Tuesday, January 27, 2009

I'm On My Own

John Updike is dead. Who'll keep me company over the next 20 years or so?

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Great Depression

I was born in a Texas Gulf Coast town during the Depression, right before the war. My grandmother was Italian and my grandfather was an Irish cop. My father was a bohunk from Pennsylvania who was in the Army when he met my mother. He got out of the Army, cut grass and delivered ice until my grandfather got him a job on the force. He went back into the Army after Pearl Harbor and ended up occupying Japan. My mother had a half-brother, my uncle Bill, who was in the Army Air Corps when the war started. He was the toughest man I ever knew.

My mother and I lived with my grandparents in their house down by the docks. During the Depression, my mother says, my grandfather used to bring home groceries and meat he got from the grocers and butchers on his beat. We'd share the food with my grandmother's sisters and brothers and their families sometimes. My mother emptied bed pans at the hospital down the street until she got a job with the Corps of Engineers.

I don't remember any of that. I remember card games in the dining room, listening to people talking and laughing while I fell asleep, a paper jack-o-lantern that caught fire, and falling off the back porch. Later, I remember the lights were off at night along the beach because of the German submarines in the Gulf. When my dad came home from Japan, he brought me a sword.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Fresh Kills

Barack Obama estimates his economic stimulus plan will create or save as many as four million jobs over the next two years. Obama's economic advisors say 678,000 of those jobs will be in the construction industry and 408,000 of the jobs will be in manufacturing, two sectors that have been hit hard by the recession and financial system meltdown.

Critics of Mr. Obama's plan have pointed to its lack of details and questioned whether it will provide enough government spending to turn the economy around. A recent New York Times article, for example, questioned the size of the proposed stimulus package, and took note of the fact that no one knows whether fiscal policy works or not. The article noticed that Christina Romer, Obama's chief economic advisor, had previously argued that monetary policy is the most powerful force in economic recoveries and that "fiscal stimulus generally acts too slowly to be of much help in pulling the economy out of recessions."

The view that monetary policy can halt a recession has been discredited by a number of prominent economists, including Paul Krugman, and, apparently, as Mr. Obama's chief economic advisor, Ms. Romer has lost her faith in monetary policy. So we, Keynesians all, will soon stumble through the darkness like a long line of blindfolded clowns, chanting: I believe in fiscal policy, and in the multiplier, and in the accelerator, world without end, amen.

And, Lo, money will be spent. On mining and construction. On manufacturing. On all of the things in Table 4 on page 8 of the 14-page economic analysis, provided by Mr. Obama's economic advisors: Job Creation Of Recovery Package By Industry.

The Congress, together with the executive branch and state and local governments, will decide over the next two years exactly how the money will be spent, but it doesn't matter how the money is spent, as long as it provides enough income to enough people to stimulate aggregate demand and raise the expectations of enough consumers and businesses to create positive feedback, i.e., economic growth. As Mr. Krugman has pointed out correctly, Keynes himself thought it might be better if government spent money on useful things, but it would work just as well if government buried sacks of money at the bottom of mines, filled the mines with municipal garbage, then paid the private sector to dig the money up.

Rising expectations is what we want. Sustainable rising expectations. Expectations of employment, income and profits. We need to know that a lot of money is going to be spent, and we need to know it will be spent long enough to get the American economy growing again.

I have a proposal. Since it doesn't matter what we spend the taxpayer's money on, let's spend some of it on things that will never get done otherwise. Let's take a big chunk of that stimulus money and do some things that need to be done that nobody wants to do. The kinds of things it's impossible to do in ordinary times. The kinds of things we know we should do, but know we never will.

Fresh Kills dump on Staten Island is the largest landfill in the world. It is so full of toxic waste and chemicals that just the liability inherent in trying to remove and relocate that poison waste makes cleaning up Fresh Kills an impossible project for anyone except the Federal Government.

So, let's put Fresh Kills on the list. Let's take some of that stimulus cash and clean up Fresh Kills and other landfills across America. Then, even if fiscal policy doesn't work as quickly or as completely as we hope it will, we'll have gotten something real and lasting out of this tragic time.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Stasis

What's fascinating about an academic like Stanley Fish deigning to share his views on the best American films with us is not so much his arrogance as it is his ignorance. But there are clues here about Fish and about the Obama world to come, so it's worth taking a minute to explore how far out of touch with reality selective perception can put us.

Here's Fish on The Best Years Of Our Lives, a William Wyler film that Fish considers the best American film ever made.
The three intertwined stories are resolved with a measure of optimism, but with more than a residue of disappointment and bitterness. Al Stephenson is still a drunk. Fred Derry is still poor and without skills. Homer Parrish still has no hands.
Still. As in stasis. As in nothing has changed.

I think not.

Al may be a drunk, but he's a drunk making loans to GIs, based on their character and his own judgment. Fred may be poor and without skills, but he's not a soda jerk anymore. He's just landed a job beating swords into plowshares and building post-war America. And Homer Parrish may still have no hands, but, by the end of the film, it's Homer's girlfriend helping him into his PJs instead of his dad.

That's narrative. That's character development. And if it's not great film, it is solid literature.

Flip it on its head. If a guy like Fish can't see that the characters in a film he thinks is the best American movie ever made are changing in front of his eyes, can we expect him to see that Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, people he thinks are a couple of the solidist citizens around, haven't changed at all? They're still the over-privileged white kids who couldn't make it in the Civil Rights and anti-war movements and set out on their own, starting a two-bit, terrorist organization that ended up making zero difference, except to the people who got hurt and killed by the Weathermen. Just a couple of saps with a dumb idea who've never owned up to their sappiness or the dumbness of their idea.

Cut to Europe, where Government officials and Jewish leaders are concerned that the conflict in Gaza may spill over into violence in Europe as attacks are reported against Jews and synagogues in France, Sweden and Britain.

But, what the hell? Those people, according to Mr. Ayers' and Ms. Dohrn's sappy code, are honor bound to attack those Jews, aren't they?

Years from now, they might even wish they had done more.

But don't get me wrong. I could care less about the Weathermen. I thought they were entertaining. I wasn't political in the '60s. By 1967, I had tuned in, turned on and dropped out. I wasn't looking for a street fight, I was looking for sex, drugs and rock and roll. I was looking for long hair, long legs and conical breasts that year. It was much later that I realized, stoned and watching Nixon on TV, that even the President Of The United States could go insane. Then panic set in until Tim Leary told me a few years later not to worry about the government, the people who were stealing hub caps at the Atlanta film festival a couple of years ago were now running it. I decided to join them.

So you tell me. Should I worry about the Obama administration or not?

This Must Be Ennui

I'm not looking forward to the new year. Mostly, I think it's going to be boring.

On a personal level, the year will be about navigating the narrow path between insecurity and opportunity during a recession. On a more general or political level, a national and international level, it will be about the first year of the Obama administration, the first year of a government mostly controlled by the Democratic Party.

After the primaries and the election, the prospect of an Obama Presidency seems so anti-climactic. This must be ennui.

I haven't been able to bring myself to read any of the lists of the most important, good and bad, events of 2008 the mainstream media has floated. I haven't been able to bring myself to read any of the predictions for 2009. And, in the middle of the most serious economic recession of my adult life, with the world's financial system in crisis and Israeli troops deep inside Gaza -- that seems so sexual -- I read, but don't have the inclination to talk about important articles like Lewis and Einhorn's The End Of The Financial World As We Know It.

Instead, I find myself drawn to an academic piece of fluff by Stanley Fish, bombastically styled: The 10 Best American Movies.

I don't know Professor Fish, but, after looking at his list of American movies and reading his biography, I don't think his take on American cinema is very interesting. What is interesting is that I knew right off that if I googled Stanley Fish and Bill Ayers, I was going to find something. As a matter of fact, my google search didn't let me get any further than Stanley Fish and Bill, before it suggested Stanley Fish and Bill Ayers.

It turns out that Professor Fish is one of those Chicago academics and intellectuals who have been instrumental in rehabilitating Bill Ayers' reputation.

I missed Fish's Much Ado, Mush Ado?, piece about Ayers last year, and I'm glad I did. With the election settled and Obama's so-called "guilt by association" no longer an issue, I can see that Obama's lack of interest in American history and the social and political issues of the '60s is less important than the kind of men and women he has embraced and been embraced by in return. These are the people who will make up the "Obama administration." They will be the architects and re-builders of American government during the Obama years.

Academic, irrelevant and boring one and all.