Sunday, January 18, 2015

Heading South...

As of tomorrow, this blog will be on hiatus for about a month as your faithful blogger heads way down south (as in far beyond the U.S. border) to get out of the winter cold that makes his chemo inflicted neuropathy even more painful and uncomfortable. Hopefully, I'll come back full of new topic ideas because I'll admit to having trouble coming up with anything fresh to say lately that I haven't said repeatedly already.


Friday, January 16, 2015

Meth and Jesus in West Virginia

Vice magazine just published a grim but fascinating article featuring a woman whose business it is to clean up meth labs in West Virginia. The whole article is worth reading, but the last few paragraphs are particularly harrowing:
Beneath the surface in every case, there's evidence of hardcore drug use. It's almost a game when the three cleaners walk into a house to find the hidden syringes. They're under carpets or flood boards or sewn into mattresses. "We've found them in baby bottles," Jennifer says. "We found them in a hollowed-out Bible once."

"Where there are children involved, that's the worst part," offers Heath. "That affects me a little bit. Otherwise, it's just work." Kids live in 80 percent of the places they clean, he tells me.

Stories about meth often come with theories on why this particular drug has such a foothold in the boonies: Coke and heroin seem exotic and taboo. Meth helps with manual labor. Barns and remote, abandoned buildings provide cover for labs.

A lifelong West Virginian, Jennifer says she knows people who've used meth, "people I would have never expected until they told me. Contractors use it to stay up three days to finish a deadline." She's never had a bust in one of her rentals, though.

Jennifer notes the exploding popularity of some hard drugs in general, like heroin. She's seen enough pill bottles and dope paraphernalia in busted meth sites to think all these drugs are rising in popularity together, and she's seen enough Jesus tchotchkes and throw pillows to know they're all working their way into the banal fabric of normal life here.
Meth and Jesus, both providing false hope of relief from the agonies of living life mired in rural poverty in a bleak landscape where for all but a very few the American Dream has all but permanently disappeared. Rural America has become a place where one of the few decent livings to be had is cleaning up after the awful messes created by the downtrodden, desperate and destitute. Not that I begrudge the entrepreneurial spirit of the subjects of the article. Just that I find the whole thing profoundly sad.

Bonus: "Say my name." "Heisenberg." "You're goddamned right."

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Over 40% of Americans Took ZERO Vacation Time in 2014

There have in recent years been a lot of electrons annoyed pointing out the sharp increase in wealth inequality in America. And now comes survey results showing that not only do the well off enjoy a substantially higher standard of living than the working class, they actually have leisure time in which to enjoy their largess. All in all, 41% of American working adults reported taking no vacation time whatsoever. And as the chart above shows, by far the highest percentage of people in that category made less than $25,000 a year. Here are some more of the gory details:
Although it isn’t legally required, most full-time employees in the US receive some paid vacation. It’s around 10 paid work days a year in addition to six federal holidays, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a nonprofit think tank.

That may seem like small mercy by Western standards (European workers typically get far more), but the sad truth is that Americans aren’t even using the handful of vacation days at their disposal. Last year, Americans left 169 million paid vacation days on the table, saying they were too busy to use them. A series of consumer surveys conducted by travel website Skift throughout 2014 summed up Americans’ woeful travel habits. Here are some highlights:

--Only 13% of Americans traveled abroad for a vacation from August 2013 to August 2014.

--Nearly half of Americans didn’t take a single day off in the summer of 2014.

--63% of Americans did not travel at all from September 2013 to September 2014.

Skift’s latest survey is even bleaker: 41% of Americans didn’t take any vacation days in 2014. The latest survey was administered to 1,500 American adults through Google Consumer Surveys from Jan. 3-5 of this year.
Referring again to the chart above, you'll notice that as incomes rise the percentage of people who did not take any vacation time sharply plummets until it hits zero at $150,000 and higher. There are several points I'd like to make here.

Fist off, imagine just how depressing it would be to be forced to work year in and year out with no time off except for a few measly holidays. Oh, and you can forget about the "six" annual holidays if you work retail, since Thanksgiving has now become another shopping day in which many retail employees are now expected to come to work at 6:00 in the evening instead of getting to spend even that little bit of time with their families.

Secondly, even the ten vacation days a year reported to be average is pretty grim. Say you want to take the day after Thanksgiving and maybe a few days around Christmas to be with your family. Now you're already reduced to just one week away from the workplace during the rest of the year. Even if you take it all at once, it hardly represents enough time to de-stress before having to rejoin the rat race, let alone jet off to Europe to take in a bunch of cultural sites.

Thirdly, the fact that no one making over 150K a year faces this problem shows why the upper middle class, in particular, is so clueless about how awful the American working life has become for those below them on the economic ladder. Why is that so important? Well, if you pay attention at all to our media culture, particularly the commercial advertisements, what you see is that an upper middle class lifestyle is sold to viewers as being the ideal of the American dream. Every sitcom family lives in a nice big house, and every Christmas images of families buying each other a brand new Lexus with nice bow tie ribbon attached to the hood are flashed at just about every commercial break.

Our political battles are also fought at the upper middle class level, as the arguments for both sides are primarily being tailored to appeal to those among each of the two colored tribes who can afford to drive a minivan or an SUV (the difference being the tone of the bumper stickers plastered on the back). Liberal or conservative, the fact that those who serve them their coffee, wait their tables, clean their houses, check them out at the grocery store or who staff the local Macys at dinnertime on Thanksgiving night may not be enjoying the same fabulous leisure lifestyle as they do never occurs to them.

And all of that doesn't even touch on the issue of the unused vacation days that overstressed workers leave on the table not because they are too busy but because they are fearful of being replaced if they are ever absent form work. Add it all up and it makes for a pretty grim picture for anyone outside of about the top 10% of wage earners in this country.

But don't worry. I'm sure some of the money spent next Christmas on those Lexus SUVs will trickle its way down and make things all better.

Bonus: "Vacation...all I ever wanted"

Friday, January 9, 2015

Down the Memory Hole: The Assassination of Alan Berg

In wake of the appalling Charlie Hebdo attack this week, I found it somewhat bemusing to see lots of American right wingers--in their haste to waste no opportunity to smear all Muslims as freedom hating terrorists--valiantly defending a publication they normally would not have stooped to wipe their asses with given that its lampoons of Christianity were every bit as biting as those against Islam. Charlie Hebdo was an equal opportunity basher of religion, and that normally isn't the kind of stance that will get you invited to answer loving, softball type questions as a guest on Fox and Friends.

I frequently make a point on this blog of demonstrating that there is very little difference between America's two major parties, but I will never say the same thing about liberals (however much I loathe mealy-mouthed mainstream liberalism) versus hardcore conservatives, who now unfortunately make up an overwhelming majority of the conservative movement. Because the fact is a liberal will (usually) defend and respect freedom of expression as defined by the Constitution (Congress shall pass no law, etc, etc) whereas far right wingers (who profess to wear the Constitution on their sleeves) often make no bones about how they would love to see those they disagree with silenced by whatever means necessary.

As an example of what I'm saying, one needs to look no further that the most notorious American parallel to the Charlie Hebdo slayings...namely the 1984 (now THERE is irony for you) assassination of liberal Denver radio talk show host Alan Berg. Though it seems difficult to imagine in these times in which talk radio has become a wasteland of rightwing shouters each trying to out-outrage the other, in his day Berg was the liberal equivalent of Rush Limbaugh. His schtick was to spout his unabashed anticonservative views and then rip into those semicoherent callers to his show dumb enough to try and take him on.

Berg must have been quite good at what he did, because he managed to whip up a murderous rage on the part of a white nationalist group called The Order. The group ambushed Berg outside of his home, shooting him twelve times at close range. Two members of The Order were subsequently convicted of the killing. It was by any definition an act of terrorism--one that has sadly been mostly forgotten today despite being fictionalized a few years later in the Oliver Stone movie Talk Radio. Alan Berg was killed for exercising his freedom of expression, just as the staffers of Charlie Hebdo were. Yet the brevity of his Wikipedia page, which doesn't even include the word "terrorism" in the section about his murder, should be an indication of how such acts that do not fit the prevailing narrative get excluded from our national conversation--even at a time when they are quite relevant.

Another aspect of Berg's murder that never gets discussed is whether as an act of terrorism it wasn't actually a huge success. Liberals are always quick to blame corporate media consolidation in the 1990s for the fact that conservatives rule the radio airwaves, and certainly that has been a factor. Conservatives counter that there is no market for liberal radio talk shows as demonstrated by the Air America debacle during the Bush junior years.

I would actually split these arguments. On the one hand corporations are still motivated by profits, and a liberal host who could score big ratings would certainly not be kept off the air. On the other, for some reason the liberal hosts who were on the air in 1990s when media consolidation began failed to survive (there was a halfway decent rabble rouser I used to listen to on WLS when I lived in Chicago in the early 1990s, though I forget his name) just as Air America failed to draw ratings. Why is that?

Could it be that conservative hosts are safe in knowing that they can routinely make base emotional appeals to their audience without worrying about their personal safety? After all, it is hard to imagine a Volvo-driving, Chardonnay drinking, global warming worrying, gun control advocate blowing away Rush Limbaugh. On the flip side, did liberal radio hosts in this country circa 1984 begin to consciously of unconsciously tone down or deliberately intellectualize their arguments after seeing what happened to Alan Berg? And did the resulting lower ratings then give Clear Channel, for example, the excuse it needed to cancel them in favor of another Sean Hannity clone? We'll never know for sure what kind of chilling effect Berg's murder had on his professional colleagues at the time, but it is difficult to imagine that it didn't have any. If I'm right, Berg's death is a major early milestone in the creeping fascism that has been overtaking America these past 35 years.

So RIP, Alan Berg. Unlike the cowards in patriotic guise who killed you, you were a true American hero.

Bonus: "I'm here to lead you by the hand through the dark forest of your own hated and anger and humiliation"

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Idiot America: The Keystone Pipeline "Controversy"

As I've said here repeatedly, sometimes you really have to shake your head at the sheer idiotic depths this country has sunk to. Though it really isn't a big surprise, newly (re)installed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell just announced that the new Republican Senate's VERY FIRST PRIORITY will be to pass a bill forcing approval to allow the TransCanada corporation to build the controversial Keystone Pipeline. That's right, with all the many problems facing America these days, many of our current elected "leaders" believe that enacting a law that will enrich a FOREIGN COMPANY is the most important thing that needs to be done.

McConnell's announcement is supremely stupid on many levels. Let's start with the fact that the State Department is expected to render a final decision on Keystone later this year after a court case in Nebraska over the pipeline's proposed route is resolved. In other words, there is a chance--probably a very GOOD chance--that the pipeline will be approved in just a few months anyway. THEN there is the little matter of collapsing oil prices, which if they remain at or near their current levels for awhile will likely cause a shutdown of Canadian tar sands production--meaning there could very well be no oil to ship through the pipeline ANYWAY. Oh, and let's not forget that one of the supposed reasons to approve the pipeline--to help the U.S. become less reliant on Middle Eastern oil--totally contradicts all of the crowing in conservative circles about how our own domestic oil shale production is turning us into "Saudi America."

But let's put all of that aside for a moment and consider what it is that is really going on here--namely more sound and fury in the ongoing and sadly successful effort to convince American citizens consumers idiots that there really is a difference between the two parties and that American representative democracy is not in fact dead as a doornail. The biggest reason McConnell and company are making Keystone their top priority is that their troglodyte conservative base DESPISES environmentalists and right now this is the best way to very publicly score political points and stick it to the environmental movement. Forcing Obama to veto the bill (assuming he does) would allow the Republicans to demonstrate how they differ from blue tribe (Obama, of course, would no doubt prefer to sit back and allow the State Department to take the final decision out of his hands).

On the other side of the equation, the environmental movement has been almost as stupid in making the defeat of Keystone such a big (ahem) cornerstone of their own agenda. Even if the pipeline is never built and assuming oil prices quickly rise back into the territory that makes tar sands production economically viable once again, Canada has already indicated that it will build an alternative pipeline on its own soil since much of the tar sands oil is slated to be shipped out to Asia anyway. Assuming the dip in oil prices is short lived, an Obama veto would be at best a pyrrhic victory for the environmental movement. But hey, at least the Democrats would then have their very own "accomplishment" to sell to their idiot base as a reason to keep supporting them. After all, they'll need SOMETHING to point to in 2016 to try and claim that voting for Hillary is a better choice than voting for Jeb.

Bonus: So who's drinking WHOSE milkshake?

Monday, January 5, 2015

My Own Personal Version of the "Two Americas"

I've written numerous posts on this blog about my hometown of Freeport, Illinois, a small manufacturing center in the northwestern corner of the state that interestingly peaked in population (according to the U.S. Census Bureau) in 1970, the same year as conventional U.S. crude oil production. By the 1980s, Freeport was already hurting economically before NAFTA, GATT and the the economic crash of of 2008 really kicked it in the balls. The former Goodyear tire plant where my dad served most of his working life as a middle manager now employs roughly one-tenth the number of workers it did when he retired in the mid-1990s, and as I wrote about back during the 2012 presidential campaign, the local Sensata plant that was bought out by Bain Capital so the operations could be stripped down and shipped out to China is now effectively closed for good.

Meanwhile, like a good number of my high school classmates I split town permanently after I finished college--starting out my career in Chicago before decamping to the Washington area the month before Bill Clinton won his first term. Thanks to the insane levels of federal deficit spending that has accompanied the global war on terror and the economic bailouts after the crash, the DC area these days has become the ultimate boomtown. Everywhere you look there are new McMansions, shopping centers and 20-story office towers going up.

I currently live just outside the capital beltway in Fairfax County, Virginia, and was amazed to see a new sign go up in my neighborhood the other day proudly announcing that one of the few remaining empty spaces around here is about to see the erection of some new homes "starting" at a mere $1.1 million. Mind you, if other recent residential construction around here is any guide these won't be gigantic mansions surrounded by high security walls but oversize, cheaply built, ugly ass faux mansions squeezed onto lots not much bigger than the foundations of the the houses themselves. Once completed they will most likely be occupied either by upper middle class liberal twits or Ayn Rand worshipping contractor assholes who think selling 100% of their vastly overpriced services to the federal government makes them great businesspeople.

Over the holidays, I reconnected by phone with two of my old high school buddies who still live back in Freeport whom I had not seen or spoken with in a very long time, and who did not know about my recent cancer battle until I mentioned it in a note I sent with my Christmas cards. Fortunately, both of them are doing all right health wise and economically. In fact one is an engineer, bizarrely one of about 40 who still work in the office area of that former Sensata plant. He had a front row seat during the 2012 protests over the closing and subsequent election-induced media circus--but it haunts him now to walk through the empty factory facility that used to employ around 400 people, including a few friends from our old high school days.

He also told me another economic anecdote that was quite telling. Growing up, we were neighbors who lived not far from Freeport's east side, which is the older part of town where people who were stung by the first round of globalization in the late 1970s and 1980s began to cluster. As things grew worse, the blight of drugs, petty crime and broken down looking homes spread slowly westward until it eventually enveloped our old neighborhood. The last time I visited back in 2006, the house I where I'd lived was up for sale as part of a HUD auction after the family who bought it from my father had apparently been foreclosed upon.

Anyway, a guy my friend knows bought a house on that same block about ten years ago for around $49,000--as a globalization loser Freeport never really got caught up much in the housing bubble. Yet--and get this--with the continued decline of the neighborhood he now desperately wants to move but can't because he's too far underwater. That's sad not only for what it says about the current state of home values in my hometown but for the homeowner's apparent inability to pay off a house mortgaged a decade ago for about the price of the countless Lexus SUVs I see driving around in my current neighborhood.

I read recently that Brooklyn is now ranked as the least affordable housing market in America. There have also been numerous stories recently about the insane prices that high rise luxury condominiums are going for in midtown Manhattan these days. It doesn't take a genius to figure out which two sectors (other than Silicon Valley) have done the best in Obama's "zombie economy"--finance and government contracting. Yet the average American citizen consumer idiot insanely still believes they'll strike it rich someday playing in the former's rigged markets and that it really matters which party's politicians' pockets are being lined by both.

Back in 1970 my hometown, sporting a brand spanking new tire plant that was only six years old where my father (who was a recruiter then) had to travel all over the midwest to find enough warm bodies willing to make big bucks at what were admittedly physically demanding jobs, was an offshoot from places like Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland of an American manufacturing economy that supported the most robust middle class the world has ever seen. Though the seeds of the destruction of that economic model ultimately lay within that same peaking of crude oil production, it was the parallel rise of the zombie economy (aided and abetted by fearfully ignorant voters who repeatedly elected the same assholes who sold them down the river) that accelerated its demise.

Happy New Year, everybody.