically grown apples during apple season eight years ago was sixty-nine cents a pound. A great price during apple season this past year for organically grown apples was a dollar and eighty-nine cents per pound. Right now apples are going for four dollars a pound. Maybe Janet Yellen doesn’t eat apples.

Remember when broccoli was nineteen cents a pound? That means you are over fifty. Remember when you could get two See’s Candy suckers for a nickel? That means you are over sixty.

“There are only two families in the world, my old grandmother used to say, the Haves and the Have-nots.” Miguel de Cervantes

In the summer of 1969 I was driving through the hills of West Virginia in an old GMC panel truck, heading I knew not where and needing a place to camp and something to eat, my cash reserves low. As I slowed on a hairpin turn I saw a crude sign at the bottom of a dirt drive that said Chikens 4 Sale. I shifted into first gear and climbed the deeply rutted track to a decrepit cottage, the roof caving in, every last living and dead thing in sight coated with dust.

A little barefoot boy wearing hand-me-down rags stood in front of the hovel glaring at my truck. As I shut off the engine and the trailing cloud of dust engulfed the house, two younger children stepped out onto the collapsing porch and glared at me, too. Then their mother appeared, a pregnant young gal with long brown hair, a shotgun cradled in her arms.

She squinted at my truck and shouted, “He’s not here. Don’t know when he’s coming back.”

I climbed out and said, “Saw the sign for chickens for sale. I’d like to buy one for supper.”

The woman nodded. “Theys a quarter each if you take’em live. Thirty cents if I got to kill and gut and pluck.”

“Great. I’ll take one killed and gutted and plucked.”

She stepped back into the house and I foolishly expected her to return with a pre-prepared chicken from her refrigerator. She did not, however, have a refrigerator or electricity. She emerged a moment later without her gun and led me to a squalid pen surrounded by rusting chicken wire.

Pointing at the dozen or so raggedy chickens pecking at the barren ground she said, “Which one you want?”

I pointed at one that looked fairly healthy. “How about that big brown one?”

“Okay,” she said, opening the rickety gate—and in a flash she snatched up that bird and broke its neck as easily as snapping a dry twig.

How Much Do You Love Him?

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014

How Much Do You Love Him?

Django on Marcia’s Lap

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2014)

“The story of cats is the story of meat, and begins with the end of the dinosaurs.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Our cat Django is a very large and handsome gray cat, or as our veterinarian said politely, “Shall we call him obese?”

“But he hasn’t gained any weight for several years,” we hastened to explain. “He’s holding steady at twenty pounds and a little.”

The good doctor of cats and dogs was not greatly impressed by our feat of maintaining the status quo of Django’s enormity. We had rushed our twelve-year-old kitty to the one and only veterinarian office in the village of Mendocino because he was in severe distress, which turned out to be the result of urinary tract and kidney difficulties that could, sooner than later, lead to his death if we don’t start feeding him special expensive food or unless, as our vet explained, Django undergoes an operation to eliminate the problem entirely by turning him into a female in regard to how he urinates.

“How much do you love him?” said our vet, smiling sympathetically. “Such an operation costs around fifteen hundred dollars. The better diet and shedding some weight should do the trick for some years, though if he is blocked again, then short of surgery we would have to catheterize and hospitalize him for three days, after which he could have another episode, so cost can become an issue for some people.”

“That would be us,” I said, not entirely comfortable with equating the willingness to spend money and love, but I knew our vet was trying to be clear and up front about how much various procedures cost, and we appreciated his candor.

In any case, the vet bill certainly gave us pause, pun intended. For the emergency visit, urine analysis, blood analysis, antibiotic injection, painkiller injection, ten cans of special food, and kitty litter so we could keep the big fatso inside for a couple days while he recovered from his ordeal, our cost was three hundred and forty-two dollars. How much do we love our cat? That much. So far.

Then there is the problem of Django’s broken tooth. “Extractions of this nature,” said our vet, “can run from five hundred to a thousand dollars. If you don’t have the tooth removed, infection may ensue resulting in abscess, in which case dental work would be imperative or…” How much do we love this cat?

“A veterinarian and cat specialist, Dr. Richard Thoma, trying to locate a cat’s purr with a stethoscope, found that the sound was equally loud all over.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

When I was a landscaper forty years ago, I lived in a bunkhouse adjacent to my boss’s house on the outskirts of Medford Oregon. My boss and his wife grew up on farms in Kansas and considered cats semi-wild animals to be tolerated around their two-acre homestead because the cats kept the rodent population in check. Every year or two, when the resident cat population became overly robust, my boss would gather up all but the best hunters and the most elusive cats and drown them.

I thought about this matter-of-fact drowning of kittens and cats as Marcia handed her credit card to the vey nice receptionist at our excellent village veterinarian clinic, and I thought of a photo essay I saw recently of cat meat vendors in China selling both live and butchered cats to eager shoppers in an open air market. And though I have no desire to drown or eat Django, that’s where my thoughts wandered when I thought of three hundred and forty-two dollars suddenly disappearing from our bank account, with further Django-related expenses looming on the not-too-distant horizon.

“People who have both dogs and cats can verify the statement: when called, the common response of dogs is to come, and of cats is to answer.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

That afternoon in the post office, I fell into conversation with a friend who responded to my emotional account of the Django crisis by telling me the story of her parents’ beloved and also impressively heavyset cat Hercules, who suffered from the identical malady Django suffers from, with costs of dealing with such urinary kidney problems eventually outstripping her parents’ devotion to the cat.

“It was that really cold wet winter a few years ago, and their roof was leaking badly, towels and buckets catching drips everywhere, the roofers supposed to come that afternoon, and there they were standing in the examining room looking down at big old Hercules sitting on the table with the vet petting the sweet old thing and waiting for them to choose between a dry house and the cat.”

“Even being fed by a person must seem like old times to a cat, because of the person’s manner of delivering food. A person characteristically puts down a dish of food and moves away from it, offering plenty of space, which invites the cat to approach and eat. In the same way, a hunting mother cat puts down the dead bird she has brought, backing away from it to show that she will not compete for the carcass and that her kitten can approach.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Save for a few brief stretches in my life—sixty-four years and counting—I’ve always had a cat or two and they’ve had me. Their personalities and propensities have been as varied as those of humans, and their intelligence quotas have been variable, too, ranging from clairvoyant geniuses to barely functional idiots. And until today, I never spent more than a few dollars on veterinary care for any of my cats, largely because I didn’t have the money and I wasn’t partnered with someone willing to spend hundreds of dollars to keep a cat alive. Most of my cats lived long and healthy lives, but one died young from feline leukemia, three were hit by cars, and one was snatched by a coyote. My sister’s beautiful young cat was plucked from her terrace by a hawk.

Thinking back and remembering Chubs and Girly Girl and Suzy Cat and Boy Boy and Bucky and Pele and Juju, I realize that part of their collective appeal was that they were largely independent from me and didn’t need much more than sufficient food and warmth and occasional shows of affection. They did not, in fact, cost hardly anything considering all the pleasure and help they gave me, and if they had cost very much, I would not have so blithely taken them on as one does with cats when one is in the habit of having them and being had by them.

“Long ago, around the southern shores of the Mediterranean, little African wildcats took shelter in people’s dwelling places, probably finding the supply of mice and rats and the escape from heavy rains much to their liking. There they stayed. Perhaps they even liked the warmth of people’s fires. The earliest cat known is from Jericho (now Israel) nine thousand years ago when one of the few amenities that people had that might attract a cat was fire.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Our mighty federal government grants me six hundred and eighty-four dollars a month from Social Security, and we just gave exactly half that amount to our veterinarian to save Django’s life. Two weeks ago our healthcare insurance provider Anthem Blue Cross, seeing that I will turn sixty-five in seven months and Marcia will turn sixty-five in a year, decided to jack up our insurance rates nearly three hundred dollars a month to extract as much more money from us as they possibly can before we graduate to Medicare.

So to save a little money, we made the leap to Obamacare, and lo it came to pass that under the new healthcare system we will be covered by, wouldn’t you know it, Anthem Blue Cross and pay them a little more than the usurious sum we were paying them before they jacked up our rates to ever more dizzying heights, except under Obamacare our deductible is so high it would be laughable if it were not obscene.

Meanwhile, Django is lolling by the fire, fully recovered from his painful ordeal and blissfully unaware that if we hadn’t spent a big wad of cash, he would probably be looking for a dark place to curl up and die.

I rub his ample belly and say, “Hang in there, Django. Another seven months and I’ll be getting Medicare, otherwise known as Single Payer, which is what everyone in America would have if not for the crooks running our government. Then we’ll have a bit more money should you need some help and we decide we love you enough.”

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.”

Four Hundred Thousand

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

I Never Heard The Warning (mixed media on wood) by Nolan Winkler

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

“I’ve got all the money I’ll ever need, if I die by four o’clock.” Henny Youngman

Do you earn four hundred thousand dollars of taxable income in a year? Have you ever earned four hundred thousand dollars in a single year? Do you have friends who earn or have ever earned four hundred thousand dollars in a year? I thought not; nor do I have friends earning that kind of money, though I do know some certifiably wealthy people. Earning two hundred thousand dollars is a different matter. According to government statistics about 1.5% of American households make two hundred thousand a year, and I can think of three or four couples out of the hundreds of people I know who might earn as much as two hundred thousand dollars in a single year.

So…households earning more than two-hundred and fifty thousand dollars per year were the lowest income earners President Obama said he was going to tax at a wee bit higher tax rate if only we would re-elect him. So we re-elected him and now he has chosen to go along with the certifiably insane Republicans and only increase taxes a teeny little bit on households earning more than four hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year, while also allowing the current payroll tax cut to expire, an expiration that will immediately cause taxes to increase for 78 percent of U.S. households, with an average increase of 1,635 dollars. In other words, the lower middle-income folks got screwed again and the rich people, well…

Those three or four couples I know who might earn two hundred thousand dollars a year, and everyone earning more than that, all have accountants who are absolute wizards at manipulating the tax code so their clients pay little or no taxes at any rate—the tax code being essentially a compendium of loopholes to benefit wealthy people and their corporations. Thus, as far as you and I and 99% of the American population are concerned, the recent fiscal cliff circus might as well have been about raising taxes on unicorns for all the good the new law does you and me and the economy we struggle to survive in.

“It is money, money, money! Not ideas, not principles, but money that reigns supreme in American politics.” Robert Byrd

Meanwhile, as a sneaky side note to raising taxes on unicorns and 78% of the American people who already pay far more than their fair share, President Obama and his troops are now marching in lock step (goose step) with the Republicans to lower those damn Social Security cost-of-living increases that are the life blood of millions of certifiably poor Americans. Never mind that Social Security is an entirely solvent system that has never added a single dollar to the national deficit. “Such terrible awesome annual increases,” cry our insane overlords, “must be curtailed.”

I, for instance, under the current system of calculation, will see my massive Social Security payment of 663 dollars per month skyrocket to 674 a month in 2013. Katy bar the door! What is that sucking sound? Must be Todd and his deadbeat kind draining the treasury! Quick! Print trillions of more dollars to fund endless war and to pay the hundreds of billions of dollars interest on the national debt and to make unlimited funds available to banks and Wall Street crooks, interest free, so they can keep their toxic derivative bubbles bubbling. Whoopee!

 “Ben Franklin may have discovered electricity—but it is the man who invented the meter who made the money.” Earl Warren

When I think about the many vicious lunatics in Congress tirelessly stealing from the poor to benefit the rich, those duly elected crazy and vicious people with apparently no other agenda but accelerating the enrichment of the already incredibly wealthy, I can’t help but think that getting and hoarding huge quantities of money must be the cause of their insanity. And when I examine my own brief brushes with wealth, I am further convinced that the wealth/insanity connection is no figment of my imagination.

“Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons.” Woody Allen

Twice in my life, I earned more than one hundred thousand dollars in a single year, fortunes resulting from moviemakers buying or optioning the rights to my novels Inside Moves and Forgotten Impulses. Inside Moves was made into a film in 1980 and Forgotten Impulses was optioned several times in the 1980’s for small amounts of money, with the largest option (one year for 100,000 dollars) coming in 1995, though a movie of that book was never (has yet to be) made.

The IRS audited me for each of those stellar years, though I had dutifully given the government more than half my earnings each time. My auditors in both cases were well-intentioned young people who told me I was being audited because the dramatic spike in my income (up from next to nothing) was a red flag, an indication of possibly illicit activity, as if people engaged in illicit activities would be so stupid as to report their illicit gains. In both audits I was found to be a good boy, much to the disappointment of those hapless revenuers assigned to gather loot from those of us unprotected by savvy accountants.

However, despite surrendering half of my windfalls to Uncle Sam, I still found myself possessed of much more money than I was accustomed to having, and so in the first instance I bought a house and made a short film and gave money to friends and embarked on a disastrous marriage and became a pauper again just a few short years after becoming sort of a success. In the second instance, I moved from low rent Sacramento to high rent Berkeley, gave away most of the money to friends, and in just a few short months was back to scraping together my minimalist monthly nut. Why did I give my money away so quickly? After much thought, and believe me I’ve thought plenty about how swiftly I got rid of that extra do-re-mi, I concluded that I was so psychically uncomfortable having lots of money when so many of my friends had so little money that it was either share my wealth or go insane.

“All I ask is the chance to prove that money can’t make me happy.” Spike Milligan

Imagine getting four hundred thousand dollars, giving a little bit to the government, and then…getting another four hundred thousand, and then another four hundred thousand, and so on for years and decades. Who are you? What have you been doing to get that money? And what have you done with all the money you’ve gotten? Have you helped your friends and your community? I hope so.

Whoever you are, the insane people running our government have decided you should give them a few thousand dollars more this year than you did last year so they can continue destroying the earth as fast as they can. How does that make you feel to be told you have to give a teeny bit more of your four hundred thousand to the government? Do you shrug and say, “No problem. I make that much in an hour from the bubbling hedge funds I own, and I make that in a day from the rents paid to me by my many tenants living in the houses and apartment buildings I bought with my wads of excess cash. And besides, my accountant will jiggle my numbers so I end up paying even less taxes than I did last year.”

Or do you say, “Why me? Why have I been singled out to pay more when everybody else (except 78% of the population) is paying the same amount they did last year? And what about people like Todd getting an eleven-dollar increase in his Social Security allotment? It’s an outrage, I tell you, and I’m going to make a large tax deductible donation to a fascist political action committee to get this usurious tax increase reversed and stop those deadbeats from draining the treasury dry!”

Sadly (or happily) we will probably never know what those rare and elusive four-hundred-thousandaires will do or say about the tax increase on their unimaginably vast (to me) influx of moolah, because we will probably never meet them, just as we will almost surely never meet a unicorn, except in our dreams and fantasies. What we do know is that the President of the United States and the Democrats and Republicans in Congress are united in their utter contempt for common Americans, and by common I mean households earning between thirty and seventy thousand dollars a year, which is the average income of most households in America, not counting the tens of millions of households mired in poverty.

Which reminds me of that old joke about Bill Gates walking into a jam-packed bar and suddenly the average person in the joint is worth more than a billion dollars.

Protesting 101

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2011)

“He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

You will recall the famous line from the movie The Wizard of Oz, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” and how, until the little dog opens the curtain and reveals the fraud, Dorothy and her friends do, indeed, ignore the man behind the curtain and remain riveted on a false idol projected on a large screen obscured by smoke and fire. I remind you of this cinematic moment because it brilliantly captures the current cognitive conundrum confronting contemporary crusading consortiums, most notably the much-heralded occupiers of Wall Street.

I have carefully skimmed numerous articles by people criticizing the protestors for not having a clear and unifying agenda, and skimmed other articles praising the protestors for not having a clear and potentially divisive agenda. These articles reminded me of my involvement in the protests against the invasion of Iraq in 1990, and my involvement in protests against the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001-2003 following the event known as 9/11, and how almost everyone involved in those protests paid no attention to the men behind the curtains, and insisted on railing against idols obscured by smoke and fire—the George Bushes, Senior and Junior, and their more public allies.

Wall Street, and by that I assume the protestors mean the for-profit financial system of the United States symbolized by the financial district of Manhattan, is not the cause of our current economic crisis, nor will Wall Street provide the cure, just as the Bushes did not cause the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. The cause of our current economic, social, environmental, and political crisis is, in my opinion, our collective infatuation with false notions of reality. One such false notion is that most of the money in America is concentrated on Wall Street and that if only those greedy billionaire bankers and amoral stock traders would give a chunk of their money to our government, then all our problems would be solved. Yet nothing could be further from the truth, since only a few short months ago our government gave those bankers trillions of dollars.

“Let’s form proactive synergy restructuring teams.” Scott Adams

I admit to active cynicism about systems that focus on attacking symptoms rather than dealing with underlying causes. My father, a medical doctor, had heart surgery late in his life and I was his nurse for some weeks after what turned out to be a nearly fatal and wholly ineffective bypass procedure. One of my jobs as his nurse was to make sure he took a mind-boggling array of drugs several times a day, twenty-three different medications, each purveyed by a pill of a different color, shape, and size than the other twenty-two pills.

One morning, five days after his surgery, as my father was surveying the great mass of pills he was about to ingest, a quizzical frown claimed his face. “Hey, wait a minute,” he said, holding up a pale pink pill, “I was only supposed to take (name of drug) for two days following surgery.”

“Good,” I said, eager to eliminate one of the four pink pills in the mix. “Let’s discontinue that one.”

“Only…” My father’s frown deepened as he held up a dark green pill, “I was taking (name of second drug) to counteract the side effects of (name of first drug), along with (name of third drug) because (name of second drug) is extremely dehydrating, so…”

To make a long story short, I called the surgery center, put my father on with a post-operative consultant, and a half hour later my father’s ingestion regimen was reduced from twenty-three to fourteen drugs, and three days later from fourteen to seven, but only because my father was a medical doctor and had some understanding of why he was taking which drugs for what reasons, not because the medical system was designed to take good care of him.

Now…along with thousands of people camping and marching on Wall Street, imagine millions of people all over the country protesting in front of hospitals and medical clinics to demand that American doctors stop behaving as American doctors are trained to behave and start behaving in more humane and comprehensive ways, free of the control of insurance companies and amoral pharmaceutical companies that extort trillions of dollars from people who feel powerless to resist them. Oh, wait. That would mean insurance companies would have to be kicked out of the medical process, and the pharmaceutical companies would no longer be allowed to charge criminally high rates for their drugs. Oh, wait. That would result in a Single Payer healthcare system covering everyone in America, a not-for-profit system paid for by an equitable tax system. Oh, wait. That would mean changing the current system of county, state, and federal taxation. And to do that, we would almost surely have to change from a two-party system to a parliamentary democracy wherein if the Green or Pink or Blue Party gets five percent of the vote, they get five percent of the government. Oh, wait. That would be, like, democracy.

“In some cases non-violence requires more militancy than violence.” Cesar Chavez

I pose the question: what would Martin Luther King Jr. say to the Wall Street protestors if he could speak to them today? I think he would congratulate them for their zeal and courage, and then he would ask, “What are the boycott components of your protest?”

And when he learned that the protestors did not have a boycott strategy, he would say, “So why do you think that these people in positions of power over you will change their behavior if you do not pose a threat to their profits and comfort? Out of the goodness of their hearts? You are naïve.”

“It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it, and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.” Aung San Suu Kyi

On a more personal but entirely related note, I just turned sixty-two, so in lieu of a big paycheck from the corporate-backed cultural mafia, (yes, I know it’s hard to believe, but another year has gone by without my winning a MacArthur Genius Award) I applied for Social Security. And soon, barring total economic collapse, some six hundred dollars will be deposited every month directly into my checking account by the government of these United States. However, in order to receive that vast sum, I promise not to earn more than eleven hundred and eighty dollars a month, else I will be deemed too rich and therefore undeserving of such lavish government support. Let’s see, eleven hundred and eighty times twelve is…fourteen thousand dollars a year. And the official poverty line in America is…

To clarify: I have agreed with the government adjudicators that if I earn barely enough money in a year to pay for grossly inadequate health insurance, I will forego the six hundred a month; which brings me to yesterday.

“Irony is jesting behind hidden gravity.” John Weiss

So I’m standing in line at the Mendocino post office, one of my favorite places in the world, a place threatened by evaporation through governmental retardation and corruption, when the woman ahead of me in line turns to me and says, “I read you in the AVA.”

“Oh,” I say, ever cautious about what that might mean. “Well…good. I hope.”

She nods minimally, which I take as a kind of approval if not a compliment. Then she says, “So are you gonna go join the protestors?”

“Where?” I ask, looking out the window. “Have they made it all the way to Mendocino? Far out.”

“No,” she says, glowering at me. “Wall Street. Los Angeles. San Francisco. They’re having protests everywhere. You could write about it.”

“Oh,” I say, certain now that my interlocutor has no sense of humor, “you know, I would be there already but I suffer from a fear of traveling. Even going to Fort Bragg is extremely stressful for me.”

“I’m sorry,” she says, grimacing sympathetically. “I have a friend who has the same thing. That must be awful for you.”

“Well, fortunately, I don’t really want to go anywhere, but I’ll tell you this, when the protests come to Mendocino, I’ll be there with bags of homemade gluten free cookies for my comrades. And we will occupy Main Street until those people give us what we want.”

“Main Street?” she says, horrified. “Why Main Street? And…which people? And…what do you want?”

“Everything,” I whisper conspiratorially. “For everyone.”

Aliens From Outer Space

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

Photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2011)

“Chances are, when we meet intelligent life forms in outer space, they’re going to be descended from predators.” Michio Kaku, famous theoretical physicist

So this morning I was listening to a radio interview of a reporter for the New York Times, and she laid out clear and irrefutable evidence of how the crooks took over our government and the banking system and didn’t even try to hide what they were doing—massive theft in broad daylight, so to speak. This radio interview was not on some lunatic fringe radio show hosted by a conspiracy theory fruit bat. No, this interview was on National Pentagon Radio and was listened to by millions of Americans; and the conclusion of the New York Times reporter and of the mainstream radio guy interviewing her was that, yes, the bad guys stole trillions from us and continue to steal trillions from us, but, well, so, let’s just hope and pray that the amoral scumbags will have a change of heart and give back a little of what they stole from the hundreds of millions of people whose lives they’ve destroyed.

That’s when I heard someone say, “Aliens from outer space,” and that someone was yours truly. Seriously folks, how else can we explain this? This being the takeover of our government and the takeover of several European governments by a bunch of amoral scumbags, and the acquiescence of hundreds of millions of people who are apparently more upset about Netflix raising their DVD rental rates than they are about having Social Security looted by these same amoral scumbags? Outer space aliens. That’s gotta be the explanation. Don’t you think?

“Extraterrestrial contact is a real phenomenon. The Vatican is receiving much information about extraterrestrials and their contacts with humans from its Nuncios (embassies) in various countries, such as Mexico, Chile and Venezuela.” Monsignor Corrado Balducci

See what I mean? Balducci is way up in the Vatican infrastructure. He’s no wannabe Catholic big shot. He is a Catholic big shot, and he says outer space aliens are real and making their presence known in Mexico, Chile, and Venezuela—two big oil producing countries and one major player in copper futures. Balducci stops short of saying the space aliens have taken over the American and British and French governments, but we can connect the dots, thank you very much.

“I looked out the window and saw this white light. It was zigzagging around. I went up to the pilot and said, ‘Have you ever seen anything like that?’ He was shocked and he said, ‘Nope.’ And I said to him: ‘Let’s follow it!’ We followed it for several minutes. It was a bright white light. We followed it to Bakersfield, and all of a sudden to our utter amazement it went straight up into the heavens. When I got off the plane I told Nancy all about it.”
 President Ronald Reagan describing his 1974 UFO encounter to Norman C. Miller, Washington bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal.

Wow. What a guy, Ronald Reagan. “Let’s follow it.” That’s so John Wayne. That’s so…reflexively heroic. Can you imagine Bill Clinton or Barry Obama or anybody short of Abraham Lincoln saying, “Let’s follow it.”? No way. I mean, what if the white light turned out to be some sort of voracious predator alien? Believe me, that’s the first thing Barry or Bill or either of the Georges would think if they saw an alien from outer space over Bakersfield; but not Ronald “Let’s follow it” Reagan.

“I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.” William Shakespeare

I have possibly had contact with aliens from outer space on two occasions. I say “possibly” because I don’t know for an absolute fact that these beings I met were aliens from outer space, but they very well might have been.

The first encounter took place on a winter evening in 1981 at Sacramento City College. I had just given a talk peppered with readings of my short stories to a goodly gathering and was about to exit the auditorium when a female (I am reluctant to say she was a woman because I think she may have been an alien from outer space) approached me and asked if she could speak to me. She was the most unusual person (if she was a person) I have ever seen, and I have seen some totally weird-looking people, as I’m sure you have, too.

She was approximately six-feet-tall, slightly taller than I, broad-shouldered yet slender, and she was wearing a sleeveless scoop-necked dress that at first glance seemed to be white, but at second glance seemed to be vaguely silver. At that same first glance she seemed to be exquisitely beautiful, but at that same second glance her face resembled nothing so much as the face of a praying mantis. And most striking were her eyes—huge multi-faceted white diamonds suspended in large transparent globes.

She was also radiant, and by that I mean she seemed to be alight, glowing from within—definitely a white light. When she shook my hand, I felt a jolt of electricity run through me that might have been sexually thrilling, except she was so far beyond any concept I’d ever had of a possible bedmate, I was not so much turned on as transfixed. Then she spoke and she had this terrific Serbian or Latvian or Russian accent, and she mangled English grammar and English words so beautifully I would have fallen in love with her for that alone if she hadn’t been completely off the charts in terms of how exotic and strange and alien she seemed.

“I em Yanina,” she said, her diamond eyes turning subtly turquoise before growing clear again. “I hev mosst unusual life to tell. But I em not writer. Hearing you, I em thinking, ‘Yes, he is what I em needing for to tell my story.” She took my hand again. “I pay you very well, and my book go all over world. Say you meet me tomorrow.”

I was about to say Yes, her honeyed voice and terrific accent and marvelous language mangling tipping the scales in her favor, when I came out of my trance just long enough to discern she was not alone. Standing some ten feet behind her was a huge man wearing a black suit and a red bowtie, his handsome jowly face dominated by a stupendous handlebar mustache. Yanina noticed me noticing her gigantic companion and said, “This is Raul. He is, as you say, bodyguard.” Then she smiled (and her smile might have been an ice pick thrust deftly between my ribs into my heart). “When you hear my story you will understand why I need such protection.”

Which prompted me to blurt, “You know, I’m really just focusing on my own stuff these days. I appreciate your thinking of me in this regard, but…”

“You are afraid,” she said, nodding sagely. “Don’t be. There has never been story like mine. It is worth big risk.”

And if not for Raul…

My second possible meeting with an alien from outer space also took place in Sacramento, seven years after I never heard from Yanina the probable alien again. The summer day was hot and humid, my garden a riot of basil and flowers and corn and tomatoes and myriad tasty comestibles. I was sitting on the bottom step of the stairs leading from the garden up to the deck adjoining my house and thinking about where in my garden to stand while I held the hose over my head to cool down, when I heard a whirring sound and espied something the size of a hummingbird zooming toward me at an altitude of about two feet. In fact, I thought the thing was a hummingbird because hummingbirds do make a kind of whirring sound when they fly fast (though this was a different sort of whirring than hummingbird whirring) and my garden was a popular hummingbird hangout.

A split second later the thing was hovering in the air about a foot from my face, and it was definitely not a hummingbird. I should note I was not under the influence of any drug or alcohol at the time, though I was excessively warm and more than mildly depressed. The thing was definitely a machine. I could hear other sounds accompanying the whirring, notably clanking and squeaking. I felt certain, and feel certain to this day, that the thing was looking at me. Either something inside the flying machine was observing me, or the thing itself, perhaps with a tiny camera, was checking me out.

Then the thing flew away, up and over my fence, and I never saw the like of it again. Until that moment, it had not occurred to me that aliens from outer space might be little. Some years after my encounter with the alien flying machine in my garden, I saw a documentary entitled Fast, Cheap & Out of Control by Errol Morris, the title referring to the work of Rodney Brooks, an M.I.T. scientist who designed tiny robots and wrote a famous paper suggesting we send one hundred one-kilogram robots to Mars or wherever, instead of a single hundred-kilogram robot. That way, if some of the robots broke down or didn’t work properly, there would still be many more robots to carry out the exploring. The paper was entitled “Fast, Cheap and Out of Control: A Robot Invasion of the Solar System” published in 1989 in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society.

After seeing this documentary, I was convinced that the flying thing I had encountered in my garden was one of thousands of exploratory robots sent from some distant solar system to check out life in ours. So now the question is: are the aliens from outer space who sent the hummingbird robots the same aliens behind the crooks who have ripped off trillions of dollars and brought humanity to the brink of extinction? I don’t know. But I wouldn’t be surprised.

Social Security

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

(This article originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2010)

“The government of my country snubs honest simplicity, but fondles artistic villainy, and I think I might have developed into a very capable pickpocket if I had remained in the public service a year or two.” Mark Twain

Today’s mail brought my annual report from the Lord High Chamberlain of the Exchequer informing me that unless I get hyper busy and super lucky, too, and start making gobs of money so the government can tax those gobs and dump loads of loot into my Social Security account, my later years, so-called, will be mean ones, as in Not Fun. True, the scribes toiling for SS (how Naziesque that acronym) are quick to point out that no reasonable human can hope to survive on SS payments alone, that such payments are merely intended to supplement the vast sums they seem to assume we have tucked away in other income-producing niches impervious to downturns in interest rates, stock markets, housing markets, and all other known markets currently falling like lead weights dropped from leaning towers everywhere.

Indeed, the verbiage attached to the SS notice trumpeting the diminutive stipend awaiting me when I crest sixty-six, puts me in mind of the surreal fiction of Calvino and Ionesco and Pinter, their ironic humor barely softening the horror of being eaten alive by the bureaucratic mouths of our overlords. For instance, here is a badly written but highly revealing passage of SS doggerel.  “If you retire early, you may not have enough income to enjoy the years ahead of you. Likewise, if you retire late, you’ll have a larger income, but fewer years to enjoy it. Everyone needs to try to find the right balance, based on his or her own circumstances.”

Try. Did you hear them? Try to find the right balance. Let me see. I know I left the right balance around here somewhere. Darn. Where did I put it? I so want to enjoy it, and by “it” I think the SS copywriter means the larger income, but (likewise) he may mean the years ahead, while I mean the right balance. Based on my circumstances. And just what are my circumstances? Well, I’m not sure. They keep changing. How strange. Are they supposed to? Keep changing? My circumstances?

Hey, maybe I could get a high-paying job writing SS brochures, a job with comprehensive government-subsidized healthcare and automatic contributions to my SS account. Here’s a sample of what I could write for them. “Life isn’t fair, you pathetic pauper. Likewise, you’d better figure out how to beat this crooked system or you’re gonna end up in deep doo doo.” Catchy, no?

When I was in my teens and twenties I knew several elderly people living adequately on no other income but the money they received from the Social Security Administration. True, those were the days when a visit to the doctor might cost you fifteen dollars, and drugs, the few we had, were cheap, food was inexpensive, rent was low, and gasoline was twenty-five cents a gallon. Five per cent was about as low as interest rates on a regular savings account ever went, so if you banked some of your money, you could earn a little extra, kids were encouraged to save, to learn about saving, property taxes were reasonably high to pay for things like schools and police and fire departments; and health insurance, for those who bothered to buy it, was inexpensive. That’s how things were. Honestly.

But then things were not like that. And they are not like that now. I wonder why we and our leaders don’t go back and study, say, 1959, and see how things were structured then in terms of taxes, all the taxes, and expenditures, all the expenditures, and draw up plans to revert to some or all of that kind of taxing and spending. I don’t really wonder why. I know why. Because in 1959, corporations paid much higher taxes than they do now, and wealthy people who owned expensive houses in ritzy neighborhood paid reasonably high property taxes and were not allowed to entirely avoid paying taxes through all sorts of shelters and dodges, and a good many of the things we bought were made in America by Americans. How could we go back to that? Oh, and they had these funny things called government regulations that made it illegal for banks to lie and cheat and steal, so we wouldn’t have a repeat of the Great Depression. Imagine.

I got my first savings account in 1959 when I was ten. I got it, the savings account, because for Christmas my grandparents gave me a check for ten dollars. This was the first check I’d ever received, and it, the check, was for such a vast sum my parents thought I would be wise to open a savings account at Wells Fargo. So I did. And the very friendly woman who helped me open my account gave me a brochure written especially for children, possibly written by the father or mother of the writer who today writes the Pinteresque SS doggerel, but probably not. I remember the brochure had blue ink on glossy white paper and included a chart showing how much money I would earn if I left my ten dollars in the bank for ten years at seven per cent interest compounded daily. Are you sitting down? One hundred and sixty-five dollars.

I wrote about my new savings account and my nifty passbook and the glossy brochure and my awesome earning power in a Thank You letter to my grandparents, and my grandmother wrote back, “Imagine how much you will have if you add ten dollars a year to your account and that earns interest, too?”

Lest these memories seem maudlin and uselessly sentimental or even stupid, my point is that most of us so-called Baby Boomers grew up thinking that money saved became more money to be used later on when we needed it. The money. And that’s how we imagined Social Security operated, too. Money we put into the system would mature over the years for our eventual use. Yet here on the front page of the SS doggerel sheet accompanying the proclamation of the teensy monthly sum the government proposes to send me when I retire is the following vague and scary and infuriating statement.

“In 2016 we will begin paying more in benefits than we collect in taxes. Without changes, by 2037 the Social Security Trust Fund will be exhausted and there will be enough money to pay only about 76 cents for each dollar of scheduled benefits. We need to resolve these issues soon to make sure Social Security continues to provide a foundation of protection for future generations.”

I’m not making this crap up. Somebody, possibly a college graduate, was paid good swiftly deflating money to write that vague and scary crap, and it, the crap, was sent to every sucker in America with a Social Security number. And who exactly is the We who needs to resolve these issues? And what are those issues? Let’s see, I may have a list of them, the issues that need resolving, wherever I misplaced my right balance based on my ever-changing circumstances.

Could SS be implying that you and I have wasted trillions of dollars on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that you and I have spent several other trillions bailing out banks that won’t pay even one per cent interest on my savings, let alone seven per cent? Are they suggesting that you and I have given untold trillions in subsidies to big earth-gobbling corporations? I think they are. I think they are implying that we, you and I, are the cause of all those unresolved issues they neglected to be more specific about. And that’s why my puny little stipend is in danger of declining and disappearing before I even get any of it. The stipend. Because I can’t find the right balance.

Maybe I should see a doctor (though if I do they’ll almost certainly raise my already usurious health insurance rates.) But maybe it, going to a doctor, would be worth it (the certain increase in my insurance rates) because the obscenely profitable pharmaceutical cartel may have developed a drug for it. Our imbalance. Something to instill equilibrium in the corpus and stimulate the memory so we can remember where we left the right balance and the list of issues we (you and I) need to resolve to keep SS from going belly up, but likewise not so stimulating a drug that we remember to tax the b’jeezus out of the super wealthy.

Todd’s taxable creations are on display at UnderTheTableBooks.com.