THE OPTIMISTIC ECONOMIC NEWS
The administration takes great pride in announcing the meteoric rise of American productivity last month. Eight percent annualized. Miraculous, they say.
Six weeks ago I got a clarification of coverage from my insurance company. I get one or two of these a year. It's basically a list of procedures that are no longer covered. Last month I got a notice that my insurance rates were going up by a thousand bucks a year. I got one of these last year as well.
Let's assume this is happening to everybody. Let's assume half the people in the country are insured. In 2001, the per capita GDP was about $27,000. If the insurance companies take in an extra thou from each insured person and don't hire anybody new and don't provide additional services, then national productivity goes up by 1.85%. The government reports an increase in prosperity even though I have less money for food, less money for shelter and less money for clothing AND less medical coverage than I had last year. Not only that, but the fact that I now have less coverage boosts the productivity number even more, since the insurance companies are providing less product.
On paper we look more prosperous, but in actual fact we have less of everything.
The term "jobless recovery" is one favored by the White House, and it refers to an increase in productivity by American business. Well, if General Motors shuts down its assembly lines, lays off a bunch of workers and starts selling off its back inventory, then the productivity is going to jump way up even if sales are way down.
And then after three months of selling off the inventory, they crank up the assembly lines again and even if they are only producing at half the rate they were before the layoffs the productivity number will drop, but the productivity number will not be reported this time. The White House will say that the economy is expanding because there has been an "increase in orders for durable goods." They'll be able to pull this stuff for a while, juicing up one economic indicator at a time at the expense of the rest just so they'll have some good economic news to spin. I'm figuring they can juggle the indicators for about five more quarters until things get so weak even the faithful will begin to question. That should take them through the election, but around February or March of 2005 we're going to be forced to face some unpleasant economic realities. Anybody want to bet they'll blame Clinton?
The optimistic economic news out of Washington just smells phony. Is anybody scrutinizing these numbers? And while we're at it, how did a net 80,000 job loss in September get restated into a 70,000 job net gain? When was the last time the originally reported employment numbers were that drastically wrong?
OKLAHOMA v. LSU
The BCS superbrain was supposed to decide definitively which college team is number one at the end of the season. Apparently we have discovered a flaw in the system because one of the teams chosen to play in the championship game got beat by 28 points its last time out and isn't even the champion of its own conference.
RTJ -- 12/06/03
HUNTING AND FISHING AND EATING
Hunting and fishing and eating your kill is good for the soul. The act of fishing gives me a feeling of independence and self-reliance and accomplishment that I can't get any other way. You learn patience. You learn to observe. You learn about yourself. How much cold is uncomfortable and how much is dangerous? You learn to exercise care around guns and knives and barbed hooks and other dangerous-but-usefull things. You gain an appreciation for your ancestors, who subsisted on a pretty basic technology. You gain an appreciation for the fact that your meat comes from animals that are killed, a fact that gets glossed over when you order a Happy Meal.
It's only a feeling, though. Never forget that it's all fake. Those trout are only there because the government puts them there year after year. Those trout are hatched and raised in long cement bathtubs and fed by federal employees and then are delivered to the rivers that have been dammed such that the native species can no longer survive. Even the best trout fisherman in Arkansas is catching pet fish. Those deer and elk and ducks are only there because the state game wardens enforce limits that keep them from being all killed off like they were before, back in the 1920's.
So if you're thinking that hunting and fishing can be used to get your community through hard times, you can forget it. If things ever got that bad, things would be so bad that the budgets to keep fish in the water and game in the forest would have long since dried up.
It's great to fish and hunt and learn flintknapping and tanning and all the other things and tell yourself that if worse came to worse you could live off the land like a mountain man. And you're likely to be right, but only hypothetically; because EVERYbody can't live off the land. We've got ten times the population we had eighty years ago when the game was all but hunted out in the Ouachita and the Ozarks.
RTJ -- 12/10/03
ABC NBC CBS DW BBC
Sometimes I watch the network news and then check cspan for DW and the BBC.
The US Network news stories tend to focus more on individuals and their emotional responses to the polls about the news. "How does the vote on medicare make you feel? What does the war on terror mean to this average joe that we picked out of the phone book? Here's the latest poll on consumer confidence." The foreign news is much drier tends to focus more on facts and figures. The video images on the American news are much more dynamic with lots of people running around hollering, lots of loud noises and intense colors. The video I see on DW and BBC would never be shown on MTV.
FOOTBALL BACK IN THE DAY
When I was a kid and football was 90% a white man's sport, the student athletes on scholarship got room, board, tuition, books and maybe a summer job. Other than regional pride and alumni donations, which tended to be higher during winning seasons, there wasn't much at stake. A season was ten games long, eleven if you were in a bowl game. Every bowl game was a big one because each one was hosted by a conference champion.
Today football is 90% a black man's sport and the student athletes on scholarship get room, board, tuition, books and maybe a summer job. The money is huge. Television contracts are huge. Football uniforms and stadiums are crowded with ads a la NASCAR. Licensing of logos for sportswear and big foam "number one" fingers is huge. A season is twelve games PLUS a championship (if you're in a big conference like the SEC) PLUS a bowl game, most of which pit one mediocre team against another.
The teams are made to play 27% more games, take more time away from school and risk more injury, all so somebody else can make more money.
I have to say I respect Vanderbilt's position.
WES CLARK'S CAMPAIGN
He advocates government supported day care starting at age 4. I swear I didn't even see Hillary's lips move.
RTJ -- 12/15/03
PETE ROSE COMES CLEAN
Several things about this episode bother me. First is the offer made by MLB, if Rose admits he's a scoundrel, he's back in the club. If he persists in his claim that he is an honorable man, he's banished forever. Is this a club you want to be in, Shoeless Joe?
Second, we heard the accusations and saw the punishment, but the evidence and testimony is held privately by the baseball commission. They say that Rose not only bet on baseball, but did so hundreds of times. If they've really and truly hands down got one hundred percent proof of HUNDREDS of bets on MLB games, then there are no circumstances that would justify his reinstatement. Especially not a confession. For a commissioner to make such an offer under those circumstances would be an outrage.
Third, this confession is no less coerced than one by the inquisition. Rose endured fourteen years of punishment and then "confessed" in hopes of making it stop. Then Fay goes on TV and says he read the book and he thinks that Rose isn't sorry enough. The offer of clemency was phony. The confession is phony.
Rose might be guilty of what he's accused of, but this confession obtained after fourteen years of torment is not good evidence.
RTJ -- 1/7/04
THE PRESIDENT'S SOCIAL SECURITY PLAN
President Bush is proposing that people be allowed to earmark a portion of their Social Security taxes for investment in the stock market. Danger! Red Flag! This is a trap! If this gets approved, the government can use a severe downturn in the stock market to explain away the disappearance of vast sums from the Social Security system. In the worst case, this tactic could be used to screen the looting of the reserves or to dissolve Social Security outright and suspend payments to seniors. The Bush plan would make the stock market the patsy.
Here's another potential problem. The proposed social security mutual fund would instantly be the largest managed fund in the world. What would happen if the fund manager decided to buy a million shares of Haliburton one day? The price would instantly be so far out in advance of of the book value that other shareholders would be fools to hold their positions. They sell. The price drops. The fund manager sells. The price drops more. The former stockholders repurchase their positions at bargain basement prices.
Think it can't happen here? You think your elected leaders are above engineering a colossal pump-and-dump? You just let W get away with this one and watch it happen.
HERE'S HOW DUMB I AM
When I was in grad school I managed the box office for the university theatre. Over the course of two years cash was stolen from the box office on maybe a half dozen occasions. Probably less than five hundred dollars altogether. Two people had keys to the box office. Myself and my faculty advisor. Here's how dumb I am. I didn't suspect either one of us.
It's even worse than that. I was forty years old before I realized that I had to have been suspect number one. I thought I had a reputation for scrupulous honesty, and in fact I thought I was really and truly scrupulously honest. This despite the fact that my roommate showed me how to rig a cable box to steal pay channels and I later rigged somebody else's cable box the same way and accepted twenty bucks for the favor.
So I was honest and I wasn't. Like everybody I know, I had gerrymandered my ethical boundaries. I never stole a nickel from the box office, but back when cable was new, we were used to getting TV for free. Charging for it seemed like banditry. But of course that's a rationalization and I can't really say for sure what I was thinking twenty years ago. The box stayed rigged only a month or two. The pay channels were just as boring as the basic package.
I always wondered why I was kicked out of the academic program but was invited to stay on and run the box office. I always wondered why my faculty advisor kept me in the box office even though cash disappeared from time to time. I assumed this was proof that I was not a suspect, but now it strikes me that I was a valuable patsy for somebody. The fact that I knew how to rig the cable boxes made me seem like just the type who would pilfer.
Now back to the main point, which is that we are often blind to our own petty hypocrisies. I could tell similar stories about everybody I know, but I've got so few friends that I can't afford to piss anybody off. So, as anonymously as possible, here goes:
I know a guy who presents himself as an outdoorsman and nature lover, yet he won't go hiking in warm weather any more because last year he got a spider bite. I know a store manager who wouldn't think of cheating his boss, but wouldn't hesitate to repackage merchandise exchanged on warranty and sell it as new. I know a woman who is very proud that "I learn something new every day," but when asked what she learned today, yesterday, this week this month; the answer is nothing nothing nothing.
As far as I can tell, nobody in the world is looking in a flat mirror. As distorted as our view of the world is, the view is most distorted when we look at ourselves. Not that we always see the opposite of what we really are, but to make the point I picked the most dramatically contrasting examples. I looked in the mirror and saw the trustworthy box office manager. All my colleagues saw the sneaky cable box tamperer. Both pictures were true but they give opposite impressions.
THE DEMOCRATIC NOMINATION
I might have figured out why we hear a lot about gamesmanship at this point in the election process and none of the candidates says much about public policy. It might be just that this is what the news reports, but as of now it's all about personality, charisma, biography, resume, character and image.
But maybe it's not an artifact of the way news gets reported. Each of these candidates has a core constituency that is devoted to some little nugget of public policy, some little cluster of issues. As these minor candidates drop by the wayside, they'll toss their constituencies to watever stronger candidate will accomodate their stand on those issues. So if Dean doesn't seem to have a completed platform, it's because he's hoping to incorporate the Kerry plank at some point and the Clark plank at some point. If he takes a stand that is utterly incompatible with the position of the core constituency of one of the other candidates, then he's writing off that support for the future.
So if you don't know where they stand on public policy it's because they haven't told you yet; and that's because they themselves won't know until they have put together what amounts to a coalition government which will stand for election.
They needn't bother. The democratic candidates might as well come on out and speak their minds. This year the electorate is going to be polarized around Bush. You're either inspired or appalled at the prospect of four more years of Bush/Cheney. Folks will be voting for Bush or against Bush, so the usually delicate matter of assembling support from all over political creation is not so much a factor this year.
If I had the ear of Democratic strategists, I would suggest that they save their cash for the election and urge the primary candidates fight each other cheap and clean and not so often that you wear out your audience.
RTJ -- 1/18/04
MACDONALDS HEIRESS DONATES $1.5 BILLION TO SALVATION ARMY
I don't want to detract from the good intentions of the donor, but here is another perspective on just what $1.5B means to a big corporation which employs armies of minimum wage workers.
That money represents a 75 cent per hour raise for one year for ONE MILLION MINIMUM WAGE BURGER FLIPPERS. If you want to help the needy, there they are in YOUR stores doing YOUR menial work to make YOU rich. These are people trying hard to make a living in a system that is set up to make sure that humble work is humiliating. If a million of these people got that raise of $1500 a year, then there might not be so many people showing up on the doorsteps at the Salvation Army.
Andrew Carnegie gave away fortunes to build public libraries to improve the lot of the common folk. Yet there were huge numbers common folk working long hours in dangerous conditions for low wages in order to create that wealth that he gave away. When they went on strike, Carnegie left the country and his management team hired thugs to assault the strikers. John D. Rockefeller's bunch was not so different. I don't want to imply that these megafoundations don't do some social good, but there are social ills involved in the creation of some of these megafoundations.
The Waltons and the Tysons are two examples from Arkansas. They all give away giant stacks of money every year, and the acquisition of those stacks of money relies on a large number of low paid people who do the actual work.
There is a kind of charity that's aimed at cleaning up the mess made by the failures of business and government and the market and the churches. Charity is a symptom of the failure of the conventional social mechanisms. It's us collectively saying, "We can't fix this with education and we can't promise them equal justice and we're not going to pay them a living wage when we can get away with paying them the going rate. Let's just give them soup. I don't know what then problem is. We pay them seven dollars an hour and they get no health care. You'd think that would motivate them."
On the other hand, when you read the justifications boards of directors give for lavish executive compensation packages, you discover that it takes a million bucks a year to motivate an executive, while seven bucks an hour should motivate that flipper at the fry machine.
Here's some conventional wisdom that the evidence disputes. You're told by your elders and your betters to tell the truth, be open, honest, genuine and guilless. Eschew affectation. In short, be yourself and everybody will like you just fine.
If that is so, why does every political candidate, big time entertainer and public figure have pollsters, image consultants, publicists, handlers and puppeteers managing their public impressions? Dean gave a pulpit-pounding red-faced speech after Iowa. Commentators on the national news said it made him look angry. The next speech he gave he seemed sedate and contrite. Do you think his image molders advised him to be himself or to stop being himself?
When I was in college (not the one mentioned above, another one) I worked briefly on a campaign for a guy named John Anderson, who built a following based on being blunt, candid, discomfitingly outspoken. As soon as he got to about twelve percent in the polls, his handlers had him tone down his rhetoric in order to expand his appeal to a larger and less discontented demographic.
Right after that his core following dissolved.
Be yourself. Good one. It might be the best policy, but the big boys don't act as if they believe in it. They sing one tune and dance to another.
RTJ -- 1/20/04
ILLUMINATI AND CONSPIRACY THEORIES
Bush is Skull and Bones. Kerry is Skull and Bones. Lieberman is a jew. Clark's dad was a jew. Dean's wife is a jew. I can't wait to see what the conspiracy theorists make out of this election.
RTJ -- 14/25/04Arkansas Travelogue home page | Matters Literary | Short Rants I | Short Rants II | Short Rants III |Short Rants IV | Short Rants V | Short Rants VI | Short Rants VII