Thursday, August 25, 2005

Book review--Exporting America

Lou Dobbs is hardly what one would call a raving liberal; in fact, he's not liberal at all, given almost any issue one could name. His latest book, however, Exporting America, shows how sensible even a right-winger can be, if s/he is not blinded or cowed by the religious/neo-con extremists. Dobbs' extended essay, which follows up on his broadcasting on an apparently nightly basis, argues "loudly" against the practice of outsourcing by (formerly) American businesses. His research into the exporting of our manufacturing base, as well as the relatively high-paying jobs within it, to other countries gives the lie to the neo-con party line that by reducing the work force in these areas, we are actually creating better jobs for the men and women that are the victims of "downsizing". What is really happening is that the businesses employing this ruthless tactic are merely increasing their profit margins without regard to the effects their behavior is having on our country.
Dobbs points out a number of these serious ramifications to our economy and society as a whole. He stresses the fact that a vast majority of those who lose their jobs to overseas competition only find jobs paying roughly 75-80% of their former salary, making a mockery of the claims that by "retraining" American workers we are actually improving their lives and prospects for advancement. Dobbs also shows that, all neo-con blather to the contrary, outsourcing is not limited to "blue-collar" occupations, leaving the better white-collar jobs for Americans; the high-tech, medical, and even legal fields are also seeing their work exported to countries where the workers make 1/10 the money an American could expect for the same job.
Dobbs' main point in Exporting America is that these businesses, due to their international nature, and given almost no reason to do otherwise by successive administrations, are simply looking to their bottom line and reducing costs. The problem for the US in their doing so is obvious, if one is able to pay attention to the facts. Our economy is in deep trouble as our trade deficit and debt grows higher, and by losing the ability and desire to protect our own workforce, these "American" businesses are unpatriotically helping to put us deeper in that hole.
Sound familiar? Dobbs is contributing another aspect to Kevin Phillips' thesis that the US is on the path to socioeconomic collapse, to the benefit of those very few at the top of the wealth ladder. Dobbs warns that even when Smirky and the gang claim to be improving the employment numbers, it behooves us all to look beyond the quantities thrown at us and examine the quality of those "new jobs". Is it really a good thing for the US to replace a job working on the line at GM with one working on the line at McDonald's or even Starbucks'? I doubt the man or woman making $10 less per hour thinks so . . .
Dobbs' work here is on the order of a polemic, in the purest sense of the term. He has an axe to grind, and he grinds it well. Being an essay, Exporting America cannot be judged by the same standards an academic work of history or sociology; Dobbs is not drawing upon an extensive body of previous research, nor did he conduct his own in the field to the strictest of standards. This does not mean his book has no value, of course--essays of this nature are generally considered the basis for future work on a topic, and the arguments and points that Dobbs make are certainly worthy of systematic exploration and proof. It would be wonderful if good research disproved Dobbs' thinking here, but I have little hope of that being possible, especially given that many of those opposing Dobbs comprise the liars and thieves on Smirky's side of the aisle.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Book reviews--Wealth and Democracy and American Dynasty

Kevin Phillips' latest two books (Wealth and Democracy and American Dynasty) present a multi-leveled description of the reasons for the potential downfall of the US as a democratic society and government. The two share a sense of the impending doom facing the US due to the political and economic policies of most of the Republican and a few of the Democratic Administrations since the Civil War, at least, so it makes sense to consider them together. Wealth and Democracy is more of a standard history text, although the subject matter--how money in the US has slowly and fitfully become concentrated in the hands of a very few, and what that has meant for our society, economy, and politics--is somewhat nebulous compared to most. American Dynasty attempts to provide evidence of a not-necessarily-coincidental and persistent Bush political vision over the last century or so, which places them squarely in the forefront of those people pushing for that concentration of wealth.
Phillips' study of the patterns of wealth holdings in Wealth and Democracy, which occupy (too?) much of the book is a bit obvious; what really gives the book value is his comparison of those patterns with similar movements in the other economic superpowers of the last 600 years. That all of those countries (Holland from the 1400s to 1700s), Spain in the 1500s and 1600s, and England from the 1700s to World War I) eventually lost their position as the pre-eminent economic power in the Western world is Phillips' warning to those who advocate a "Pax Americana". We are following the historically proven prescription for economic collapse precisely as we continue to abandon the manufacturing and production of finished goods in favor of services and finance, all the while expanding our military commitments around the globe. The concentration of wealth into fewer and fewer hands at the expense of the lower and middle classes is merely the easiest marker that we are pursuing a fatal course.
Phillips acknowledges that his is not the first book to make a similar case; a slew of books in the 1980s, most notably Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers made many of the same points (although at the time it seemed that Japan was poised to surpass the US). What distinguishes Phillips' work, aside from his attention to specifically who owns how much, is his emphasis on the increasing political power possessed by the wealthy since the beginning of Reagan's administration, something that has occurred in several periods of our history. The difference in the current incarnation of the phenomena, however, is that now the US is the ultimate international power. That the wealthy are using that power to enrich themselves affects not just the American economy, but the entire world as well, mirroring what the Dutch, Spanish, and English ruling/merchant classes did before us, to the detriment of all those earlier countries. Get the hint yet?
Placed in that context, the story of the Bush/Walker family becomes even more sinister. In American Dynasty, Phillips traces the connections between the 4 generations of Bushes and Walkers and some of America's most profitable and secretive businesses and organizations. The emergence of GHW Bush and Smirky the Chimp as a dynastic leadership signals a nail in the coffin of our republican democracy; Phillips points to the continuity in their policies and personnel as being similar to a royal succession, and his argument is buttressed by his extensive background research into the family history. All of the Bushes and Walkers have had seats at the tables of corporate power, and the last 3 generations of Bushes have gained political power as well, culminating in Smirky's re-"election". The Bushes have used their political positions to bestow favors on those who have been faithful to them, Phillips notes, providing microcosmic detail to his more general argument to that effect in Wealth and Democracy.
American Dynasty is also a tale of secrecy and deception, although perhaps by definition this part of Phillips' book is less than satisfying. Phillips does a great job in detailing what we know about where all the Bushes and Walkers lived and worked, and the other people who lived and worked alongside them. More problematic is Phillips' assertions of who knew what when. We have no documentation or other proof of conversations or secret meetings between many of these men--there are a lot of instances in the book where Phillips states that "Walker must have been familiar with" this, or that "Bush's position in the CIA makes it unlikely that he did not know" that. While it is certainly possible that GHW Bush could have heard his dad talking about X, we don't know for sure, and this kind of speculation makes for good reading, but poor history. Unfortunately, these men are among the most secretive cabal on the planet, so we will likely never know the extent of the American Dynasty's corruptive influences. Phillips has probably done as convincing a job as possible of outlining the Bush/Walker disease infecting the upper reaches of our society and government, but as a work of historical writing one American Dynasty leaves one unmoored.
That they have used, and are using, their political power to enrich and protect their cronies, however, is so patently obvious as to make any such quibbling nearly meaningless--these men are perverting the very nature of our government, and our country as a whole. Proof? We don't need no stinking proof!

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Why religion is bad for the US

Upon the imminent occasion of my 43rd birthday, and as I contemplate the real, but hopefully remote, possibility that I won't have another, I am reminded by some people of the human quest for solace in the face of death. My own spirituality has never been something I have chosen to investigate too closely; I suppose I rejected my Dad's family's Methodism out of little except boredom with the "oppressive" nature of being forced to go to church! (Give me a break, I was just a kid . . .) It certainly wasn't any of our minister's doing--Rev. Smith was an incredibly engaging and wonderful man and preacher.
This is not to say that I rejected morality or ethics, though. I have always had a strong ideal as to what constitutes good behavior, informed by the slights and misfortunes both that I have been subjected to and also what I have seen people do to others. I have not been thoroughly consistent in hewing to my ideal--who among us can claim to have been?--but I have tried during my whole adolescent and adult life to treat people as well as I could. In the largest sense, I abhor selfishness, prejudice, and closed-mindedness most of all, since I see that kind of ignorance as being the root cause of much of the pain in the world.
And this is where I think modern organized religion has started to go very wrong, because in much of the world, religious leaders are persuading their followers to practice not the tolerance or good works most of the world's religions have always seen as the most likely route to salvation, but rather to pursue a "self-righteousity" wherein there is only one path to heaven. More problematically, nowhere can this be seen as clearly as here in the US, because of all the nations of the world, I still believe that our country has the answer to how this planet's varied people's can survive our own humanity. The rising tide of fundamentalism is not a problem of Islam; it is a problem of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, etc. It is an even more dangerous problem nowadays because this particular tide has swept the political realm as well in an increasing number of countries, which is a recipe for mass annhilation. And the US is the only country currently with the power to push that button.
One of the major arguments supporting our present swing to a radical fundamentalist religiosity in politics that I have seen bandied about is that our country was founded on religious grounds, and that therefore the fundamentalists are merely seeking a return to the Founding Fathers' original vision for the US. It is true that most (if not all) of the creators of the US were religious men, but the truth of the matter is that they valued something even more highly than "God's will" in their deliberations--reason. The FF's work was based in the belief that it was more important that men of intelligence and rationality governed this country, instead of men of high birth (hence their rejection of monarchy) or religious background (seen in their rejection of a state-sponsored Church). The FFs knew that even though most men believed in God and would probably use their religious beliefs to mold their points of view, they also knew that only through reason and rational discussion could a democratic republic function in the long run. In any case, we are talking about people who lived 250 years ago; there is absolutely no earthly value in trying to rediscover their mindset instead of simply using the documents of government at hand. They have been modified (for the most part--we don't have Minutemen that need to remain armed at all times, nor do we fear troops being quartered in our townhouses or condos so much, for the most egregious example) to remain in touch with how the world has changed since 1776 or 1791, and that is how the FFs intended the Constitution to be used.
The second issue regarding the ill effects faith is having on us is related. Anyone acting from a foundation of his/her religion alone is by definition not able to engage in the rational debate or discussion necessary for the democratic process to succeed. Religion in this case leads to closed-mindedness and an inability to compromise, since any idea or policy that doesn't conform strictly with the faithful person's code will automatically be deemed sinful and therefore should not be passed or enforced--think of the various religious rationales that undergirded the institution of slavery before the Civil War, or the current slew of pointedly anti-gay legislation passed out of a justification based on nothing more than appeals to religious ideology. The faithful person cannot be argued with or persuaded, because whatever s/he believes is impervious to another person's set of beliefs or even facts, simply because faith is irrational by nature.
To the world's detriment, and for the first time in our history, this kind of irrationality has been incorporated at the highest level of our government. As Kevin Phillips points out in American Dynasty, George W. Bush is not only the President, he is also the de facto leader of all of the fundamentalist religious groups in the US. Many of his Administration's appointees have been drawn from his contacts in the religious realm, especially for some of the more culturally sensitive posts, and they are all on record as having disdain not only for secularism in general, but in some cases for the actual responsibilities and purposes of their offices (see Phillips for details). That's not good.
What's worse is that Smirky's incapacity to even approach a realization that he is fallible--as all humans are, after all, right? Only God is perfect, right?--makes him an unusually unfit person to be in a position of authority or power over other people, let alone the entirety of what used to be the "Free World". His utter inability to brook dissension or even hold a discussion with someone who holds views unlike his own (as seen in many of the "insider books" published, such as Woodward's Plan of Attack and Suskind's The Price of Loyalty), masked and marketed as decisiveness and self-confidence, are in reality a frightening glimpse into the mind of someone totally devoted to their faith to the exclusion of all else. Smirky believes that we might very well be in the "End Times", and his policy objectives of destabilizing military intervention in the Middle East and willful ignorance of all basic scientific proof that our environment is under tremendous strain prove that he has no intention of acting rationally.
The combination of these 3 factors mean that even though Smirky and his cronies have broken many Commandments and tenets of his chosen religion ("Thou Shalt Not Lie", "Thou Shalt Not Kill", "Judge Not Lest Ye Be Judged", among the many others), his blind followers inside and out of government continue to support him without question, solely because he is a "Man of Faith". This in turn has encouraged the Administration to ignore any and all deviations from their domestic objectives as well, which for the most part consist of eliminating any governmental interference with how the rich get richer, regardless of how many citizens of the world die or are impoverished.
The blatant disregard for the diversity, or in many cases even the mere existence, of human life that fundamentalists exhibit on a daily basis--Smirky telling Cindy Sheehan that he plans to "get on with his life" in the face of her loss is merely the latest, albeit most disgusting example--belies their fervently-held righteousness, and it is our great shame that the US has actually elected (well, kind of) someone like that to our highest office. We are the most dangerous country the world has ever known, and every minute the religious fanatics control the reins of our government brings us closer to what for them would be just peachy--Armageddon. Is that what the rest of us want?

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Chemo 2

This round was a bit more eventful. We did all the IV drips yesterday, so we need to make only one quick trip to the clinic today for the last shot. Unfortunately, with only about 15 minutes left to go on the last bag, the nausea kicked in from the first batch of stuff. I unceremoniously begged to get to the bathroom to lie down on the cool tile, which helped a bit. The nurses shot me up with Atavan (sp.?) essentially to knock me out for 12 hours, and I took the anti-nausea pills as well. I don't think these new ones work as well as the old ones, but maybe nothing could have killed off the nausea anyway--I waited too long once again. TBO and I tried to calculate how many hours passed after the treatment last time before the nausea hit, but because we were still at the clinic this time it threw our timing off. Or nothing helps that first wave, which is not a pretty thought for the next 4 treatments . . .
I feel icky today, but nothing too severe. A bit lightheaded, a bit tired. I guess I'm as ready as I can be for the side/effects to come. We can only hope that they're the same--we know how to handle them at least. More to come, I'm sure!

Monday, August 08, 2005

It had to happen eventually . . .

Well, I shaved my head this afternoon. What fun! Trying to hold a tiny 1 1/2" x 3" mirror to see what needed to be cut in the back, all the while attempting to keep the moronically-engineered shaver head from collapsing was frustrating enough, let alone the psychic traumas associated with the whole concept in and of itself. It only took about 1/2 an hour, although with the proper equipment it would have taken, what, 1/2 a minute, judging by all those Marine movie scenes I've seen? It's pretty rough to the touch; I don't know how I feel about actually using a blade to shave it closer, except to say I'm not going to do it. I guess the only good thing about this process is that at least it's over and done with now. Onward and upward to Wednesday for Chemo 2 . . .

Thursday, August 04, 2005

I let it fly in the breeze and get caught in the trees

Well, I guess it was inevitable, but I passed another unfortunate marker in treatment today. This was the first day that a sizable amount of hair started coming out in my hands in the shower. No pain, no real trauma, but this is the one thing I imagine all cancer patients wish wouldn't happen. In my case, the emotional ramifications are mainly twofold: 1) going rapidly bald broadcasts to the external world that I'm sick with something deadly; and 2) I'm no longer beating the odds in my own family. As far back as can be remembered, on both sides of my family, all men save two have been almost completely uncovered on top by the time they were even 35, and I was one of those lucky two.
I suppose it's a mere vanity, but I'm betting that almost every man, even those who have shaved their heads, would rather have a full head of hair than not. Losing it is a signpost along the way to death, and who wants to face that this early in life, let alone any earlier? In my case, of course, there's the artificial twist of illness and treatment, but there are no guarantees that it will grow back healthily, even if I do. As with all the other side effects I've gone through, I'm trying to maintain my native sardonic stoicism, but the whole externality of this one makes it tougher to deal with. I can't simply hide from the world until I get hair again--that's crazy talk, isn't it? I've never been much of a hat wearer; I've got a couple baseball caps and a snazzy fedora, but the former, if worn out of context, seem to scream "cancer patient", and the latter, really, can only be worn as a statement of style that virtually no one would ordinarily carry well these days. And going brazenly bald certainly requires a self-consciouslessness that I have never possessed either. I suppose I've been spoiled by not having to deal with this issue earlier in life, especially given my genetic coding, so all those of my friends who have can get their licks in now!

Monday, August 01, 2005

Maybe not what most would call a great man, but still . . .

This is getting sickening; another person fairly close to me has passed away too soon. Ernie Kaufman was profane, too right-wing for my tastes, at times closed-minded, and at other times could be annoying as all get-out. For all that, though, Ernie was something special. His intelligence and wit made him likeable despite all his faults. He was one of the funniest people I've ever known, even if his jokes were almost always off-color. He delighted those around him smart enough to keep up with him, even if his wit showed more than a few caustic edges.
It was his huge heart, however, that made Ernie lovable. I only have one story about Ernie to tell here, but it is the only one I need to share. I was a lowly delivery person and barback for the tavern he frequented for lunch. Now, Ernie had lived in the South Bay for decades previous, and had been going to the same bar for as long; he was a fixture in the community, while I was a newcomer to the scene. I had known and connected with Ernie for a short while comparatively when my Dad died suddenly--only a few of my co-workers attended my Dad's funeral service, understandably, but Ernie was there. He paid his respects to a man he had never met, simply because he cared for me and wanted to help ease my pain. A simple thing, really, but I will never forget that act of kindness and generosity of spirit.
This was my favorite joke of his, among the thousands:
One of the zookeepers at the state zoo was perplexed. The porpoises in his tank were constantly having sex, and nothing he did would stop them. Any time two of them were together, they'd go at it, ignoring their training exercises or even feeding times. The zookeeper went to his boss, who told him that there was only one thing to do--he would have to feed a certain kind of baby seagull to the porpoises, and that would cure them of their "illness". There were two problems. First, to get the birds the zookeeper would have to travel to a distant cove to find their nests, requiring quite a hike on a narrow path along the cliff face. Secondly, one of the zoo's lions had escaped and had been seen in the area.
The porpoise man thought about it and decided to try to get the birds before the porpoises killed themselves. So he drove out to the cliff, walked along the path to the nesting spots. Once there, he collected a bunch of the birds and stuffed them in a sack. On his way back, however, he saw the escaped lion blocking his path. Luckily enough, the lion was sleeping, so the zookeeper decided to try and leap over the great cat to safety. He took a running start, jumped, and made it!
Unfortunately, the police were waiting on the other side and arrested him immediately. The charge? Crossing a state lion with underage gulls for immoral porpoises. (Say out loud if need be.)

Gee, I guess seeing the Sox win one was enough for you, huh?
My heart's broken again; you will be missed--especially on Sundays in the fall. Thanks, Ernie. For everything.