Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Shape of Things to Come -- a prose poem -- Part One

First, a brief look backward:
As far as the vast majority of US citizens are concerned, the real crisis came into being many years ago, back in the days of "downsizing" (haven't heard that word in a long time), followed by "outsourcing," NAFTA, and the development of a "new world order" based on the dubious benefits of "globalization." Rosy unemployment figures belied the fact that far too many were employed slinging hamburgers, delivering pizza, bagging groceries, etc., for little more than minimum wage. College graduates with Ph.D's were working as part time adjuncts for $2,000 per class or in some cases $18 an hour (I know because I taught such classes); accountants were being hired by H&R Block for $6.00 an hour (believe it or not -- I met one and he told me) and highly educated bookworms were being lured to Barnes & Noble for $7.00 an hour and an employee discount (I know because I briefly held such a job). Hardly any of these jobs came with any benefits whatsoever, and many people were hired as "independent contractors," meaning the company didn't have to pay its share of their Social Security and Medicare deductions, sticking the employee with a whopping 15% payroll tax over and above federal, state, local and sales taxes. Far too many were staying afloat only because they'd figured out how to "manage" their credit cards, by making only the minimum payment each month or "rolling over" from one card to the next when the balance on the first one got too high. What was clearly an unmitigated disaster for so many was hailed by those in power as a thriving, healthy "economy," forging ahead full speed and doing just great.

Now, a brief consideration of our present situation:
What's new, and important, as far as the average underpaid, overworked, overtaxed, unemployed or underemployed worker is concerned, is that the "economy" that did so well for so many of the hugely overpaid and ridiculously undertaxed "Masters of the Universe" for so many years is not simply in crisis, but spiraling out of control and into oblivion. For a great many of the privileged elite this is indeed a disaster, because, unless some dramatic action is taken very soon, they could lose large chunks of the billions they "earned" prior to the current collapse. (Never mind that this money was never really earned, because all such "profits" were based on manipulation if not theft from a system already built upon layer after layer of self-delusion and outright deceit.) But for the rest of us the new situation holds great promise. For the first time our plight is being recognized by the powers that be. For the first time, the high rollers all over the world are realizing that their fate is tied to ours. Not because what's good for Wall St. is also good for Main St., as Henry Paulson has so strenuously argued. But because the working and middle class people so ignored and even despised for so many years are suddenly, lo and behold, being recognized as the all important "consumers" whose financial well being is essential for the consumption of all the many products that absolutely positively MUST be consumed, in mass quantities, Conehead style, if that all important "economy" is to be preserved, so the billionaires can go back to accumulating even more billions, as in the past.

So the powers that be have devised an interesting "plan." Toss the beggars a bone in the form of a handout here and there, a temporary job (indeed the word "temporary" is one of the hallmarks of the plan) and some piddling tax breaks, in the hope that they'll start spending again, at least until the "economy" can get back on its feet, the status quo re-instituted, with the power elite once more "earning" big money based on the same old Ponzi schemes.
The only problem is . . .

Whew. Maybe it's time for another chorus of Guantanamera:

(This version is sung by its original composer, Joseito Fernandez.)

(to be continued)

Jump-starting the economy

Let's put it this way. Imagine a secret meeting between Barack Obama, Tim Geithner and Bernie Madoff.

O: Look Bernie, we know you're a liar and a thief and under ordinary circumstances we would love to toss you in jail.

G: But your operation has become too big to fail. If we blew the whistle, the whole world economy might go into an irreversible death spiral and all my billionaire friends and I would be completely -- and I mean totally -- wiped out.

O: So here's a trillion dollars of taxpayer money to keep your scam afloat for another year or so, until we can figure out what to do next.

M: But won't that just perpetuate the same old Ponzi scheme I started back in the 70's?

O and G (in unison): Well, duh!

In case you might have missed it . . .

the following paragraph in the previous post, from Castro's interview, is worth repeating:
The developed capitalist system, which later gave rise to modern imperialism, has finally imposed a neoliberal and globalized order that is simply unsustainable. It has created a world of speculation where fictitious wealth and stocks have been created that have nothing to do with actual production, as well as enormous personal fortunes, some of which exceed the gross domestic product of dozens of poor countries. No need to add the plundering and squandering of the world’s natural resources and the miserable lives of billions of people. There is nothing this system can offer humanity. It can only lead to its own self-destruction and perhaps along with it to the destruction of the natural conditions that sustain human life on this planet.
What only a short time ago what might have been dismissed as empty rhetoric now looks remarkably prescient. What other statements by Castro and other socialist leaders might we now want to reconsider?

Fidel Castro on economics and the future of socialism.

From ikke til sag website, dated June 23, 2000:

At the beginning of the month of June, a French magazine published a summary of the notes taken by Mr. Federico Mayor Zaragoza, former Director General of UNESCO, during a conversation with President Fidel Castro last January 28 while he visited Cuba to take part in the II International Economists Workshop held in Havana from the 24th to the 28th of that month. . .

Following are the questions and answers:

[I have placed some of the most relevant passages in bold type.]

FEDERICO MAYOR.- With China, Vietnam and North Korea, Cuba is considered the last bulwark of socialism. Yet, 10 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, does the word "socialism" make sense any more?

FIDEL CASTRO.- Today I am more convinced than ever that it makes a great deal of sense.

What happened 10 years ago was the naive and unwitting destruction of a great social historical process that needed to be improved, but not destroyed. This had not been achieved by Hitler’s hordes, not even by killing over 20 million Soviets and devastating half of the country. The world was left under the aegis of a single superpower, which had not contributed even five percent of the sacrifices made by the Soviets in the fight against fascism.

In Cuba, we have a united country and a Party that guides but does not nominate or elect. The people, gathered in open assemblies, put up candidates, nominate and elect delegates from 14,686 districts; these are the foundation of our electoral system. They make up the assemblies of their respective municipalities, and nominate candidates to the provincial and national assemblies, the highest bodies of state power at those levels. The delegates, who are chosen through a secret ballot, must receive over 50% of the valid votes in their corresponding jurisdictions.

Although voting is not compulsory, over 95% of eligible voters take part in these elections. Many people in the world have not even bothered to look into these facts.

The United States, such a vocal advocate of multi-party systems, has two parties that are so perfectly similar in their methods, objectives and goals that they have practically created the most perfect one-party system in the world. Over 50% of the people in that "democratic country" do not even cast a vote, and the team that manages to raise the most funds often wins with the votes of only 25% of the electorate. The political system is undermined by disputes, vanity and personal ambition or by interests groups operating within the established economic and social model and there is no alternative for a change in the system.

When the small English-speaking nations of the Caribbean achieved independence, they put into place a more efficient parliamentary system where the ruling party remains in power as long as it enjoys consensus. This is much more stable than the presidential regime imposed to the rest of Latin America, which copied the U.S. model. And, nothing has changed in almost two centuries.

Under capitalism it is the large national and international companies that actually govern, even in the most highly industrialized nations. It is they who make the decisions on investment and development. It is they who are responsible for material production, essential economic services, and a large part of social services. The state simply collects taxes and then distributes and spends them. In many of these countries, the entire government could go on vacation and nobody would even notice.

The developed capitalist system, which later gave rise to modern imperialism, has finally imposed a neoliberal and globalized order that is simply unsustainable. It has created a world of speculation where fictitious wealth and stocks have been created that have nothing to do with actual production, as well as enormous personal fortunes, some of which exceed the gross domestic product of dozens of poor countries. No need to add the plundering and squandering of the world’s natural resources and the miserable lives of billions of people. There is nothing this system can offer humanity. It can only lead to its own self-destruction and perhaps along with it to the destruction of the natural conditions that sustain human life on this planet.

The end of history, as predicted by a few euphoric dreamers, is not here yet. Perhaps it is actually just beginning.

F.M.- Forty-one years after the Revolution, and despite all of the difficulties it has had to confront, the regime that you established has endured. What could be the reason for this longevity?

F.C.- The tireless struggle and work alongside the people and for the people. The fact that we have settled for convictions and acted accordingly; that we believe in humankind and in being our country’s slaves and not its masters. We believe in building upon solid principles, in seeking out and producing solutions, even in apparently impossible and unreal conditions; in preserving the honesty of those with the highest political and administrative responsibilities, that is, in transforming politics into a priesthood. This could be a partial answer to your question, setting aside many other elements particularly related to our country and this historical era.

Of course, everybody thought that Cuba would not survive the collapse of the socialist bloc and the USSR. One could certainly wonder how it was possible to withstand a double blockade and the economic and political warfare unleashed against our country by the mightiest power ever, without the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, without credits. However, we managed to achieve this feat. At a summit meeting recently held in Havana, I somewhat ironically said to our guests that it had been possible because we had the privilege of not being IMF members.

There were times when we were swimming in a sea of circulating money. Our national currency experienced an extraordinary devaluation, and the budget deficit reached 35% of our gross domestic product. I could see intelligent visitors almost faint from shock. Our peso, the national currency, dropped to a value of 150 to the dollar in 1994. In spite of this, we did not close down a single health care center, a single school or daycare center, a single university, or a single sports facility. Nobody was fired and left on his own without employment or social security, even when fuel and raw materials were most scarce. There was not even a trace of the customary and hideous shock policies so highly recommended by the Western financial institutions.

Every measure adopted to confront the terrible blow was discussed not only in the National Assembly, but also in hundreds of thousands of assemblies held in factories, centers of production and services, trade unions, universities, secondary schools and farmers’, women’s and neighbors’ organizations as well as other social groups. What little was available, we distributed as equitably as possible. Pessimism was overcome both inside the country and outside.

During those critical years, the number of doctors was doubled, and the quality of education was improved. The value of the Cuban peso increased sevenfold, from 150 to the dollar to 20 to the dollar, between 1994 and 1998, and has since remained consistently stable. Not a single dollar fled the country. We acquired experience and efficiency on a par with the immense challenge facing us. Although we have still not reached the production and consumption levels we had before the demise of socialism in Europe, we have gradually recovered at a steady and visible pace. Our education, health and social security rates, as well as many other social features, which were the pride of our country, have been preserved, and some have even been improved.

The great hero in this feat has been the people, who have contributed tremendous sacrifices and immense trust. It was the fruit of justice and of the ideas sowed throughout over 30 years of Revolution. This genuine miracle would have been impossible without unity and without socialism.


Literally, the "lady from Guantanomo." "Guajira," referring to either a woman of Indian origin (Guajiro is a South American Indian tribal name) or the dance form of the same name.

Guantanamo is, as is well known, the location of a notorious US prison, on a notorious US naval base on Guantanamo bay, in Cuba. Here's what Castro had to say about this base, according to
On January 11 1985, in a speech during a visit to Nicaragua, Castro addressed the potential use of military violence to recover this territory. "What interest can we have in waging a war with our neighbors?" he said. "In our country we have a military base against the will of our people. It has been there throughout the twenty-six years of the revolution, and it is being occupied by force. We have the moral and legal right to demand its return. We have made the claim in the moral and legal way. We do not intend to recover it with the use of arms. It is part of our territory being occupied by a U.S. military base. Never has anyone, a revolutionary cadre, a revolutionary leader, or a fellow citizen, had the idea of recovering the piece of our territory by the use of force. If some day it will be ours, it will not be by the use of force, but the advance of the consciousness of justice in the world."
President Obama has already decided to eliminate the prison. (Whether this is a wise decision is open to debate, but I'll leave that issue for a future post.) But returning the entire base to Cuban control would be even better. Better still, we should recognize Cuba and establish normal relations with it. Doing so would be an excellent way for Obama to clearly demonstrate that he is in fact willing and able to do the right thing, even if it means alienating some of the most narrow-minded and intractable elements of the opposition whose approval he now appears to be so eagerly courting.

Friday, January 30, 2009

A Song Before Dying

As sung by the incomparable Celia Cruz:

(What a voice!)

Yo soy un hombre sincero
De donde crece la palma
Y antes de morirme quiero
Echar mis versos del alma
Guantanamera, guajira Guantanamera

Mi verso es de un verde claro
Y de un carmín encendido
Mi verso es un ciervo herido
Que busca en el monte amparo
Guantanamera, guajira Guantanamera

Cultivo una rosa blanca
En julio como en enero
Para el amigo sincero
Que me da su mano franca
Guantanamera, guajira Guantanamera

Y para el cruel que me arranca
El corazon con que vivo
Cardo ni ortiga cultivo
Cultivo la rosa blanca

Con los pobres de la tierra
Quiero yo mi suerte echar
El arroyo de la sierra
Me complace más que el mar
Guantanamera, guajira Guantanamera

I'm an honest man
From where the palm tree grows
And before dying I wish
To sing the song of my soul.

My verse is light green
And flaming red
My verse is a wounded stag
Seeking refuge on the mountain.

I grow a white rose
In July as in January
For the honest friend
Who offers an open hand.

And to the cruel one
who would tear my heart out,
Offer neither thistles nor nettles
But cultivate a white rose.

With the impoverished of the earth
I want to cast my lot.
The mountain brook
Gives me more pleasure than the sea

(adapted from verses by José Marti)

Chomsky the Libertarian

"If terms have lost their meaning, it's impossible to talk."

Thursday, January 29, 2009

If this be socialism . . .

I wrote the following as a comment on the Krugman blog back on Sept. 22. At that time no one else seemed to be talking about investing in infrastructure, jobs, etc. As for the rest, it looks as timely now as it did then:

Why not, very simply: let the system fail? Instead of pouring more billions (or trillions) into it, just let it fail. If we pour all that money into it and it fails anyhow, then we have truly hit bottom — all hope of salvaging some part of this disaster will be gone.

And it WILL fail. If not sooner, then later. If you doubt that, then ask yourself: what would be the measure of its success? If stocks go up, it would be because investors are confident the feds will step in to bail them out again if necessary. That's called "moral hazard." At best it will just re-inflate the same old bubble, putting us on the same path to nowhere. If stocks remain level, then what’s the point of investing? And if they crash again, then we’re back where we started. Accept it, the market is finished.

If we hold onto the bailout money and wait till AFTER the system fails, prices on everything will have fallen drastically, and our billions or trillions will therefore go MUCH farther.

And there would be a huge bonus, because a market failure would in itself be a great social leveler. Since the super-rich insisted on the freedom to play the “free market” according to their own rules, they can hardly complain when their little game (aka gamble) fails, and they lose their shirt — just like any other sucker in any casino anywhere in the world.

Next, use the billions (or trillions) to do all the things we should have been doing in the first place: restore our decaying infrastructure; develop alternative sources of energy; create decent paying jobs; house the homeless and dispossessed; and, above all, create the sort of social safety net that would make the loss of all those middle class pensions and retirement accounts beside the point.

It’s the construction of a safety net for the nation as a whole that we should be thinking of at this point, not some dramatic rescue plan cobbled together in a last minute effort to protect the fortunes of those who got us into this mess.

In other words: if this be socialism, make the most of it!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Economics as Poetry

Pirate Jenny -- Brecht & Weill -- as sung by Lotte Lenya

The Human Abstract

Wm. Blake

Pity would be no more
If we did not make somebody poor,
And Mercy no more could be
If all were as happy as we.

And mutual fear brings Peace,
Till the selfish loves increase;
Then Cruelty knits a snare,
And spreads his baits with care.

He sits down with holy fears,
And waters the ground with tears;
Then Humility takes its root
Underneath his foot.

Soon spreads the dismal shade
Of Mystery over his head,
And the caterpillar and fly
Feed on the Mystery.

And it bears the fruit of Deceit,
Ruddy and sweet to eat,
And the raven his nest has made
In its thickest shade.

The gods of the earth and sea
Sought through nature to find this tree,
But their search was all in vain:
There grows one in the human Brain.

Pity, mercy, peace, love, cruelty, humility, mystery, deceit. For Blake, the progression from the loftiest sentiments to the depths of hypocrisy is inevitable because all stem from the same root of the same tree. Appropriately enough, the Raven, ancient harbinger not only of war and doom, but symbol also of "ravenous" greed, makes his nest "in its thickest shade."

What is this tree, which cannot be found in nature, growing only "in the Human Brain"? If we would want to attribute this conundrum to the mysterious workings of Blake's "visionary" poetry, we'd have to reckon with the poet's own deep suspicion of mystery itself, as expressed in this very poem. I believe there is a simpler explanation. For me, Blake's tree is a symbol of what later would become known as "bourgeois ideology." Existing entirely out of sight, in "the human brain," elusive, mysterious, cruel, deceitful, this repository of ostensibly noble sentiments and ideals, born in fantasies of altruism, love and enduring peace, exists only to spread its tentacle-branches as far and wide as possible, maintaining a rigid system of repression and control. Indeed, the first verse encapsulates the entire notion of ideology, as it would eventually come to be understood by Marx, with remarkable efficiency: "Pity could no be no more/ If we did not make somebody poor." In other words, our noblest ideals can be understood as rooted in a reality of pain and exploitation for which we must assume responsibility.

More on Brecht and Blake.

The C-word

The great tower Moloch built for itself is about to fall. All we need to do is let it. Instead, political leaders all over the world, many of them well-meaning souls with the best of intentions, are struggling to find some means, any means, of propping it up. It's as though Goliath had stuffed himself so full that he'd collapsed of his own weight. And David were desperately trying to revive him, so the Philistines could reassuringly maintain the accustomed level of tyranny. Such is the power of the status quo, tradition, inertia, timidity, call it what you will.

President Obama is working on a plan. The Democrats are working on a somewhat different, probably better, plan. And the Republicans are -- well -- being Republicans. Some things never change. Columnist Bob Herbert, of the New York Times, wrote eloquently the other day about this rather quaint society of self-righteous fools and knaves, in an article titled The Same Old Song.
What’s up with the Republicans? Have they no sense that their policies have sent the country hurtling down the road to ruin? Are they so divorced from reality that in their delusionary state they honestly believe we need more of their tax cuts for the rich and their other forms of plutocratic irresponsibility, the very things that got us to this deplorable state?
He continues, writing very sensibly about the pickle we are now in, and the complicity of the Republicans in putting us there. But this is the passage that really got to me:
The question that I would like answered is why anyone listens to this crowd anymore. G.O.P. policies have been an absolute backbreaker for the middle class. (Forget the poor. Nobody talks about them anymore, not even the Democrats.) The G.O.P. has successfully engineered a wholesale redistribution of wealth to those already at the top of the income ladder and then, in a remarkable display of chutzpah, dared anyone to talk about class warfare.
Finally, someone in the mainstream liberal media has had the guts to invoke the dreaded words: "class warfare." To be safe, he puts the phrase in the mouth of the Republicans themselves. Fair enough, since they've been the only ones to even raise this issue. But what they, in their paranoia, see lurking in the deep dark recesses of Democratic party ideology, is exactly what is lacking in that ideology. In the daily barrage of media coverage on the economy and what's happened to it, the 800 pound gorilla lurking in the background is what no one wants to see.

The "wholesale redistribution of wealth" from the middle class to the "Masters of the Universe," accompanied by a relentless process of grinding the working class and the poor into the dust, has been going on for some time. It is not simply a result of the current economic meltdown. Too many people had been working for too long at too many $6 or $7 an hour "MacJobs" to support themselves, not to mention their families. (Barbara Ehrenreich has told this story with great eloquence -- and indignation.) Their only recourse was that credit card, what else could they be expected to do? And when they discovered that the house they were struggling to pay the mortgage on was apparently appreciating in value, well why not take advantage of the added equity to put a nice chunk of cash in their pockets by taking out a second mortgage? What these people didn't know was that the toxic debt they were being talked into accumulating at such an alarming rate was actually a commodity, to be bought and sold for literally billions in profit by the Masters of the Universe, who sliced it and diced into so many "tranches" no one knows any more how to keep track of it.

Already, back in 2006, at least one person was aware of what was happening -- and wasn't afraid to use the C-word. Amazingly enough this prescient individual was no less than the greatest "Master" of them all: Warren Buffet. A remarkable NY Times interview with Buffet actually had the dreaded word in its title: In Class Warfare, Guess Which Class Is Winning. This piece is definitely worth a read. Here's a sample:
Put simply, the rich pay a lot of taxes as a total percentage of taxes collected, but they don’t pay a lot of taxes as a percentage of what they can afford to pay, or as a percentage of what the government needs to close the deficit gap.

Mr. Buffett compiled a data sheet of the men and women who work in his office. He had each of them make a fraction; the numerator was how much they paid in federal income tax and in payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare, and the denominator was their taxable income. The people in his office were mostly secretaries and clerks, though not all.

It turned out that Mr. Buffett, with immense income from dividends and capital gains, paid far, far less as a fraction of his income than the secretaries or the clerks or anyone else in his office. Further, in conversation it came up that Mr. Buffett doesn’t use any tax planning at all. He just pays as the Internal Revenue Code requires. “How can this be fair?” he asked of how little he pays relative to his employees. “How can this be right?”

Even though I agreed with him, I warned that whenever someone tried to raise the issue, he or she was accused of fomenting class warfare.

“There’s class warfare, all right,” Mr. Buffett said, “but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”
So. Almost three years ago, it was evident even to Warren Buffett that something was very wrong. And, of course, the tax code was only one small part of the general assault of the wealthy and super-wealthy on the classes they perceived to be so far beneath them as hardly worth acknowledging at all.

(There's a lot more to this article, which, by the way, was written by someone who describes himself as a conservative. Here's the link again in case you missed it the first time: Class Warfare. The whole thing is definitely a must read for anyone trying to evaluate the latest bailout proposals, from both left and right.)

But the Masters finally outsmarted themselves. Their tower of greed has been shaken to its foundations and will soon crumble of its own weight. Since everyone on the left side of the congressional aisles is afraid of the C-word, however, what we are hearing over and over again is that by bailing out Wall St., we are also protecting "main street." Nothing could be further from the truth. Class differences are real. Class warfare is real. The 800 pound gorilla may still be lurking in the background. It's only when he decides to pounce that there will be any real hope for meaningful democratic change.

The tower must be allowed to fall.

Slum-Dog Millionaire

When I learned that many people see this year's leading Oscar contender, Slum-Dog Millionaire, as a "feel-good" movie, I was shocked and dismayed. The opening scenes especially were extremely difficult for me to take, to the point that I thought of leaving. Not because I found them offensive, but because I was so profoundly disturbed by the conditions that were so vividly and effectively portrayed.

As I see it, the B-movie plot twists, the unlikelihood of the questions fitting the hero's life experiences so closely, and the over-the-top "Bollywood" ending must be understood as ironic, almost surrealistic, commentaries on the absurdities and contradictions of life in India (and many other parts of the world) today, where so many different life styles, value systems, and economic conditions are so bizarrely -- and tragically -- juxtaposed. It is the vivid portrayal of this extreme culture clash that is the real heart of the film.

What kept going through my mind as I watched was Primo Levi's deeply moving and disturbing Holocaust memoir, "The Periodic Table," where every chapter is magically associated with an atomic element, in a manner very similar to the way the game show questions magically relate to similarly disturbing moments in the hero's past. In both cases an arbitrary device is used to give structure to chaotic experiences that might otherwise be too painful to deal with.

Picasso once said "art is a lie that makes you see the truth." In my opinion, Slum Dog is art on exactly that level. Great art.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Henry Miller on money

From Tropic of Capricorn:

To walk in money through the night crowd, protected by money, lulled by money, dulled by money, the crowd itself a money, the breath money, no least single object anywhere that is not money, money, money everywhere and still not enough, and then no money or a little money or less money or more money, but money, always money, and if you have money or you don’t have money it is the money that counts and money makes money, but what makes money make money?

Monday, January 26, 2009

The "S" word

I can’t believe anyone in his right mind is still thinking in terms of “recovery.” Recovery of what? What is it we think we can recover? And why is it we think we need to recover? The last thing the world needs is a return to the status quo ante, which would simply be a re-inflation of the same old bubble and the perpetuation of the same old Ponzi economics.

Also, why is it that everyone is so afraid of uttering the “s” word — as in socialism? The irony is that we are headed for some sort of socialist system sooner or later and as far as I’m concerned, the sooner the better. Like it or not, socialism is coming. We are already halfway there. De facto socialism, born of the monumental abuses of laissez faire capitalism.

The “free market capitalist” center cannot hold. So why not start thinking NOW about what that means. And what the possibilities are.


As he moved in toward her she slowly backed away.
As he looked into her eyes she averted her gaze.
When he spoke softly she was already speaking to another.
As he touched her face she brushed his hand away.

He moved in toward her but she moved away from him.
He reached out for her but she drew in more to herself.
Reaching for her he held his hand out toward her.
But her hand moved back reaching for the door behind her.

He held her shoulder and boldly pulled her toward him.
She pulled back leaning toward the door behind her.
As he moved in toward her and moved his hand below her shoulder,
She moved her shoulder back against the door behind her.

As he moved in toward her and looked into her eyes,
Her eyes closed slowly and she slowly averted her gaze.
As he touched her hair softly slowly stroking the strands.
She pulled back slowly but a strand moved toward him.

He held the strand and pulled it slowly toward him.
And as he did she moved in his direction,
Speaking softly as she moved in toward him.
And placed her soft hand softly on him,
Moving her shoulder tight against his shoulder.
But he was already looking at another.

What is Poetry?

"What is poetry? And if not what is poetry then what is prose?" That's probably the best general definition. Gertrude Stein.

Neil Simon came dangerously close when he had a character in the Sunshine Boys explain how some words are funny and others aren't:
Words with a 'k' in it are funny. Alkaseltzer is funny. Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny. All with a 'k'. 'L's are not funny. 'M's are not funny. Cupcake is funny. Tomatoes is not funny. Lettuce is not funny. Cucumber's funny. Cab is funny. Cockroach is funny -- not if you get 'em, only if you say 'em.
Poetry is a lot like that. Certain words have poetry and others don't. "Poetic" words, like "oft" or "plash" or "liminal" or "azure," etc. are definitely NOT poetry. Simple words can be poetry, but only when they fit together in exactly the right way.

I wish I had a big old hog
And corn to feed him on
And Shady Grove to stay at home
And feed him when I'm gone.

That's not only poetry, it's great poetry. It's also economics. In fact it's a perfect demonstration of how poetry and economics are fundamentally the same. Notice, by the way, that money is never mentioned. All that's needed is the hog, the corn, the worker -- and unfortunately, the boss (actually the boss isn't really needed -- that's poetic license).

"Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments." That's NOT poetry. "Ding dong bell." That's poetry.

Swift's epitaph is poetry:
Hic depositum est Corpus
Huyus Ecclesiæ Cathedralis
Ubi sæva Indignatio
Cor lacerare nequit,
Abi Viator
Et imitare, si poteris,
Strenuum pro virili
Libertatis Vindicatorem.
Here lies the body of
Jonathan Swift,
Dean of this Cathedral,
Where savage indignation
Cannot lacerate his heart anymore.

Go, traveler,
And imitate, if you can,
One who to the utmost
Strenuously championed
Human liberty.
So, as we can see, poetry is also politics.

Probably the greatest poetic couplet ever written is from "Rising Sun Blues," as performed by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee:
Whichaway whichaway, does that blood Red River run
From my back window, straight to thee rising sun.

Which brings me to the destructive power of poetry. Great poetry can literally blow you away. Which is why it can be so powerful. And so important a tool, if we want to change the world.

Ultimately there is only one great poem and it goes like this:



Here's how anthropologist Clifford Geertz defined religion:
a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating concepts of a general order of existence and clothing these concepts with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.
Colin Renfrew, in his recently published book, Prehistory, quotes Geertz, adding:
Clearly money is just such a system, for not even the most resolute atheist could doubt its existence. . . But what exactly is money? At first sight it seems symbolic. . . . While the nations of the world were still on the gold standard, it could be argued that . . . paper money, the symbol (the dollar bill) represented the thing signified (the gold sovereign). That was so then, but it is no longer the case today: we have left the gold standard. So paper money does not have intrinsic value, nor is it precisely clear what it represents.
Now, over and over again, we hear that the real problem facing us is the need to restore "confidence." But confidence in what? If a Ponzi scheme is a confidence racket, and if, as many are now beginning to realize, our whole financial system for a great many years now, has been little more than a huge Ponzi scheme, then the restoration of confidence can have only one purpose: the perpetuation of the bubble for as long as possible into the future. Which is in fact what the current "experts" seem to be telling us needs to be done -- only this time by the government, operating as a kind of legal surrogate for all the Bernie Madoffs who no longer have the funds to perpetuate their own versions of the scheme. Which returns us to religion, I suppose. Since that too is based on unquestioning faith unto perpetuity.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


You might think this blog is about economics and politics. It's not. It's about poetry. Everything you see here is poetry. For example, this, by Alan Ginsberg, Part II of Howl:

What sphinx of cement and aluminium bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?

Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!

Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless! Mental Moloch! Moloch the heavy judger of men!

Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgement! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!

Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!

Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovas! Moloch whose factories dream and choke in the fog! Moloch whose smokestacks and antennae crown the cities!

Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks! Moloch whose poverty is the specter of genius! Moloch whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen! Moloch whose name is the Mind!

Moloch in whom I sit lonely! Moloch in whom I dream angels! Crazy in Moloch! Cocksucker in Moloch! Lacklove and manless in Moloch!

Moloch who entered my soul early! Moloch in whom I am a consciousness without a body! Moloch who frightened me out of my natural ecstasy! Moloch whom I abandon! Wake up in Moloch! Light streaming out of the sky!

Moloch! Moloch! Robot apartments! invisable suburbs! skeleton treasuries! blind capitals! demonic industries! spectral nations! invincible madhouses! granite cocks! monstrous bombs!

They broke their backs lifting Moloch to Heaven! Pavements, trees, radios, tons! lifting the city to Heaven which exists and is everywhere about us!

Visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles! ecstacies! gone down the American river!

Dreams! adorations! illuminations! religions! the whole boatload of sensitive bullshit!

Breakthroughs! over the river! flips and crucifixions! gone down the flood! Highs! Epiphanies! Despairs! Ten years' animal screams and suicides! Minds! New loves! Mad generation! down on the rocks of Time!

Real holy laughter in the river! They saw it all! the wild eyes! the holy yells! They bade farewell! They jumped off the roof! to solitude! waving! carrying flowers! Down to the river! into the street!

Definitions of Moloch:
a tyrannical power to be propitiated by human subservience or sacrifice;
god of the Canaanites and Phoenicians to whom parents sacrificed their children

The Field

In Memorium:

Has money become irrelevant?

There is an important difference between deficit spending to bail out the financial industry, which adds no value to the economy — and is in fact parasitical upon it — and deficit spending to support badly needed infrastructure projects, which is an investment in the future. However, we are at a point well beyond anything encountered in the past that could serve as a useful precedent. Thanks to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, plus huge tax cuts for the wealthy, plus general mismanagement of the economy by the Bush administration, we were already running a huge deficit prior to the current meltdown. Now, with plans in place to extend the deficit into the trillions, and no end in sight, there is a very real danger of reaching a point of no return that would precipitate a tsunami of runaway inflation such as the world has never seen.

Even under present conditions it is beginning to look very much like the whole concept of a money-driven economy no longer makes much sense. When a single individual such as Bernie Madoff can burn 50 billion dollars into thin air, all that money begins to look more and more unreal — and irrelevant. Is this a monumental disaster or a moment of truth? Is money in fact real, which would make this a true calamity -— or unreal, which would make both the money — and the calamity — some sort of grand illusion. In other words, are we facing disaster simply because we feel impelled to perpetuate a fundamentally primitive faith?

When I see phrases such as “we have to get banks lending to one another again,” or “we have to get consumers buying again,” the utter folly of the situation becomes all too clear. What other recourse will there ever be than simply re-inflating the same old credit balloon that led us to the present impasse? Isn’t it clear that what is needed is a complete restructuring of the economy under radically different lines?

The following proverb keeps running through my head these days: “When money becomes God, we will discover that, like God, we can do without it.” I’m not sure exactly what that means, but there does seem to be some truth in it.

E Pluribus Unum

Here's what the LAST POETS have to say about the god called "money" (courtesy of youtube):

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall

The fantasy driving the thinking of both liberal and conservative economists alike is that the good old “free market” system could be revived, if only the correct methods are applied. It can’t. Humpty Dumpty has been sliced and diced into millions of little pieces (tranches?) and all the president’s liberals and all the president’s conservatives will never put Humpty together again. (Even if they could, the revived, re-inflated monster would very soon topple over again, with an even more resounding splat.)

Unfortunately no one in American politics today has the guts to challenge the old thinking and promote the sort of change that could turn things around in a meaningful and positive way. It’s only after the present economic collapse has lead to devastating social consequences — in other words, only after people are literally starving in the streets by the millions — that the necessary pressure will build for a completely new way of doing things, a new economics and a new politics both.

The great irony of our present situation is that nothing real has been destroyed. What’s gone up in smoke was a fantasy, an “American Dream” phony from the start. Every house whose sub-prime mortgage has been foreclosed is still standing, despite the toxic assets generated by the system that financed it. People can still live in those houses. But that will be possible only when we awaken from our “free market” dream to look around us with renewed vision.
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