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Minto-Brown Island Park and the Problem of Capitalism

28 Feb

The wind howled at the park yesterday. I had to stand up on my pedals to make any progress against it while it blew unimpeded across some of the park’s open cropland directly into my face. Somehow an osprey’s nest clung atop a platform on a pole in the center of the fallow winter field. The rushing air thundered like a freight train through the towering row of black cottonwoods, alders, and oaks that loomed between me and the Willamette River. The rain was an hour or two away.

In the past ten years I can’t tell you how many miles I’ve ridden a bicycle along the trails and paths in Minto-Brown Island Park. Thousands would not be an exaggeration. Sometimes the wind overwhelms me like yesterday. Occasionally I encounter floods. But mostly there’s beauty and calm in the lovely and ever changing place I am lucky enough to experience not far from my doorstep.

Minto-Brown is an 898 acre urban park on the southern haunch of the Willamette River as it bends northward through the Oregon state capital. Minto, as most locals call it, is bigger than New York City’s Central Park, but a bit smaller than San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Unlike either of those gems, Minto has few amenities. It’s a place to walk your dog, run or ride its trails. There are no museums. No restaurants. No carousel.

Yet, just a mile or so north of Minto is Riverfront Park, a 17-acre greenway with a museum, a carousel, and so much more, and it’s butted up against the capital’s downtown with its wide array of restaurants and shops. Connecting the two parks is logical and natural.

Indeed, the effort is well along. But given that the Willamette River is a commercial waterway, you need more than the run-of-the-mill environmental impact report to connect the two parks. The Coast Guard has to give its nod as well. That doesn’t come easily when there’s an ongoing business plying the river whose existence might be affected by the bridge proposed to link Riverfront with Minto.

I am sympathetic to anyone whose enterprise is put at risk when a community wishes to improve its environment. Too often those changes are motivated by powerful commercial interests dangling jobs and tax revenues in front of local politicians. In this case the connecting of Minto and Riverfront parks, which everyone agrees will uplift downtown businesses and attract thousands more visitors to the area, involves only one business.

Because of that single business (a paddlewheel steamboat that cruises the Willamette while serving diners), in order to connect Minto and Riverfront the community needs to build a bridge that accommodates the boat’s current pattern moseying around the river. Now I don’t know why the boat’s owner won’t alter his cruise pattern, but his refusal means the community is considering a connector between the parks whose costs range from $3 million to $11 million. All more than the dining establishment is worth.

Here is a classic case of business holding a community hostage. Mostly, we hear about major corporations demanding extra tax breaks or threatening to leave a city or state. Sometimes, though, it’s just a single small businessman who only considers his selfish interests and not his community.

Of course, that’s supposed to be the beauty of free-market capitalism in theory. If everyone pursues his own selfish interests then everyone will come out ahead. Except, in the real world outside of textbooks where people actually live, selfish capitalists big and small, all-too-often make the lives of their neighbors far, far worse than they could be.

And, somehow, capitalism’s defenders wonder why, oh, why, are businessmen so often depicted as the bad guys by Hollywood? It’s easy. Because so often they are the bad guy.

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Give Reagan to the Right

11 Feb

Ring-wing conservatives in America have a major problem. They stand with hands on hearts, tears in eyes, and proudly proclaim their patriotism. Yet, there is no great president in U.S. history that they can call their own.

Look at the major presidents, the significant ones who remain in the public mind as substantial characters of the past: even if the details are a bit murky in most people’s minds, not one of the top five U.S. presidents can be considered a conservative in the mold of today’s Republican party. If anything, the Big Five great presidents were all on the progressive edge of their era and, arguably, ours; something even most Democrats these days can’t claim.

Consider:

George Washington led an army in revolution against his king. He then took the helm of a new republic and willingly stepped down from power. He warned his countrymen against foreign entanglements in his Farewell Address. And while he supported the institution throughout his life, he did the right thing by freeing his slaves upon his wife’s death. This was not a man who wasted his time dreaming about an idyl of some false bygone years. He  was a true believer in the primacy of progress.

The next great president by consensus would be Thomas Jefferson. The author of the Declaration of Independence. A voice for the yeoman farmer. An intellectual. A Deist. Not a conservative idol, by any means.

Following Jefferson in the public mind would be Abraham Lincoln. Freed the slaves with his Emancipation Proclamation. Defeated the South, something the racist wing of the Republican party denies to this day. While perhaps the greatest Republican ever, he’s not one that its contemporary membership will embrace in a big way because it would kill its aggrieved white male, Southern appeal.

Oddly, the next first-rate White House denizen, Theodore Roosevelt, is another Republican who also fails the contemporary GOP sniff test. The rabidly libertarian wing of the Republican party hates TR for his famous trust-busting and the establishment of the National Parks. Transgressions all. Regulating business is an affront to their Ayn Rand sensibilities; while Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and the rest of the magnificent jewels among our National Parks are not worth the price of another government agency in their simple minds. Nope. He won’t do at all. Too progressive.

Like it or not, and conservatives don’t, the next great president on anyone’s list would be TR’s distant cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Can you imagine America without Social Security, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Security and Exchange Commission, and so much more? Fringe Republicans would like to, of course, but no one else would. And can you imagine how World War II would have gone if either Wendell Wilkie or Thomas Dewey, who ran against FDR in 1940 and 1944, respectively, had been commander in chief? You’d probably be speaking either German or Japanese, depending on which coast you lived on.

After FDR, I’d argue no one matches up to the Big Five. Some might vote for Truman or Kennedy, and an argument can be made for both, but I don’t think they fully rise to the Big Five level. Yet, it’s interesting to note that even these two men would be labeled as progressives in their day and ours.

Think about it: not a single conservative president ranks among the great ones. Americans revere presidents who have led the nation forward, not backward. That must really rankle conservative Republicans, who want to drag the nation back to some phantasmagoric past that somehow has escaped the history books. Even should a GOP conservative of today ascend to the Oval office, his very principles are likely to condemn him to the middling and tainted ranks of Hayes, Harrison, Harding, Nixon, and (pick your) Bush.

So the right wing is desperate for Reagan to be seen as one of the greats. They have no one else who comes close. And, to be honest, Reagan barely achieves the stature or competence of Truman or Kennedy. During the centennial of his birth his obvious weaknesses have been jumped on by mean-spirited progressives who see Reagan as a failure or as someone they mock as anathema to the current GOP Weltanshauung.

Progressives should let go of their antipathy to Reagan. Although a telegenic, while mediocre president, he was, after all, a pragmatic one, which is a lesson in itself. His massive tax increase deal with Congress saved Social Security in its day, something liberals need to give him credit for accomplishing. Yes, he was wrong in many ways, most strikingly in his support of apartheid. Yet, so was Jefferson, the great liberal icon, who wrote stirringly about freedom while keeping and selling slaves to support his opulent lifestyle.

Every great president has feet of clay. So, why not let the right wing have their flawed man? Is there room for a sixth chair around the table of the nation’s truly great presidents? I think so. The Big Five, like true progressives, were gracious people who would enjoy the company.

Egypt’s Aftermath: Four Things That Will Happen Here

3 Feb

If the democratic impulses of the people in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East prevail, instability will rock the region as their success inspires more revolts against Western-backed dictators. Even if Mubarak’s corrupt regime manages to hold on, it will fuel even more radical responses than we’ve ever seen before throughout the Middle East.

So, what, if anything, will happen in the United States as a result of the turmoil? 

First, everything will cost more. Rightly or wrongly, Western financial and commodity markets perceive stability to be the best of all possible worlds, even if that stability is carried on the backs of poverty-stricken, oppressed people elsewhere. Oil, which underpins our modern economy, will skyrocket in price, driving up the cost of everything else.

When the Shah of Iran lost power, the uncertainty of oil prices helped usher in years of economic stagnation. And while Mubarak does not control oil production, Egypt does manage the Suez canal where a lot of it passes through in tankers. Only the potential of that waterway closing has pushed up crude oil prices to their highest level since the speculator-driven oil crisis of 2008. Imagine the impact if the flame of self-determination begins to burn elsewhere in the region?

Second, the Republicans will gain control of the Senate and extend its hold in the House in 2012. It will also win the White House. (Unless the GOP is stupid enough to put Sarah Palin on the ticket. She’s toxic to a majority of voters who see her as a selfish quitter and an ignorant shrew.) That’s because voters in this country always punish those in power when something bad happens. And because the hard right controls the GOP, it will accelerate the increasing inequality in this country as tax policies will favor the rich even more and, to pay for it, the Republicans will raid the budgets of social services.

Third, the wars in the Middle East will widen beginning in 2013. America depends too much on oil to let it slip from its grasp without a fight. And no political party better represents oil companies than do Republicans. Just as the Iraq war was all about oil from Day One, though gussied up to be about WMDs or spreading democracy, the next Middle East conflagration will be explicitly about keeping petroleum flowing to prime the pump of our economy.

Fourth, incompetent GOP economic policies and those new Middle East wars will hasten the end of the American Empire. The dollar will be the first victim. The British pound sterling dominated the planet for centuries. World War I changed the situation. It only took from 1914 to 1925 for the pound to give way to the Almighty Buck, which replaced it to become the reserve currency of choice among nations. Whether the euro or China’s yuan rides triumphant over the dollar is too early to tell.

Naturally, this is all speculation by your average joe. Nothing qualifies me to see into the future. Admittedly, I’m a glass-is-half-emty kind of guy, but it seems obvious to me that the consequences of what is happening in Egypt will reverberate beyond the the Nile to the broader Middle East and, thus, to the world as a whole. And because the United States has let its dependence on foreign oil become inextricably linked to the health of its economy and polity, risking its loss will become unacceptable to the powers that be, but attempting to sustain it will become how the American Empire passes into history.

My Pinko Past

25 Jan

This past weekend I finished reading Joseph Kanon’s brilliant 2009 thriller Stardust, which is set in Hollywood in the summer of 1945 immediately after the end of World War II. Partially a whodunit. Partially a look at how the leftist ideology voiced in the movies that helped sustain morale on the home front during the war became anathema soon thereafter.

Without giving away anything about the plot, Kanon reveals the tensions that reigned among the throng of German emigrants fleeing Hitler who had made their way to Southern California. Tensions exacerbated because their loyalties were always suspect, rightly or wrongly, as Ben, the protagonist, learns. That’s because the emigrants in the story had pasts that made them need to flee the Nazis, meaning they were intellectuals, socialists, or communists.

Of course, their pasts are not always indicative of who these men and women are in the novel’s present. At one point, one of the German characters, Ostermann, a distinguished writer who left the dark times in his native land for the sunny Southland, reflects on the ideological indiscretion of his youth. All youth, in fact.

“What did you think when you were eighteen?” Ostermann said gently, putting a hand on Ben’s shoulder. “Do you remember? I was for the Kaiser. A young man’s ideas. Things change….A flirtation and then you want to put it behind you.”

When I was eighteen I was not for the Kaiser (I’m not that old.) or for anyone representing authority. It was 1969, Nixon was in the White House, and the Vietnam War was raging. That October millions of protestors in the United States marched, sung, and meditated for peace to come to Southeast Asia. Across the nation there were teach-ins, one of which I led at my high school in California. (You’ll note in the accompanying school yearbook photo, Peace Day fell in the same week as a varsity football game.)

Although young, naive, and mostly clueless politically, during the organization of my school’s Peace Day I found myself suddenly in common cause with people whose ideologies were far more developed and sophisticated than mine. I read what they recommended and began to fancy myself a radical. A mustache soon appeared below my nose and my hair fell over my collar.

Once I was in college I was ready to commit to a deeper radicalism. The war had gotten worse with the illegal (and immoral) bombing of Cambodia and the massacre at My Lai. I helped organize more protests and became friends with committed leftists.

Communism, of course, had been completely discredited by the perversion of Stalinism, the tanks in Prague, and the brutality of life inside the Soviet Union. So I hung out with Leon Trotsky’s followers, in this case those engaged with the now defunct Young Socialists Alliance. I subscribed to The Militant, which apparently still exists, the weekly newspaper of the Socialist Workers Party.

Keep in mind that in the early 1970s when I was dreaming of a socialist paradise in the USA, the economy was on the rocks from underwriting the war for so long as well as suffering the effects of the first Arab oil embargo. And Nixon, embroiled in the Watergate scandal, was claiming “executive privilege” that would have put the executive branch above the law. It was easy to be radical in that milieu.

Then something happened that opened my eyes. The Supreme Court ruled 8-0 that Nixon was not a monarch beholden to no one else. The president, every president, had to submit to the due process of law like anyone else.

Suddenly I felt good about being an American. A nation built on law actually meant it.

Unlike many who shape-shifted from being radicals on the left to be radicals on the right, I took baby steps away from militancy. Despite persistent pleas from my YSA buddies, I never formally joined. I stopped going to meetings because hardcore members would not admit that the Supreme Court’s decision was meaningful since it did not fit their blinkered ideological narrative of American politics. I let my subscription to The Militant lapse. For a few years I even became a Democrat, though as now, I mostly eschewed party affiliations because my progressive notions are still a little too pink for the Democratic Party, especially today.

Also, getting older made me less radical. What inspired me at eighteen no longer raised my spirits in my twenties let alone in my sixtieth year. As Ostermann said, Things change. And so do people.

Citizens United v. You & Me

24 Jan

One year ago this month the Supreme Court of the United States in a 5-4 decision on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission concluded that corporations and unions were the same as you and me and could donate money freely to politicians. The court ruled that these entities were people with rights like us.

The decision must also mean that we have equal rights as corporations and unions. But it will take some effort on the part of individuals to attain that equality.

So, the next time a company decides to strong arm your local or state government to get tax breaks, you should sue to get the same tax breaks. After Citizens United a business has no more right than you and me to tax benefits. The next time a corporation tries to get an exemption from environmental or even traffic laws, you should have your lawyer call city hall or the state capitol and demand the same waiver as they get. If a company wants to pollute drinking water, you ought to be able to burn trash in your backyard (or frontyard, for that matter) instead of paying to go to the dump.

Also, following the Supreme Court’s logic, if a corporation or union is a person, then when it is convicted of a crime, as they so often are, every person working there will need to do jail time, not just those who may have concocted the illegal scheme. After all, it’s the company that is guilty and the only way one can impart justice to a person is to put the entire person in jail not just parts of him or her. And just like people, the business, whether union or corporate, will need to come to a halt until the person(s) gets out of jail. Also, if the crime was a felony, every individual in the company must lose the right to vote because they are part of the convicted person.

I’m not sure that this is the hornets’ nest the court had in mind to kick with its decision, but it’s a logical outcome. We only need come citizen lawyers to establish their equal rights with corporations and unions.

Callous Toward the Homeless

4 Jan

Nearly every day I see people begging here in the Willamette Valley. They stand on street corners and at freeway exits holding barely readable tattered cardboard signs. They wander up and down the streets of towns large and small asking for spare change. They line up outside shelters for food and a bed for a night.

Like most people most of the time, I don’t pay them too much attention. I’ve become callously indifferent toward the homeless.

When I lived in San Francisco in the 1990s and walked from the Polk Gulch neighborhood to my office downtown, I’d put a big handful of quarters in my pocket and hand out one or two in response to the requests for spare change. By the time I got to work a half hour later, my pocket would be empty. I doubt that I saved anyone on those urban treks, but I doubt I did any harm either.

In 2007 it was estimated that more than 650,000 people in the United States were chronically homeless. The government’s Housing and Urban Development (HUD) said that in 2009 1.5 million individuals spent at least one night without a home to sleep in. According to another survey, more than 19% of the homeless are military veterans. That same report shows that 55% of homeless people are afflicted with disabilities, yet barely 25% have some kind of health insurance. And more than half of those on the streets have no source of income, hence the begging.

It’s only going to get worse. As jobs become scarce in this country and politicians chip away at social services, Social Security, and Medicare, expect homelessness to grow. In fact, given the arrival of Baby Boomers into senior citizen status, it’s estimated that the number of  homeless among the elderly will expand 33% in the coming decade.

Guilt-ridden individuals will not solve homelessness one handout at a time. The solution, if there is one, must come from a large-scale government effort. But our political leaders have little concern about the homeless because they are not as powerful a constituency as, say, millionaires who demand tax breaks. Sadly, there’s little hope for the homeless.

On occasion, especially on a cold day like today, I’ll roll down the window of my heated car and hand over a dollar or two to a beggar who claims to be homeless. Although I know it’s unlikely that my meagre contribution can turn their lives around, I still do it. And, yes, I realize I can get scammed by those who are not in such dire straits. But I don’t worry about the loss of a couple bucks to a petty crook. Mostly, I worry about the loss of my sense of empathy toward my fellow human beings.

24 Hours in Cyberspace: 15 Years Later

23 Oct

I was rummaging around some seldom-opened cupboards in the garage when I came across a few boxes of books that had been stored back in a corner when we moved to the Willamette Valley more than 10 years ago. Inside one container I found a copy of 24 Hours in Cyberspace: Painting on the Walls of the Digital Cave still shrink-wrapped and pristine, untouched by human hands.

Published with much fanfare in late 1996, the book’s conceit was to have photographers around the world visually capture a single day (8 February 1996) in the life, as it were, of the worldwide web. More a magazine with many different stories to tell between hardcovers than a proper book with a single voice or point of view, 24 Hours in Cyberspace encompasses much of what exists today online, yet it lacks almost everything that is important about our contemporary cyberspace experience.

The sometimes goofy, occasionally poignant photos in the book reflect a random collection of people whose lives somehow touched the web. The team behind 24 Hours in Cyberspace showed how some people involved in health care, politics, education, and other areas are engaged with the worldwide web. They touched on sensitive topics as well, such as the proliferation of pornography and the spread of Holocaust deniers online. The attempt was a comprehensive glimpse of the influence of the web in daily life.

In truth, though, all the people covered in the book are also engaged with cellphones, televisions, automobiles, and other technologies we embrace. The web, as depicted in 24 Hours in Cyberspace, is just another tool. Nice. But not earth-shaking.

For example, one photo spread shows an American in St. Petersburg, Russia negotiating for his “prospective Russian bride whom he met online.” How different is that from bachelors in the Wild West shopping for mail-order brides in the penny newspapers of the day? And, while another photo shows some young women in Bangi, Malaysia who, according to the excitable accompanying text, “lift the lid on Pandora’s box as they check out a bare-chested Matthew Modine on Hollywood Online.” Hardly revolutionary considering most those women had probably already seen similarly dressed men in the thousands of magazines published in their country. (And Matthew Modine? Come on, ladies. Have better taste.)

Of course, it’s easy to carp about a nearly 15-year-old book which contends that the Internet “is a shape-shifting, borderless medium firmly in the hands of ordinary citizens bent on turning it to extraordinary ends.” Given that ordinary citizens in China, Iran, and behind other borders face government sanctions if they violate national laws while online seems to undermine that statement.

1996 was, in terms of the worldwide web, a far more innocent time. The authors of 24 Hours in Cyberspace could not envision Google battling with a sovereign nation over a search engine. Perhaps because the book’s producers did not even mention Google, Facebook, Twitter, social networking, software as a service, cloud computing, or any of the other truly revolutionary aspects of the Internet.

As such, 24 Hours in Cyberspace is not a very interesting or insightful book. It tells us nothing important about the real power of the Internet. Nor does it tell us much about who we are as human beings. But it does offer yet another proof point that making a bet on what we’ll be doing online even just a few years from now is probably a poorly placed wager.