Saturday, March 27, 2010

The End of the Line

Driving up West Burnside Street from downtown Portland, there is a nondescript building on the corner of 22nd Place and Burnside. In the ground floor are the Pizza Oasis, best pizza in Portland; and the Thai Orchid, best Thai food in Portland. Between the two store fronts is a doorway that leads into the building proper: an SRO (Single Room Occupancy) hotel.

That hotel was my home for five years.  

An SRO typically is where you end up right before you land on the streets, or sometimes, right after you come off them.  For so much money per week, you get a room.  I paid an extra $5 a week for a room with its own bathroom.  Most of the rooms in an SRO don't have bathrooms; you share the one at the end of the hall.  There's a shared kitchen, too, if you want to use it.  There are some kinds of sharing I can do without.  Involuntarily sharing my food with others is among them. 

For $105/week, I got a room with a bed, a dresser, a sink and a window.  And, of course, a bathroom.  I went into that room thinking that it would be a temporary stop, a detour after a "perfect storm" of financial and personal catastrophes merged, to leave me homeless, jobless and destitute.  I'd managed to scrape a job in one of the worst hell holes imaginable, a produce company on the east side of the river.  But it was a job.  Things would get better.

They didn't.  At work, I was alongside paroled armed robbers, rapers and drug addicts.  There were knife attacks in the back of the warehouse and fist fights on the loading dock.  At home, -- "home" -- there were regular visits from paramedics to revive overdosed drug users, and the sounds of hand-to-hand combat in the neighboring rooms. One winter, the building breaker box melted down and we were without heat or electricity for ten days.  We still had to pay rent, though. Pay, or get out.  You pay -- because when the streets are icy, huddling under a heap of blankets in your unlit room is better than huddling under a bridge.

After a while, you get used to it.  You go to work, you get your check.  You go to the check-cashing place, get your money.  You stop at the manager's office to pay your rent on the way up to your room.

I became a linux user in that room.  Learned shell, perl and C programming in that room.  Learned networking, hardware repair; became A+ and Network+ certified.  Friday night, on the way home from work I would buy two packs of cigarettes and a six-pack of Mountain Dew.  I'd sit down at my desk and smoke and drink soda and program, play chess at FICS, take things apart and put them back together.  Occasionally, I'd upend my keyboard to dump out the cigarette ash that caused it to stop working.

I might have gone on indefinitely in that zombie zone.  About four years into my stay, I got sick.  It was winter.  I went to the clinic at Good Sam.  The doc said it was bronchitis and I should quit smoking. I stayed sick.  I worked sick, shivering all day in the coolers; then going home to lie in bed shivering.  No "sick days":  don't punch the clock, don't get paid.  A couple more visits to the clinic, with the same verdict.

As I lay in my room, too sick even to smoke a cigarette, I realized that if I died there, nobody would notice.  If I didn't show up for work, nobody would call.  People disappearing from that place was a regular occurrence.  I went weeks without talking to my sisters; they wouldn't think it unusual.  You can't get more alone than that: to die and not be missed, until your body starts to stink and somebody calls the cops.

One day I took the bus to work, as usual.  After the two block walk to the loading dock, I had to sit down and rest.  I couldn't go on.  I told my boss I was too sick to work and went straight back to the clinic. This time I got a different doctor; she had my chest X-Rayed; then came back with a worried look on her face.  She showed me the X-Rays. "You have double pneumonia and your lungs are 40% underwater," she said.  "You need to be admitted to the hospital right now." 

Five days later, and $12,000 in debt, I emerged from the hospital. That doctor saved my life, of that I am sure.  And it was like a resurrection. Not consciously, I didn't have some kind of overt epiphany.  As I recovered my health, I began to see the world around me and to take stock of my possibilities.  Within a year, I was working as a telephone technical support "engineer" for Gateway computers.  Two years later, I went to work for WebTrends providing support for the software.  Professional services; then independent consulting. In five years, I went from living in an SRO without even a bank account, to flying around the country on an expense account.

I often look back, and see where I came from.  I didn't get here because I'm "special," or some kind of ubermensch.  I'm nothing special at all; just another guy, with bad habits and an occasional good day.  God put me on a path that led me to a home, a family, a job that pays well.  He let me see my daughter again; he let me keep my friends of 40+ years; he let me live on both sides of the street.  And that's why, every day, I say "Here I am, Lord.  Send me."

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Dirt Cookies

There is something about these cookies that won't leave me alone.

I watched this video about 10 months ago, and still, I keep coming back to it. These kids are happy -- happy! -- to eat a dirt cookie.  It's not a joke, not a put-up job. The grownups, their parents, know better. They know the cookies are nasty, but there's nothing else to feed their children.

Today, I'm giving a brief "Mission Moment" at church, in preparation for an offering to "One Great Hour of Sharing". And as I prepare to make my pitch for donations, those cookies are very much in my mind.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Who Does What and Does It Matter

Here are some (numbers from 2008).

Employed Persons by Occupation, Sex and Age
Count (in Millions)
52.8 Management, Professional and Related Positions
52.8 Total
24.5 Service
19.2 Office
16.3 Sales
14.8 Construction, Maintenance, Natural Resources
17.8 Production, Transportation
92.6 Total
145.4 Total, all occupations

So, there are 145.4 million Americans in the workforce in 2008, and 52.8 million of them are classified as "Management, Professional and Related Positions."

Sales is an anomalous classification. I believe most workers in that category are probably inside sales, working phones or behind counters. In the Department of Labor Current Population Survey (CPS) tables, sales and office are categorized together. This makes sense. However, I believe also that most persons in sales see themselves as in the category of "Management, Professional and Related Positions," rather than lumped in with "ordinary" office workers such as secretaries, mail clerks and receptionists.

Staying with the CPS classifications, management &  professionals represents 36% of the workforce. (That might give you pause.)  I'm not going to break out the "purely management" from "professionals" such as doctors, lawyers &c.

The reason I'm thinking about these numbers is that one of the constant refrains I hear from the right is that "Americans want ..." this and that. And mostly, I hear this refrain from people in the management classification.

If there's one thing I have learned decisively in 45 years in the workforce, it is that management does not put the welfare of the employee above the welfare of the manager's pocketbook and career. Management is very hierarchical (as is sales, another reason perhaps that they tend to self-identify together). If my boss' boss tells him to do something, he will do it, no matter what he thinks about it personally. He may find it morally or ethically repugnant; he may even think or know that it's illegal; but, he'll do it.

This ability to discount ethics and obey seems to be a quality required for advancement in the world of management. This may account for the rarity of whistleblowers within corporate management. When you think about all the corporate scandals -- the defective products, the financial malfeasance, environmental law violations: pretty amazing how few of these are brought before the public by knowledgeable individuals within the management teams that implemented them or ordered them.  If you have qualms about "sticking in the knife" or "turning a blind eye" on orders, you're probably not going to advance into a position to see behind the green curtain.

Another trait of management is a "Father Knows Best" paternalism. For the most part, managers seem to feel that not only do they know best how to do everything within their business, but they seem to feel a corresponding wisdom about every other aspect of life; and they feel that everyone else not a member of their team has a moral imperative to follow orders. One of the real sticking points in management-labor relations where unions are involved, is that management is absolutely, characteristically incapable of accepting that anyone other than themselves could possibly have anything useful to contribute to the running of a company. After all, if you _were_ competent, you'd be a manager!

The summary line is, that our politics are driven by the 36% telling the 64% what to do -- not just on the job, but in daily life. Now, when the country was founded, the Constitution was written by men who fell into the 36% category: at least, in thought patterns. James Madison was explicit in his description of the Constitutional government as being designed to prevent the "tyranny of the majority," because the anticipation was that the mob would be driven by envy of the aristocracy and would therefore have to be restrained. And the mechanism of restraint was brilliantly conceived.  For rather than applying force of arms, as done by all governments up to that time; and as evidenced in the recently thrown-off yoke of tyranny; the design of the government itself reserved the powers of change to those most deserving of them: the aristocracy; while at the same time, seeming to circumscribe all citizens within that group.1

Our modern 36-ers are not far from that tree of thought. They believe that it is necessary for the government to be owned by business because if it wasn't, it would be owned by citizens -- and 64% of those citizens are the mob. Hence, again with brilliant insight into the requirements of political expediency, they describe what is best for themselves economically as what is best for "all  Americans."

To the extent that a public school system educates its students to be good citizens, it's bad for the 36-ers: because good citizens can sniff out the poison in the dialog. Hence, 36-ers are against a public  school system that is not devoted to producing "good workers": obedient, mercenary, consumption-oriented and politically malleable. "Sit down, shut up and do what you're told" is the essence of the 36-ers conception of public education. Of course, that's not the education they envision for their own children. To avoid that conundrum, we need vouchers to send their kids to private schools.

To the extent that a healthcare system provides adequate and sustainable care to all citizens, it's bad for 36-ers: because it places all citizens on an equal footing. You will never meet a 36-er who does not believe that he deserves better healthcare than a mother on welfare. You will never meet a 36-er who believes that that welfare mother's baby is genetically and morally equal to his own.

To the extent that a government restricts the avarice of the wealthy, it's bad for the 36-ers: because their lives are dedicated to the pursuit of avarice.

But there's a huge worm in the apple of the 36-ers' eye. There's a layer of citizens at the top of the pile, driving the body politic like a metaphorical brain. Mostly invisible to most of us, the very wealthy work the levers of power in the financial and political capitals of America.

The 36-ers do the dirty work for these rulers. These rulers live in a veritably unbreakable,  invisible bubble. When the 36-er manipulates the political structure to enhance his own comfort by extracting resources from some segment of the 64% below him, he silently passes on the bulk of that extraction to the rulers, gratefully lapping up the crumbs that fall to the floor in front of him.  Above all, hierarchical: just as he is greater than the 64%, the rulers are greater than he.
They keep you doped with religion, and sex, and TV
And you think you're so clever, and classless and free
But you're still fucking peasants, as far as I can see.
America has morphed into a kind of feudalism. At the top we have our rulers. The 36-ers represent the gentry, and the lower 64% the serfs.   Everybody is expected to "know his place" and keep it.

Lawrence Lessig has recently penned an article for The Nation, How to Get Our Democracy Back. This article is well worth reading. I have read no more cogent summary of our current political status in America; it is a call to action.

There is no "third way" in American politics. Either business controls the government and turns its broad powers to the ends of profit-making and maintaining the aristocratic privilege of the 36-ers and their rulers; or the citizens control the government and turn its broad powers to the ends of social justice. There is no real-world scenario in which government is ever, will ever be, a neutral party in the daily operations of life in the State.

I can't say that I'm sanguine that we will "get out of the state we're in."
"Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it." -- Mahatma Gandhi
1 Yes, some of the founders recognized exactly what was being done by this design. Patrick Henry is famous for having repudiated the output of the Constitutional Convention, campaigned against it in his home state and helped force the hand of the nascent Constitutional government in order to secure the Bill of Rights; which Madison, et al were wont to regard as "unnecessary" once the government was in place. We owe more of our modern liberty to Patrick Henry than to James Madison.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Today's Poem

There's more to this poem by e.e. cummings than the first line. You
have to read it carefully (in my case, several times) to get the full
a salesman is an it that stinks Excuse
Me whether it's president of the you were say
or a jennelman name misder finger isn't
important whether it's millions of other punks
or just a handful absolutely doesn't
matter and whether it's in lonjewray
or shrouds is immaterial it stinks
a salesman is an it that stinks to please
but whether to please itself or someone else
makes no more difference than if it sells
hate condoms education snakeoil vac
uumcleaners terror strawberries democ
ra(caveat emptor)cy superfluous hair
or Think We've Met subhuman rights Before
The mark of a good poem:  I can't even think of a followup comment that doesn't read lame.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Afterthought On Christmas

"It seems too much for any mortal man to appoint, or make an anniversary memorial [for Christ]." -- John Robinson, pastor of the Pilgrims and organizer of the Mayflower expedition
Christmas was condemned by the founders of the various Protestant churches as an unholy, even pagan celebration.
In the early 17th century, a wave of religious reform changed the way Christmas was celebrated in Europe. When Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan forces took over England in 1645, they vowed to rid England of decadence and, as part of their effort, cancelled Christmas. By popular demand, Charles II was restored to the throne and, with him, came the return of the popular holiday.

The pilgrims, English separatists that came to America in 1620, were even more orthodox in their Puritan beliefs than Cromwell. As a result, Christmas was not a holiday in early America. From 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was actually outlawed in Boston. Anyone exhibiting the Christmas spirit was fined five shillings. By contrast, in the Jamestown settlement, Captain John Smith reported that Christmas was enjoyed by all and passed without incident.
After the American Revolution, English customs fell out of favor, including Christmas. In fact, Congress was in session on December 25, 1789, the first Christmas under America's new constitution. Christmas wasn't declared a federal holiday until June 26, 1870.  -- An Outlaw Christmas, History Channel
Far from wanting to "keep the Christ in Christmas," the early Protestants were more in the mold of Paster Ralph Ovadal, of the Pilgrim Covenant Church, who declared in a sermon in 2005,
Keep Christ in Christmas? Why would we want to keep "Christ" in Christmas? Why would we want our Lord's name connected to the word "mass"? Why would we want to keep His name at the center of a pagan, Epicurean festival? I wish Christ's name had nothing to do with that holiday. I wish the pope never mentioned our Savior on that day. I wish I had never heard heathens singing "Happy Birthday, Jesus" just before breaking out the booze and plunging into a cesspool of hedonistic pleasure.
Now, that's a fine bit of rant, though I'm not in accordance with the good Pastor's beliefs. I am not offended by selecting a day to celebrate the birth of our Saviour. I think it's a good thing, insofar as it refocuses our wandering attention onto what is important.

But, there are those who use the Christmas celebration, not to renew their relationship with God through marking the birth of his Son, but to further more earthly ends. Sometimes, it's akin to the Pharisee rending his shirt in public, to call attention to his praying. Other times, it's to rally political opponents to some current topic. Those actions betray the very Word we are bound to honor.

There are only two sacraments in our church (Congregational UCC): baptism and communion. Christmas is not a "holy day," as in a day made holy by the Lord. It is a day of remembrance, designated by men to honor one Who is holy, and whose sandal we are not worthy to tie.  Rather than making a spectacle of ourselves in its observance, we might better retire to a closet, like the Biblical publican, to ask His forgiveness that we need such a day.  Its existence testifies to the insufficiency of that honor in our daily lives.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Philosophy of Being A Liberal

It's pretty simple, actually, and doesn't take a whole book to elucidate.

You accept imperfection in yourself and others. You believe in alleviating suffering, wherever it exists. You reject the notion that some people don't "deserve" help.

The world is an interesting place and you're curious about it. You like to learn and can change your mind if you get something wrong -- and even admit it.

You don't regard your own personal comfort as the defining characteristic of the value of a thing to you. You don't regard personal wealth as the measure of an individual's value.  Having achieved some material success, you worry that it might corrupt you.

You're not afraid to mix it up with individuals who have contrary views. But, you don't regard them ipso facto as inferior or corrupt. We can want  fundamentally the same things and have different views of how to get them.

You understand that economics and politics are means to an end, that they do not exist independently of the individuals that use them; and that the end they serve is "the greatest good for the greatest number." "The economy," like "the Market," is an abstraction useful for describing a subset of human activities; it is not the purpose of human existence.
It is not good to forget over what gulfs the spirit
Of the beauty of humanity, the petal of a lost flower blown seaward by the night-wind, floats to its quietness.
-- Robinson Jeffers, "Apology for Bad Dreams"
Dogma is the enemy of liberal thought (though even liberals can be cornered by it). The essence of the liberal paradigm is that one never arrives at the solution to a given problem, but only at a resolution. That is, problem-solving (social, economic, political) is like viewing a distant object through a telescope. You gradually adjust the view to make the object come into focus, resolving the image. But you never achieve perfect focus, so resolution is a process rather than a stationary endpoint, goal or final result. Further, everyone who looks through the telescope has a different optical paradigm, so what appears to be well-focussed for one viewer is decidedly out of focus for another. So the process of resolution contains not only the viewing but the social interaction necessary to determine the "reality" or "truth" contained in the act of viewing.

Read John Dewey's The Public and Its Problems for a succinct, dense and brilliant account of this concept and process.

You believe that personal liberty is the most significant aspect of the social structure. You can be a successful businessman in a totalitarian state. Personal liberty is not a requirement for economic liberty. Therefore, economic liberty does not guarantee or even imply personal liberty. On the other hand, having personal liberty creates conditions for economic liberty.

You believe that the rights of personal liberty are absolute, that the state has no countervailing right to arbitrarily restrict a citizen's liberty. You believe that the best defense of liberty is living free.  You understand that the government has no vested interest in preserving liberty; liberty only persists as long as citizens demand it, refuse to live without it.

Liberal thought, in summary, is not static, is not a box from which one extracts the appropriate answer to any question; but rather a process of examining the question and formulating an answer based on what is known. As the known expands, the answer changes.  Liberal thought thereby encompasses the unknown in a changing landscape of a perfectible world.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Why I Am Not A Conservative, Part Deux

No action has ever been taken by Conservatives (self-styled) to make America a better place. By "better place" I mean: morally more understanding, socially more accepting, economically more successful.  The essence of liberal position is that we are obligated to use government to accomplish these goals.

To make citizens more understanding, we implemented public education.  While we often overemphasize the need of a good education to get a "good job," from the beginning an educated citizen was seen as essential to  a successful democratic government.
"The less wealthy people,... by the bill for a general education, would be qualified to understand their rights, to maintain them, and to exercise with intelligence their parts in self-government; and all this would be effected without the violation of a single natural right of any one individual citizen." --Thomas Jefferson: Autobiography, 1821.
Liberals have led the battle to make America a socially accepting society, in which the words "all men are created equal" would have weight and be borne out in daily life. Liberal thinkers and politicians have led the fights for the end to slavery, the end of child labor, the 40-hour work week, workplace safety, environmental protection, livable wages, universal suffrage.

They also have led the fights to maintain the liberties institutionalized in the Bill of Rights.

All of these struggles have been seen by liberals as essential to achieving the last goal, economic success. In the context of the nation, "economic success" means that all citizens possess the essentials: a decent, safe place to live, food on the table and clothes on their persons.

That's utopian. The many measures of the individual which prevent the achievement of the utopian vision will always be a part of our society.

And that's where government enters the equation.
The limitations of the human mind and imagination, the inability of human beings to transcend their own interests sufficiently to envisage the interests of their fellow men as clearly as they do their own makes force an inevitable part of the process of social cohesion. But the same force which guarantees peace also makes for injustice. -- Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society
If superior abilities and services to society deserve special rewards it may be regarded as axiomatic that the rewards are always higher than the services warrant. No impartial society determines the rewards. The men of power who control society grant these perquisites to themselves. ... The inevitable hypocrisy, which is associated with all the collective activities of the human race, springs chiefly from this source: that individuals have a moral code which makes the actions of collective man an outrage to their conscience. -- Reinhold Niebuhr, ibid.
I agree with Niebuhr's assessment, quoted above, and agree with him that the burden then becomes one of accepting that injustice will always exist in society and attempting to minimize it. Since we can't eliminate injustice, the role of government is to minimize it by distributing it equally among citizens -- to prevent, by force as necessary, the economically and socially powerful from subjugating the economically and socially weak.

Like "liberal," "conservative" as a political descriptor paints a significant swath of belief. But all conservatives  have these factors in common. They believe that economic and social power are theirs by right, because they are superior to the "disadvantaged," that is, to those who are weak or powerless.
In the end, the minority has only those rights that the majority chooses to grant it. -- William Rehnquist
Unlimited power to exert injustice on their own behalf, in any form, underpins the conservative ethos in modern America.  And it is the only function of government, in their view, to protect that power. The conservative believes that it is "unjust" to "force" them to pay taxes in support of public relief for the homeless; and "just" -- in all circumstances -- for them to evict a family from a home and make them homeless.   The conservative believes that the homeless man has no absolute right to a place to live, but he (the conservative) has an absolute right to prevent the homeless man from finding a place to live.

Conservatives opposed liberation of slaves, opposed universal suffrage, opposed the end to child labor in factories, opposed the end to segregated schools, opposed the inclusion of women in the work force, opposed voting rights for black Americans. That legacy of opposition to the expansion of political rights and social acceptance is still being built on today, as conservatives oppose programs to provide medical care to children (SCHIP), aid to impoverished schools, aid to children from disadvantaged backgrounds (Head Start), and yes, aid to families that are in danger of losing their homes.

I don't believe it is possible for a conservative to imagine any circumstance in which government should be allowed to "force" him to do what is  obviously, morally right. The very act of being "forced" to help his neighbor renders such help immoral, in his view. In fact, the conservative believes that the very fact of an individual needing help demonstrates that person's moral turpitude. When the conservative says "I believe in personal responsibility," he means that he doesn't give a damn why you need help, he's not going to help you because whatever happened to you, it's your own fault. You deserve to suffer.

And that's why I'm not a conservative. It's impossible to be a conservative without being covetous and I'm not covetous. It's impossible to be a  conservative without regarding your economic success as demonstration of your moral superiority.  Not a single day goes by, in which I do not acknowledge to myself that I am unworthy.  My life is built on the acceptance of that grace which I have been granted and with which I struggle.
My job is to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. -- Mother Jones
I, as a liberal and a Christian, believe that God brought me here to do his work. The measure of my success is not how much I accumulate but how much I help. I acknowledge the limits of my success and how far I have yet to go. That's the nature of being a liberal.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

A Moral Reawakening

"Don't keep up with the Joneses; make sure the Joneses are okay." -- Jim Wallis

That resonates for me.

It's tough. Anne came up from the projects, raised in a world where there never was enough, where celebrations of holidays like Christmas were driven by handouts from charitable organizations. My parents weren't poor in material ways but spiritually impoverished. Both of us came out of those worlds needy.

Buying presents for your kids can become a way of fulfilling the needs that went unanswered when we were kids. We always want them to have what we didn't.

But a lot of that "what we didn't" can be traced back, not to the material lack, but to the spiritual lack. And you can see that the hunger for that spiritual fulfillment is never assuaged by the new pair of jeans or game for the Nintendo DSi.

Because it's never enough. A day, or two days after that new pair of jeans has been worn, a clamor is raised for another trip to the mall. And the tell is that often, the bag containing the newly-purchased items gets thrown on the dining room table and sits for two days before the new items are even  retrieved and used.

It's the act of purchasing, the recognition of the ability to buy, that has become important.

A couple of nights ago, we were sitting in the living room watching coverage of the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake on CNN, and Laura said "I'm going to pack up some of my toys and send them to the kids there."

That's the legacy we really want to give our kids. And however she came by it, we didn't buy it at the mall.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Services Available at One Small Bank

Last night, I was watching a video about the Move Your Money campaign that included a MSNBC clip in which the interrogators made some denigrating remarks about the level of services provided by community banks. The individual from MYM did not dispute these claims, which were in fact, not true; or at least, not necessarily true.

My wife and I are members of Mutual Security Credit Union.
  • I don't know when they started online banking at MSCU, but I've had online web access to my account since I opened it in 2002. At that time, when I left Bank of America for MSCU, online banking was only available at BofA by paying a monthly fee and using a proprietary online-banking software client. There was no web access possible.
  •  Online bill payment scheduling has always been available at MSCU -- free, as in "free beer." In 2002, online bill payment through my former bank was also fee-based.
  •  I have two accounts at MSCU, my wife has two and her two sons each have an account. We can move money among our various accounts at will, through the online interface. For example, Anne handles most of our bills and I buy groceries. I "reimburse" myself for the weekly grocery buy by logging into her bill-paying account and transferring the money for groceries from the bill-paying account to my account. If one of the boys needs to borrow money, Anne transfers it directly from her account to his. When he wants to pay it back (hey, it could happen!), he transfers it directly. My check is auto-deposited into my account; Anne helps herself by transferring a set amount of it into the bill-paying account.
  • You can move money between accounts over the phone by using MSCU's automated phone service, in the same way you can move it via the web interface.
  • My ATM card is VISA-based and I've used it all over the country. Of course, I pay a fee -- if I use it for cash at a machine. It seems to me that people who complain about ATM fees ought instead to look at their cash usage patterns. I don't pay a fee if I used the card to buy gas in Tulsa or pay the restaurant bill in Daytona Beach. The solution to the fee issue is, figure out your cash needs in advance, get the cash you need; don't keep hitting the ATM for dribs and drabs of money! When I travel on business, I get my cash before I leave and I almost never have to pony up $2-$3 for a refill. When we go on family trips, Anne gets the cash for expenses ahead of time, as well.
  • You can get almost all the help you need with your accounts through the online message system that is built into your account management interface.
  • MSCU provides credit cards, a full line of loans (auto, mortgage, home equity &c), investments. You can apply for mortgage, auto and equity loans online.
  • Our statements are "e-statements," emailed to us each month.
  • The only service that big banks provide that MSCU doesn't provide, is the opportunity to write a letter to Cardmember Services in Delaware when you have a problem with your account.
Of course, if you're thinking about changing banks, you have to shop for services just like you would shop for features in a new car, or for amenable design in a new house.  But the canard that you're sacrificing "services" by going small is easily refutable.   And, it should have been refuted on MSNBC by the MYM spokesperson.

Why Use a Small Bank?

Here is a small reason why one should use a small bank instead of one of the multinationals. This note is part of the answer to my somewhat hotheaded email to the bank, regarding the fact that they place a hold on one of my expense checks; and as a result of the hold, two payments were charged an NSF fee.
I can see that you do have a past history of receiving the expense checks from your employer and there was no hold placed on the item. I have removed the hold and rebated the 2 fees you incurred as a result of the hold. I will also be contacting the branch manager in the Watertown office to explain the situation, and I will put comments on your account not to hold the items from your employer. I would like to apologize to you for the inconvenience and frustration...
This kind of service is what you get from a small bank.

Kudos to Mutual Security Credit Union.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Why I Am Not A Conservative

The Political Compass places me as a "left libertarian;" that is, my economic and social views mark me as a social libertarian and economic leftist.  Basically, I favor the individual in contention with authority and in contention with economic forces. I believe in Roosevelt's Four Freedoms: Freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom from want, freedom from fear. 

No human being should be left wondering whence food and shelter shall arrive, nor fear the knock on the door. For the self-styled "richest country in the world" to denigrate and ignore the hungry, the destitute and the dying, is not beyond comprehension; but it's beyond excuse.

During the first  Gulf War, I was online via  FidoNet. We used what was known as echomail to communicate. Echomail worked something like Usenet, message feeds that propagated periodically from points of origin to all other points (generally called 'nodes') on the FidoNet network.   One of the echomail groups that I belonged to was a group devoted to discussing politics. This group was comprised almost exclusively of conservatives, some of them extremely far to the right. For the handful of us who were liberals, it could be tough sledding, sometimes.

There was a lot of bad behavior online in those days. If you got
someone sufficiently irked, they might send you an "ANSI bomb".  This was a message that contained either in the body or in the message subject ANSI codes that would execute when the message was loaded into a viewer. These were most often confined to graphical effects that would make your screen unreadable (very difficult to delete the message when your screen is reprogrammed so you don't know where to put the cursor to access the message). Or, somebody might "mail bomb" you with dozens or hundreds of resends of the same message, usually one with graphically rude language, even threats. I recall one latter campaign from the politics group; I would create filters to block messages from a particular username. But due to the nature of echomail, there were no "accounts" as we would think of them today, and any user could change his username at will. So, the guy would change his username every day or so and send me a hundred insulting messages, which then would get through and I'd have to update the filter. This went on for a couple of weeks.

You sort of had to take that kind of thing and make the best of it.  Most of the people using FidoNet had better than average computer skills. You had to. Software in those days was primitive; there were no comprehensive packages such as we have today. Today, my mail client includes a calendar, a daily planner, a mail client that connects to multiple mail servers, an address book. Twenty years ago, I had separate tools for each function I wanted to implement, and chained them together. I was working from a console (prettified by using ANSI graphics).

This is all background for the experience I had in the politics group that forever turned me away from American conservative politics.  Because there is some bad behavior that is just unconscionable. You know that the medium of exchange, long distance text messages sent among computers, invites thoughtless behavior. But there are levels of cruelty that are revealing of more than an outburst of aggression sparked by anger.

I had a friend in that group, Art Abelson. Art actually lived across the river from me in Vancouver, WA. Art was a retired laborer, former union organizer and Wobbly.  Art was a good guy and I liked him.

Art had a daughter in the Army, who was shipped to the Gulf during the war. He received a call from her, from Kuwait, and she told him that her unit was going into Iraq and she would be out of contact while they were in the combat zone. Two days went by, and no word. Art was worried, and expressed his concern in the politics group.  Immediately, a group of a half-dozen far-right extremists began messaging that they hoped she was killed in combat and it would serve her and him right -- because of his leftist political views. Now, there are always nutters like that, whereever conservatives gather.  But the tell in this case was this: not a single one of the so-called moderate conservatives would condemn this outrageous activity.  Not one. 

Art was going at it hammer-and-tongs with these guys and I was pitching lead right there with him. He wanted them to admit that wishing for a US soldier to be killed in battle was wrong, in any event; and wrong for them to wish her to die because they didn't like her father's political views. But those kinds of battles are never really won. Those guys didn't care -- they were out to inflict personal pain; the more you engage them, the more convinced they are that they are being successful and the more they will have at you.

Art and I met in a bar one night, not too far from where I live. We drank some microbrew and talked about this process. It was crushing him; he was trying to make sense of the senseless. Walk away, I told him. You can't win this fight. Don't put yourself through hell dealing with guys who want you to suffer. The more you dispute this topic with them, the more they are going to stick in the knife and the more misery it will cause you.

He couldn't let it go. They were in the wrong, he was in the right, and he "had to fight for what's right."

Well, the takeaway for me was the gutless refusal of the so-called moderates to stand up for what was right. "The enemy of my friend is my enemy." Because they saw themselves as politically affiliated with the self-styled conservatives who were pitching into Art, and opposed to Art on other political issues, they would not stand with him, even when he clearly was in the right.

In the past, I have crossed party lines to vote for candidates who held positions that were significant to me. I voted for Mark Hatfield for senator, several times, because of his strong opposition to nuclear arms and strong support for nuclear disarmament. Even though he was opposed to abortion rights. There were other Republican or Independent candidates in Oregon politics, over the years, that got my vote. 

But Art's battle made me realize that Republicans, as the self-styled conservative party, value party loyalty over honor and justice. It made me realize that they will not stand up for what is right, if what is right is coming from "the enemy," the liberal or Democratic Party.  Their views may be "moderate" when compared to the extremists; but there's nothing moderate about their loyalty. It is first and foremost to the party. They are every bit the apparatchiks of conservatism. Conservativism, as defined by its representation in the Republican party, is fundamentally morally corrupt.

I have never voted for a Republican candidate since then. Nor will I, for the foreseeable future. No matter what they say on the stump or in an interview, after the party caucus they will do what they're told. And what they are told to do is what is politically convenient for the party, not what is good for the country, or moral, or honest.

I believe in God, family and country. In that order. "Political party" is not in that list. "Markets" is not in that list. I believe that if you are faithful to the first item in that list, the other two will fall into place as they should. You will know what to do, and when to do it. And you will do it.

I believe that we should all take responsibility for our own actions. I believe that we should never use that as an excuse to withhold help from the needy and the disadvantaged. I believe that when the Lord said, "... just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me," he was giving us our marching orders and a warning.

When I pull the lever in the voting booth, I know this about the Democratic candidates: that they are like a herd of cats. That the principles of the Democratic Party (partially enshrined in the Four Freedoms) are the guide for the candidates. As much as we party members may groan and shake our heads at our party's political infighting; as much as we may wish for more consistent messaging from party members and party leaders; we are what we are because our principles are our guide: not our party duty.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Dusty Epilogue

Roosevelt seems to have had an amazing, iconic ability to be at the right place at the right time. He arrived in Amarillo, TX, on July 11, 1938, to review firsthand the southern plains drought. 

It rained. The drought was broken.

Egan recounts how the President remained unfazed by the heavy rain as he rode in an open car to the review stand, stood bareheaded in the rain and gave his stump speech, using special leg braces that locked his knees so he could stand. It's no wonder that he was regarded as practically a demigod.

There are two passages that put paid to the story.

Only a handful of family farmers still work the homesteads of No Man's Land and the Texas Panhandle. To keep agribusiness going, a vast infrastructure of pumps and pipes reaches deep into the Ogallala Aquifer, the nation's biggest source of underground freshwater, drawing the water down eight times faster than nature can refill it.  The aquifer is a sponge, stretching from South Dakota to Texas, which filled up when glaciers melted abouth 15,000 years ago. It provides about 30 percent of the irrigation water in the United States. With this water, farmers in Texas were able to dramatically increase production of cotton, which no longer has an American market. So cotton growers, siphoning from the Ogallala, get three billion dollars a year in taxpayer money for fiber that is shipped to China, where it is used to make cheap clothing sold back to American chain retail stores like Wal-Mart. The aquifer is declining at a rate of 1.1 million acre-feet a day -- that is, a million acres, filled to a depth of one foot with water. At present rates of use, it will dry up, perhaps within a hundred years. In parts of the Texas Panhandle, hydrologists say, the water will be gone by 2010.
Approaching his ninetieth birthday, Ike Osteen lives with his wife, Lida Mae, not far from the dugout where the family of nine children passed their days in a hole in the ground. After leaving Baca County, Ike worked on the railroad and road projects, and then joined the Army. By the time Hitler's forces occupied most of Europe, Osteen was in boot camp. The soldier from the dugout landed in France on D-Day, June 6, 1944, fought the Germans through hedgerows, saw friends bleed and die. When the war was over, he thought about his place in the world and was drawn back to Baca County. It takes a certain kind of person to make peace with land that has betrayed them, but that is the way with home. Ike's mother died at the age of ninety-two. Most days, Ike puts in a full day's work around the house and usually spends some part of an afternoon sorting through the living museum of his life on the High Plains. He loves it still.
These passages illustrate the legacies of the Dust Bowl years.   FDR saved the farmers' lives and livelihoods; saved the region from what was then its imminent abandonment and desertification, by implementing programs like farm subsidies and soil conservation districts.  Farm subsidies and irrigation districts have morphed into gigantic corporate welfare payments, that eventually destroyed the very small farms they originally saved.

At the same time, the human legacy is touching.  I admire the toughness and I am moved by the will of people who asked for little -- only to be able to make their own way -- and were steadfast in pursuit of that desire.

Monday, January 04, 2010

The Dust Blows Forward, the Dust Blows Back

I'm nearly finished with Timothy Egan's book, The Worst Hard Time.  About this book, I can say: Wow. My knowledge of the events of the "Dirty Thirties" was limited to the Steinbeckian view generated by The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men.

I had a vague conception that there was a drought and all the dirt blew away. I never thought through the mechanics of "all the dirt blew away." And I never thought about the existence of those "okies" who continued to live there, who did not emigrate to California. Egan's book fills in, in detail, both the mechanics and the biography.

It's especially impressive to me because I don't care for this kind of "metaphorical" history. By "metaphorical" I mean: Egan describes in detail the lives of a handful of families and individuals who lived through the Dust Bowl years. A cowboy with no more cows to punch; a girl who comes to the High Plains as a five year old and leaves as an expectant mother; a newspaper editor; a town doctor; and a dozen incidental characters, who come in and out of focus as their participation in events dictates.

In collecting these stories into a narrative, Egan's intention is to make them a representation of the entire experience of the Dirty Thirties. Of course, this type of narrative is completely subject to the worst sort of distortion; by picking a particular subset of biographies, Egan can portay any "reality" he might wish to portray. What saves the book is that he has tied the stories of the survivors to the ecological causes of the "dusters" and to the political events that arose from them. Thus, we are not completely adrift in a tale of woe that might or might not be an accurate representation of the lives of those families that toughed out the drought.

There are many elements of this tale that strike me significantly.

  • The Federal government actually helped. And it helped, directly and effectively, because FDR was personally involved. He oversaw the design and implementation of programs that would deliver food, money and financial aid to the citizens and families that needed them. The comparison between FDR handling the crises then and Obama managing the crises now could not be more damning to our current President's "Rose Garden" approach. 
  • There were no public "safety nets." If you were a High Plains farmer, your land and what it provided were all you had. If you "went bust," there was no Medicare, no Social Security, no unemployment insurance; nothing.
  • Farmers did not passively accept what happened to them. For example, when banks started foreclosing and holding auctions to sell off seized assets, such as tractors or cattle, the farmers in the community would attend and by prearrangement among themselves, bid a nickel or a dime for each asset. Then they would give the items back to their original owner. When bankers realized what was happening, they tried to put ringers in the crowds, to bid up the sell prices. This stopped after some not-so-subtle threats, like leaving a hangman's noose at the auction site.
  • Education was seen as the ticket to a better life. Kids went to school, throughout the years, studied and graduated. There were periods during which the dusters were so bad, they could not get to school for a week. They persevered. School teachers worked for years for no pay, because the towns and counties were bankrupt and there was no money to pay them.
  • Doctors took payment "in kind" because there was little money. Patients were not turned away because they couldn't pay.
  • The utter desolation. Land stripped of every green shoot, every living creature except insects. And the farmers.
  • The financial crises that occurred during the thirties have many resemblances to those occurring today.  Then and now, families suffered because of the irresponsible and often dishonest actions of bankers.  Then and now, foreclosures and destruction of personal assets wiped out families. 
This book is not only interesting as history, but interesting as an object lesson on how we could (and did) have a national government that actively helped citizens in a time of domestic crisis.

One of the many projects completed at the time was the 1936 documentary, The Plow That Broke the Plains.  This documentary is in the national archives and is freely available.  It's only 25 minutes long.  The filming was done during dusters and melodramatically portrays the death of the High Plains at the hands of the sod busters; and the suffering thereafter.  The mustachioed farmer portrayed in this film is Bam White, whose story is told by Egan in his book.