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Archive for September, 2010

A New Look

I was scanning my blog for typos the other night and started to get a big headache, and it occurred to me suddenly, “Wow, I wonder if white letters on a black background are hard for others to read, too.” I’m worried that my poor design choice is putting off readers.

This is embarrassing, because once upon a time, for about five minutes, I actually made money in a graphics department. Not that I can draw, but I had enough of a design eye that the owner of a very tiny advertising company in Austin, Texas asked me to come work for him. His firm marketed but three things: salsa, strippers and country artist Rick Trevino. (If that doesn’t sound like the makings of a hot Texas orgy to you, then you obviously have no feelings.) Sadly, I could not draw pictures of salsa. When I tried, it looked like a lot of blood. I failed again when I was put in charge of a tiny advertisement for the local strip club, and was given a picture about two inches across with five girls in it. I decided it was better to focus on one so I could balance her body with the text and give readers something visually compelling, rather than five tiny strippers in miniature. All due respect to the miniaturists of the world, but tiny strippers are not sexy. Strippers, if they are far enough away, look just like red ants in Spanx.

Well, all my work was re-edited by my boss, and the five girls were all put back, probably because I had violated the rules of strip club diplomacy by featuring only one. Obviously I had not seen the HBO documentaries on strippers yet and didn’t know how intensely competitive they are. I don’t know if I made anybody angry, but I do know that I was discharged after about a month. Somewhere on an Austin, Texas backup server there sits idly a picture of a lonely bowl of chips awaiting marriage with its salsa in heaven. I think maybe there is also a picture of a molcajete that is the worst picture of a molcajete ever drawn by Anglos or Aztecs.

So why did I turn my page black in the first place? I’ve always liked the moody approach to content, probably after reading “The Medium is the Massage,” by Marshall McLuhan too many times. I wanted my readers to know that this is a place where I regularly delve into my subconscious and evince from those attic boxes of the spirit things that are forgotten, unremembered or repressed. I wanted to give you a really evil Happy Meal in a dark box.

Of course, I could probably come up with more interesting approaches to packaging, the way the McSweeney’s crowd does. But I’m already too busy being creative in other areas to spend an inordinate amount of time on visual design these days. I’ve also hit a wall with technology. I don’t know how to make Word Press do what I want graphically without spending hours of time. Stephanie, my beautiful wife, has more patience for figuring out Web design programs, which is why “The Retributioners” page looks so much better than this one.

Anyway, I’ve decided for the time being to offer you a clean attack. My logo is the same: a seraph looks to heaven for guidance as he would in a Caravaggio painting. (Or perhaps he’s just looking at the ceiling for water damage; I like to think the sculptor understood the marriage of sacred and profane.) In any case, I hope this version of my blog is a little bit easier to read and gives you no headaches and that it also marries the sacred and profane in a way that doesn’t give you an epileptic fit. You deserve no less. I don’t believe you came here in the first place, actually.

(If you have, though, please check out my music on the right hand side! I really think I’m getting better at this. If you’re a fan, I’ll even give you a name: A Salo Head!)

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I Am A Brand

I just returned from a business and economic conference in San Diego, which is one of the reasons for the sparse posting this week. It was a fun conference. Valerie Bertinelli showed up for some reason I can’t quite figure out (I think she was betrothed to a businessman, but I’m too lazy to look it up). But even though she used to be married to a rock star, the real rock stars at this conference were people with names like William Sharpe, a Nobel laureate in economics, and Todd Buchholz, an economist and author. Over the next few days, I’ve been thinking this would be a good place to talk a bit about their economic insights.

But then I thought: “Do you care?” You might be asking, “Eric, you write a lot about stuff that’s not very funny considering you’ve always advertised this as a funny blog. Aren’t you being kind of a pretentious asshole? Or more succinctly, aren’t you diluting your brand?”

Maybe.

Stephanie and I have a good friend named Jessica who specializes in branding people and products. It sounds like one of those absurd non-jobs, but it actually plays an important role in our daily life. It helps turns the wheels of our society in secret, like those companies that create the smell of our “food.”

Everything is branded, from President Obama to raisins, to the Gap, to the outstanding hit Web comedy show “The Retributioners,” which, of course, you can see preserved in the amber of eternal Internet glory. Our brand is so strong that Stephanie and I are being told by everyone that a new season of “The Retributioners” is in order. If you are one of our fans, you have probably noticed that the show has been dormant for a year or so. That’s not because we don’t like you. We’ve just had a bizarre and sometimes tragic year, which I’ve written about elsewhere.

We wondered if perhaps the brand of the show might be strong enough that we can branch out to a new show with new characters that I’ve written, perhaps keeping the link and continuity between the two series. We’ve even got some great actors in mind. But our friends in the branding world say “no!”

Wait, that’s not strong enough. We must say it in German: “Nein!”

If you are, like me, more artistically inclined, this goes against your grain. I am a person who is led more by my inspiration than logic or branding demands, which is why I have carved out this little blog space here, “Beauty is Imperfection,” my playhouse, and repository for whatever I feel like doing whenever I feel like doing it. This page has a different “brand” than “The Retributioners” has. It is based more on Eric Rasmussen and his artistic whims, political obsessions and smart assery. This is also a place where, as you can see on the right hand side of the page, you can find lots of music I’ve written, none of which my wife would allow on “The Retributioners” page. She’s very careful about branding. Also, she’s a horrible bitch and practically deaf. (Just kidding about one of those things, honey!)

So I have to ask myself, what is the Eric brand? Well, first:

–*Eric is inconsistent. Sometimes he’ll blog 30 days in a row. Sometimes he stops for months. This reflects his artistic temperament. It does not reflect on you his readers, whom he loves very much. But how do I brand this? Perhaps I should show up on the cover of a men’s magazine without my shirt on and admit in the cover blurb, “Really, I’ll screw anything.” Sounds like a lovably inconsistent guy, right? Even better if I can pull off this persona in a British accent.

–*Eric is moody. Goes with being inconsistent. For that we need dark colors and a lighting scheme designed my Michael Mann. Envision me, if you will, in shadow. I’ve got deep pains I don’t want to show you. Come on, girls, don’t you like that shit?

–*Eric likes “dark sounds.” One of my favorite essays is by Garcia Lorca, and it’s called “Play and Theory of the Duende,” the duende being a little ghost who is the evil version of a muse, a demon who not only inspires but harasses. He provokes those artists haunted by him to create not only things of beauty but things that are beautifully ugly. You can hear his presence when you hear a guitar really out of tune in a good way, a poet who is raw and whose verse whose ragged but whose insight is profound, and I guess in just about anything by Thomas Pynchon or William S. Burroughs. So cue the dark music. Velvet Underground, please!

–*Eric is pretty liberal. Sometimes I think I could turn conservative. The best conservatives are cautious and skeptical about wrongheaded idealism, yet also optimistic that we can innovate our way out of trouble rather than tearing up dearly loved beliefs and institutions. At least that’s what I read somewhere. So I’m not sure why the ones I see on television are all greedy, racist, superstitious, warlike, hateful and conformist. Until they change, cue the color blue!

–*Eric cannot dress. That’s right. I couldn’t in 1984 and I can’t today. I like jeans and t-shirts and whenever I try to do anything with more style than that, it blows up in my face and I end up looking like something Carmen Miranda’s dog barfed up and then ate again. I’ve just decided to deal with it. Cue some jeans and a black t-shirt.

–*Eric is stubborn. Cue nothing!

–*Eric is obsessive compulsive. By day, I am a copy editor, which means I spend my time hunched over pages full of tiny fonts, my eyes flitting about looking for misbegotten commas, poor syntax and diction so bad it might give the paper Dutch Elm disease. I’m not sure whether I’m a good copy editor because of OCD or whether I got OCD from being a good copy editor. Since I tend to stack everything in neat little rows and always triple check the door to make sure I’ve locked it … you would probably agree with my sister that it’s just baked in. So my brand definitely includes some bleach and other kinds of disinfectant (a warning, though, when creating your brand, don’t mix bleach with ammonia! You will totally blow right the fuck up!)

–*Eric has a dirty mouth. Cue the word “ffffff…udge!”

–*Eric has too many hobbies. Like Madonna, I have created lots of books, movies and music. For some reason, she can tie it all together into a career and I can’t. So, cue bustier.

–*Eric is funny. I will try to remember that even though it has not been a funny year, and even though the only thing that has moved me to write lately are the horrible political and economic times. If I’ve got to talk about the alternative minimum tax again, I promise, I will make a fart joke out of it if I can. You deserve the best.

So reader, what would your brand be? What are the most important words you would use? What emotional affects and effects would your brand require? Are you known for your personal integrity? Are you environmentally friendly? Do you offer grits with that? Does your brand make people think of a comfortable home and hearth or uncomfortable Mid-Century Moderne furniture from Denmark?

If this little essay has done anything, maybe it has allowed you to benefit from my bad examples. If you don’t have a goal in life, maybe you could create the brand first and the goals would follow. The world is yours. Take it from me. Or don’t.

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As the Tea Party movement gains strength and raises its national profile, thousands of students and tutors across the country, in town halls and public plazas, libraries and convention halls, have fanned out to bring vastly needed reading and spelling skills to millions of Tea Party movement members.

“Are governmint is trying to take are money,” railed Tea Party protester Max Bonhof, a resident of Fort Wayne, Indiana who has been attending the party’s events since early 2009 and struggling to communicate his basic frustrations with the role of government in his life. “This soshialism has to stop rite now.”

What began as a few spottily organized demonstrations over the last few years has grown into a nationwide movement with a proven ability to win elections, all at a time when the Democratic leadership in Washington seems unable to cure crippling unemployment. Now that Tea Party members might actually move into leadership roles, pundits and analysts on both sides of the political spectrum agree: the movement badly needs book learning and spelling skills.

“We’re talking about a seismic upheaval in American politics,” says Jay Rundson, a Republican pollster. “These people are going to sweep into office on waves of dissatisfaction with the direction of our country. They will be tackling items like the environment and the alternative minimum tax, and I’m just horrified, with blood rising to the surface of my skin, that most of them don’t know what the AMT is and can’t even spell ‘alternative.'”

“President Obama is a muslin,” said Ruth Gabel of Carlsbad, Calif., trying to refer to the religion of Islam but instead referring to loosely woven white cotton fabric originating in the Middle East. “Liberals wont report the truth.”

As the frustration with Washington reaches critical mass, the Tea Party movement, bereft of basic understanding of politics, statistics, science and spelling, has turned to problematic candidates with little understanding of the political process or the mechanisms of legal procedure.

The Republican primary winner for the U.S. Senate seat from Delaware, Christine O’Donnell, has in the past criticized masturbation and reportedly used campaign contributions to pay her rent, and is considered so unelectable that even Karl Rove, the Republican political strategist and senior adviser to George W. Bush, has called her “nutty.”

“As the winds of change whip through the neoclassical white peristyles, arcades and hallways of Washington, we need to be prepared, just as we were not for Hurricane Katrina, to deal with this onslaught of poorly read, even more poorly skills-tested people reaching the pinnacles of political power,” said moderate Republican Abe Hochstein. “They are about to put their hands on the levers of government. They not only don’t have the instructions, but they probably wouldn’t understand them if they did.”

“We’re at a crossroads in America,” said President Barack Obama. “We face a different set of challenges than our ancestors did. Social Security could be put on ice. Deep sea oil wells are going to rupture or explode. Carbon emissions will change the composition of our skies. Americans are frustrated. So frustrated they can barely articulate their rage. And when I say barely articulate, I mean, they can’t put it into coherent sentences, linear arguments or even understandable grammar.”

Laura Franklin, a grade school teacher from Pensacola, Fla., has been tutoring Tea Party members for the last year or so to help give them better language and speaking tools to get their points across.

“These are people with lots of feelings and strong convictions,” says Franklin. “Things are happening that they don’t understand, and when a person feels disoriented and disenfranchised, at the mercy of political forces he can’t fathom, then he makes self-defeating mistakes out of anger and has a compulsion to repeat them. What I want to do is get these people reading some books and learning something about the forces affecting them. That will help them better focus this awesome energy they have … or, better yet maybe they can peaceably leave the tea party if they wish.”

“I’m through with the taxes and the bailouts and the government messing with Medicare,” said Rosemary Grothe, of Lubbock, Texas, repeatedly contradicting herself.

Jerry Rathskiller, however, of Eureka Springs, Arkansas, was more sanguine after working with a tutor for a few months.

“I used to be a birther,” said Rathskiller, “But after my tutor Shelly taught me what the concept of scientific falsifiability was, I realized how much I don’t know and thought I better shut my mouth before I start to look any stupider.”

An important thing to do with tea party members is to teach them strong verbs, says Franklin.

“They tend to do poorly with these. Usually what you see in tea party members is strings of nouns with no correlation to each other: ‘bailouts,’ ‘Obamacare,’ ‘Acorn,’ ‘Socialist,’ ‘Communist,’ ‘Palin,’ ‘taxes,’ ‘liberal media.’

Franklin says that verbs used with these words and phrases might illuminate them better.

“When a man says ‘Obama is a socialist,’ that doesn’t tell us much,” said Franklin to one of her students. “Maybe you explain with a strong verb what he has done that makes you think that. Perhaps you could make a more concrete statement such as ‘Obama will not let the alternative minimum tax expire.'”

The student stared into his notebook perplexed. Franklin shook her head.

“Patience,” she shrugged. “That’s the hallmark of a good teacher. John Maynard Keynes was so smart he could argue mathematicians like Bertrand Russell under the table. Now we have all these people on the Internet calling Keynes ‘stupide.'”

“I remember the very first things crossed off the “to do” list of our emboldened leaders,” said O’Donnell* speaking at a Family Research Council conference in a barely coherent jumble of hot-button words with no diagrammable structure. ” … They started talking about Obamacare and the bailouts. One industry after another. And our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Confusion everywhere with chatter about withdrawal dates. Plans for closing Gitmo and trying terrorists in Manhattan. And looming Supreme Court vacancies.”

“Reading is fundamental,” said Rove. “I don’t want to bash anyone. All I can say is that I’ve gotten a lifetime of joy out of reading, and although I have preached to dummies all my life, I can finally say that it has come back to bite me in the ass and I sure wish now that we could send an army of brigadistas out to explain some basic ideas about science, math, statistics and meteorology to the tea party movement. If we don’t, we may be surely lost.”

*Most of the quotes here are fictional. The O’Donnell comments are unfortunately not.

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Dinesh and Newt, Cup and Can

There’s an old slang phrase, “cup and can,” which means “best of friends.” As in, “My friend Snooki and I are cup and can.” “Frick and Frack.” It’s a tidy metaphor. A friend is one who offers fuel for another, like the can fuels the cup.

I thought of it not only because I just bought an awesome new slang book but also, I can think of no better image to describe Newt Gingrich and really bad “academic” right wing writer Dinesh D’Souza, two thinkers thick as thieves–accent on the “thick.” One wrote a grouchy, inarticulate and easily ignorable right-wing diatribe (like many of his other stupid diatribes, which in the past have suggested African American slaves had it pretty good). Newt, who ought to have known better, got a belly full of it. Between this article and his recent recantation of his belief in the First Amendment because of the Park 51 Muslim center, he is fueled and full and off to the races, and has now proudly cast his lot with the racists in his party. That’s almost a textbook definition of the right wing these days: a place that makes a safe bosom for racist behavior.

I almost hate to bring attention to this awful piece of writing, but how can you ignore it when it made the cover of Forbes? When people with good names start offer apotheosis to such horrible idiots, it provokes the rest of the media to comment. Yahoo and Slate had to follow with blistering put downs, so why shouldn’t I? Basically Newt reiterated the obscenely stupid message that Barack Obama’s “Kenyan, anti-colonial intellectual framework,” has been taken directly from his estranged father, and that the link has been revealed by the genius D’Souza. If this sounds like an empty piece of pseudo-intellectual bullshit to you, then I ask you to reconsider. It actually reveals scads, not in its content per se, but in what Gingrich thinks of Republicans. They seem to be so stupid, they will enjoy the bouquet of ugly racial overtone, the taste of academic-sounding jargon, and the finish of Freudian cliche. Barack Obama, who gave money to banks to stop a meltdown, and who shepherds the world’s biggest economy, is still in his heart an African like his father trying to uproot the Belgians from Congo.

The Slate article mainly attacks D’Souza’s past attempts at passing off agitprop as academic research, and is a great read. I will stick to the crazy money stuff here.

From D’Souza’s article:

“The President continues to push for stimulus even though hundreds of billions of dollars in such funds seem to have done little. The unemployment rate when Obama took office in January 2009 was 7.7%; now it is 9.5%.”

Let’s get this straight. Obama is taken to task for spending money on hundreds of dollars in stimulus that have done nothing because unemployment is still high. In fact, the stimulus has raised unemployment.

So my first question: How did this person get an article in a business magazine? A little bit of fact checking will tell you why high unemployment has nothing to do with the success or failure of the stimulus–no, you can lay the blame squarely on the feet of American companies, flush with cash, that are still not hiring you or your Uncle Ernie. Instead, they are hoarding their money and delaying new hires to keep their costs down. This means overworking the remaining laborers (your tired Uncle Ned) and otherwise keeping their earnings per share high and their stock prices burnished so that overseas investors will wade back over.

Obama may in fact be in part to blame, but it’s not because of the stimulus, which most analysts agree saved us from a new Great Depression. No, he’s to blame because the stimulus bills didn’t force banks at gunpoint to lend and didn’t force companies at gunpoint to hire. He trusted capitalism to work, it seems. Doesn’t sound like the kind of guy mostly consumed with trying to get France out of Algeria.

For those of you still not in the know: The unemployment rate is indeed higher, but that has nothing to do with the stimulus and everything to do with the fact that the rebound in employment always lags the rebounding market, sometimes by a year, sometimes longer. It’s part of the healing process of an economy, and yes, Uncle Ernie, it sucks. Jobs come back last. Everybody who’s ever spent one semester in B-school knows this, but for some reason it’s too difficult to relate this to the American people. Everybody thinks they won’t understand. Newt and Dinesh know they won’t. Dear conservatives: You’re being mocked.

If you haven’t been paying attention for the last two years, then we should refresh your memory. The unemployment came after a market crash. The market crash was caused by our largest banks going insolvent after buying bad real estate debt. This is not something a president fixes in two days. And to the extent he fixes it at all, he would be doing it with this same stimulus money that gives Dinesh such a soft-off.

The unemployment rate was lower when Obama took office because the recession was still young. Companies were just starting to lay off. Again, not proof of Obama’s leadership problems. They were going to go up no matter what he did. Why unemployment has remained high for so long after the crash is something that confuses economists, but it’s been getting greater with every recession since George H.W. Bush was in office and it has everything to do with globalization, not failed stimulus. When the jobs come back online, they go to cheaper labor overseas.

So onto the next piece of shit somewhat disingenuous argument. From Dinesh:

“Yet [Obama] wants to spend even more and is determined to foist the entire bill on Americans making $250,000 a year or more. The rich, Obama insists, aren’t paying their “fair share.” This by itself seems odd given that the top 1% of Americans pay 40% of all federal income taxes; the next 9% of income earners pay another 30%. So the top 10% pays 70% of the taxes; the bottom 40% pays close to nothing. This does indeed seem unfair–to the rich.”

I’ve said it elsewhere and don’t want to sound like a bore, but Obama is not foisting a spending spree on anybody. Taxes are going up to pay for two Republican wars and a prescription drug benefit. The Congressional Budget Office has said repeatedly that if the Bush tax cuts, which never should have been passed in the first place, were allowed to continue, then our deficit would climb up to 90% of GDP over the next 10 years. This is a plea by people in the know who run our budget, not the evil plan of an anti-Colonial crypto-Kenyan black guy who wants the Italians out of Ethiopia.

D’Souza also says that the top 1% of Americans pay 40% of federal income taxes and 10% of Americans pay 70% of federal taxes, which is unfair to the rich. Let’s do some math: In 2005, if you were lucky enough to be among the top 300,000 Americans, you made 440 times what the average person in the bottom half of the income universe did (see my story “Bye Bye Beaver,” down below for more on this) and you all collectively took in as much as the bottom 150 million Americans combined. The average income of the top 1% in 2005 was $1.1 million, while the median household in the U.S. has stayed around just over $50,000. If you were in the top 1%, in 2007 you took more than 20 cents of every dollar earned in America, while the rest of us divided up the dregs. Also, if you are in the top 10%, you were among the only people to see your earnings increase.

So if you are paying only 40% of federal income taxes, part of this is by default: You have earned the right to pay it by making so much god damned money. In fact, seems like you’re doing pretty well.

I’m on a tear about the math. But let’s be clear–Newt, a major contender for president, has just forwarded racist samizdat worthy of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and passed it off as a critical historical review. To say that a president who is deliberative, maybe to a fault, is actually still a Luo tribesman in his heart, full of black rage, is just as bad as calling him an uppity Negro. The fact that this story hit the pages just as two completely bat shit crazy Tea Party candidates made waves with their primary victories in the East Coast should give us all pause. The Tea Party is a platform with lots of anger and without many ideas. Actually, if your platform is just “liberty!” then that’s a pretty explicit way of saying you have no platform at all. They talk about taking back America. Too much of that rhetoric uses subtle forms of racism like this horrible article. Pseudo-academic histories like D’Souza’s actually further prove how intellectually bankrupt conservatives have become. We’re a long way from Reagan.

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Why is the middle class disappearing? Why are women suddenly making more than men in their peer groups? Why is consumption in China all of a sudden looking like it could outpace the U.S. one day?

These questions might seem unrelated, but they’re not. They are all the signs of the anti-Christ.

No wait. What I meant to say is that they are the predictable results of capitalism. But it’s an easy mistake to make.

We all remember “Leave It To Beaver.” The classic nuclear family protected by middle class trappings and postwar prosperity wrapped up in pretty shirtwaist era dresses. A whole slew of new articles have been appearing in the major magazines pointing out what a lot of you already know, which is that Beaver is dead. And no, I don’t mean that he died in Vietnam after getting a punji stick infection. I mean the American dream of the 1950s–to have one breadwinner with economic security and a stable pension who can also provide for a family with two or three kids, all of whom can afford college–is disappearing. It was a reality so recent and so palpable that it seems now with each passing year to have been a pernicious joke played by God or the Shriners to make us feel that much worse now that it’s disappearing.

But it seems in retrospect Ward and June lived at an inflection point in history–a vast expanding post-war boom on the one hand and a strong labor movement on the other that protected workers, where a floor was set on wages. Where one of the world’s best educational systems allowed a smart person to go to class, and more important, allowed him to leave his class, too. Ward cringed when the Beaver wanted to be a garbage man. Why? Because American upward mobility has been the siren song drawing immigrants up through dry bone desert nights and the recurring source of American pride for both left and right. It’s one of the few things we all agree on. That and Willie Nelson.

Now it’s being chiseled away at, and everybody’s got their own parochial ideas about why it’s happening. Timothy Noah at Slate is currently publishing an incredible series on the vanishing middle class that I highly recommend. The good news about him is that he approaches new ideas with intellectually curious humility, not the dismissive, counterintuitive arrogance of lawyers (like many other Slate writers). In this particular case, he tries to examine all sides of the issue.

First the right wing: to the extent that they care at all, they seem to think the vanishing middle class is an immigration issue. It’s simple supply and demand. Paco the wetback is coming over here to pick your grapes and tomatoes, and because he’s bringing his cousins, the dollar that would go to your cousin gets divided up into nickels. After all, the tomato doesn’t care.

This concept is so easy to understand that I can almost forgive you for believing it.

I give you an other image: Paco the Wetback Accountant, crossing the border with his clothes in a plastic bag, dodging concertina wire and rattlesnakes and the Minutemen all so that he can come over to set up an office of beaverboard in a strip mall and steal your tax planning clients with his cheap Mexican calculator.

Sound stupid? Yes, immigration would be harming our middle class, but only if 1) Immigrants were coming to America with middle class skills (they aren’t), and 2) They were fanning out across the U.S. (they aren’t).

But let’s skip the loin and go right for the ribs: right wingers don’t care if there’s a wealth disparity anyway. The rich right wing have got the fundamentalist tenets of capitalism on their side which says, “If I have the capital, I’m already doing my job. You can party in my house. But don’t forget who owns it.”

You might say, “So what? That how capitalism ought to work!” But you might also know people (as I do) in all walks of life who are overpaid at their jobs. Similarly, I think the rich are vastly overpaid for the work they do in our economy. At the end of the day, the main thing they want is to suck more off the top than they put in. That’s what private equity investing is. I drink your milkshake.

Those conservatives who aren’t rich … well, they confuse me. They seem ready to fight and die for the most insignificant tax breaks you can imagine. They are either perversely wedded to ideology or ready to give up better roads and schools for a plasma TV.

For more proof about how conservatives don’t care about wealth disparity, you only need read an article by the rare one who does–say, a National Review writer who brings up the shrinking middle class issue to his fellow conservatives and gets himself roundly booed for it. Read how he sheepishly has to apologize that he’s not arguing for socialism. For conservatives, there is no middle ground between a discussion about wage disparity and collective farming.

Liberals have their own problems to work out. My personal feeling was that Ronald Reagan ended the middle class by cutting taxes on the rich and destroying labor when he fired air traffic controllers. But that’s an oversimplification, too, because wages started to stagnate in the 1970s, before Dutch took office. Still, the periods in the U.S. when there is an aristocratic tendency toward wealth disparity have usually been those periods when government was least involved, in other words, when Republicans are in charge, the poor see income stagnate and the rich don’t. That’s not because they’re stealing. It’s because they are letting the engine run without controls. And over time, the engine diminishes the rewards to those with redundant skills (in other words, regular people) and rewards those with the capital (mostly the rich, even if, like me, you have a mutual fund and benefit slightly).

When your labor is redundant or commoditized or can be taken over by a machine, your value declines. This is as true for doctors as it is for mechanics. To be paid more, you have to offer something that is not routinized. You have to find a place where the market could be working better and see how you can be taking advantage of it. This is one of the beauties of capitalism because it creates wealth where there wasn’t any before. But when it decides that your labor isn’t necessary any more, screw you. A doctor surrounded by lots of other doctors won’t make more money. Only a frontier doctor will. Problem is, the frontier is gone.

Today it’s in China, a country with a 60% rural population rapidly urbanizing and rapidly creating a consumer culture–which is the economic potential of a supernova. What you call the American dream will in 50 years be called “The Chinese Dream.”

The nice thing about America circa 1950 and its nice middle class was that the lines were blurred enough that anybody could conceivably jump classes (up or down) according to what their spirit desired. If a stupid Marxist attacked you for your bourgeois indulgences like perfume and chocolate, you could rightly say “a world in which everybody could chase perfume and chocolate indulgences would be a pretty sweet ass world.”

To keep your middle class, you need new industries to be borne up and you need more ways for more people to participate in it. It means giving business incentives, but it also means educating your people and safeguarding their wages with rugged regulation. There is no way around this. If we ignore it and let the anti-government fanatics have their way, America is going to become a world of plutocrats and look more like one of those tiny countries with a landed class that sells rubber and coffee and lives off the backs of peasants. Despite what flag-waving faux-patriots at Fox News say, our greatness will surely be over.

*My original title for this post was “Kiss Your (Middle C)lass Goodbye,” but then I saw after the fact that the Huffington Post already took that headline a few months ago. This is the problem with trying to be original. Too many other people do it first.

Image: healingdream / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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As I get older, I feel less enthusiastic about marking the anniversaries of horrible events (or even good ones). I hope that doesn’t sound callous, especially since I didn’t lose any friends or family members in the Twin Towers. But at some point, grief becomes self-perpetuating. I have known people who have built entire shrines to their grief as a way of holding on to it. I was familiar with this behavior on Sept. 11, 2001 from reading. I know it first-hand this year after losing my mother in a car wreck. Grief is something you have to let go of. And anniversaries are just one more way of preserving grief in amber.

But for documentary purposes, I’ll tell you that as a New Yorker, I went through periods of shock, depression, mania and denial due to the terrorist attacks, if not nervous breakdown. I’ve heard there are studies suggesting that the closer you were to the towers on Sept. 11, the greater your chances of suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. I was two miles away, for whatever that’s worth. And looking back, I sometimes wonder if I indeed suffered from it, if not from some milder, derivative form of despair.

I was a freelance journalist at the time, living in downtown Brooklyn. I had just finished up a morning Web feed for a financial news site when a friend called and told me to turn on the TV. Seems the World Trade Center had been hit by an airplane. I walked to the Brooklyn waterfront and found not one but both buildings gashed, with flames licking up the sides–vast walls of flames that it takes you a moment to realize are as tall as small buildings themselves. But why two crash sites? I thought at first that maybe one plane had sliced through Tower 1 and hit Tower 2 (though the trajectories didn’t match). The radio said two planes.  “That’s impossible. Surely I’m hearing it wrong.” Terror wasn’t in my thoughts.

Though I knew about Al Qaeda and the bombings of the U.S.S. Cole and the African embassies, I never really understood Osama bin Laden, a former U.S. ally whose beefs still seemed too esoteric and obscure to me. He didn’t seem to be a guy fighting against colonialism or for the freedom of his people but rather a self-important freebooter who felt double-crossed by the American military. He seemed so proud, blustering and overly sensitive that he had probably felt double crossed a lot in his life–by the Americans, by the Saudis, by his family. People like that make great sociopaths.

I then made what in hindsight turned out to be a foolish decision. I decided to go back home and call a few editors to see if there was anything I could write about the emergency. I have never been much of a spot reporter, but 2001 was the year I had quit my job with the intention of being more of a go-getter.

So I ran home thinking, again foolishly, that the fires, still burning at that point, would be contained. “Why sit here and watch it burn?” I thought. “It’s not like the towers are going to collapse.” In 1993, the World Trade Center had already been attacked, when a terrorist loaded up a van full of explosives. The destruction underground opened 100 foot holes five stories tall. And yet the towers stood. And a B-25 Mitchell had hit the Empire State Building in 1945 without felling it.

My bad. As we all found out later, the math changes when the most vulnerable beams are all on the outside of your building. They didn’t have to melt. All they had to do was fail. I raced home to find out from the radio that  Tower 2 had indeed fallen right where I’d stupidly left it. Shows how good a spot news reporter I am. I ran home from the real story.

I then sallied back outdoors to see from my cramped Brooklyn vantage point what Lower Manhattan had turned into. Many TV cameras have caught the images of that day, so I doubt I could do them justice with poetic ruminations of destruction. But what had been lower Manhattan was subsumed in a dark purple-yellow cloud with some buildings sticking up out of it. It looked as if part of the sky had been erased by a furious illustrator unhappy with the work he’s done. But it was obvious from the columnar shape of the cloud that what had been erased was a building.

A guy nearby on the Brooklyn waterfront said “I know there’s a God now because I’m over here and not over there.” It sounds horrible, but the graveyard humor started before both towers had gone down.

I headed north to my friend Michael’s house. He  lived much closer. Before I got there, it started snowing–not precipitation but pulverized concrete, getting into my eyes and piling up on the cars. Winter in September. And overhead of course, the lighter material was flying away–reams of paper. You could only imagine what was printed on it. Thousands (millions?) of pieces of paper flying away on top of the rising heat. With Brooklyn suddenly enmeshed in clouds of the destroyed Tower 2, I had to go indoors with my friend and watch the final destruction of Tower 1 play out on television like the rest of America. I knew by that point we’d be going to war. Some friends and I went to the water front again when the skies had cleared a bit. “This is the new skyline,” said a guy with a video camera. “Guess we better get used to it.”

I went back home to attend to e-mails flooding into my box from friends and family asking me if I was OK. On the map, I looked very close to the destruction, especially to people out of state.

At some point I cried. I don’t remember what set it off. I think it was a friend’s letter asking me what they could do. I wasn’t sure what to do next, but then a friend from Texas gave me a virtual slap upside the head: “You’re a writer. Write about it.” As it happens, I had only one writing gig at that point at a nurse’s magazine. Not exactly what I had in mind. But they wanted a story. All of a sudden I was a real reporter covering a life and death situation.

So I lay down on the floor and had a panic attack. Not only was I going to have to write about something I hadn’t come to grips with, but I was going to have to become a spot news reporter instantly, which I hadn’t been before. My chest hurt and I felt when I got up like I was going to fall over. At some point, though, I made it to the George Foreman grill, and shoved a piece of chicken into it, then ate the bland, vulcanized thing for the protein. It was the bit of strength I needed to get out the door.

I somehow got a subway train to Manhattan, which coughed me up in Greenwich Village, but most of the routes downtown were barricaded at Houston Street. Nobody was allowed to go south, even if they lived there, and I couldn’t convince the cops to let me through. It was the middle of the afternoon and the day was still, all things considered, quite pretty. The traffic was diverted and in the middle of Sixth Avenue, the usual river of taxis had dried up. In the middle of the empty thoroughfare was a young man who had set up an easel and was splashing across his canvas a giant expressionistic acrylic version of our national tragedy while it was still in progress. More gallows humor (or coping?)

I went to St. Vincent’s hospital and found a press area, defying the press credential requirement and jumping into the pit. I asked doctors and nurses what kind of injuries they were seeing. Turns out, there weren’t many. Sept. 11 was extremely binary in its casualties list (at least during the first day) Either you died or you didn’t. You can read the story I wrote on it here if you like. It’s not Pulitzer material, but it got me through the day.

Drinks were free that night. We told more inappropriate jokes. We asked each other if we were OK. Some people hooked up. Others just walked around. The next day was like a Saturday at Disneyland. People walked around with their kids in a light so soft it was almost impressionistic. People called friends they hadn’t called in years. Even I called an ex with whom I’d had an acrimonious break up. I don’t know why. I had to make sure she was OK.

I met Stephanie a few months after the attack and went back to work full time and can say now that 2002 was one of the best years of my life, following 2001 which was undeniably the worst. I came through it better, but different.

I am extremely clear headed about the political questions raised by 9/11. Whatever America has done in Chile, Nicaragua, Vietnam, East Timor, Angola or Cuba, you can’t possibly take the side of a murderous religious fundamentalist, somebody who wants to revive a medieval caliphate, and think it’s OK for him to murder American civilians to right American wrongs. If you are one of the people who think America had 9/11 coming, I don’t count you much of a thinker. I think of you as doctrinaire and sad.

At the same time, the burden of introspection on Sept. 11 was unfortunately on those who were hurting the most. Only a few brave contrarians pointed out back then that Afghanistan was going to be a mess if we invaded. Now we have that mess. People cried war, because at the time we figured at least 10,000 people were dead and surely that was an act of war. Logic didn’t bear this out, however, since no government per se had attacked us. Ultimately I backed our president’s incursion into Afghanistan because the Taliban were at least undeniably protecting the people who attacked us.

Not so, Saddam Hussein. Americans still in pain 20 months later were still not thinking critically at all, and they let George Bush and his cadre of think-tank neoconservatives take advantage of us by leading us to war in Iraq. We know in hindsight that we were vulnerable to manipulation. It’s very, very hard to say we should have anticipated it from Day 1.

But the political realities are just one thing that have made me grow up. More important was that 9/11 made me realize  how much I love my city. Moving here and becoming part of New York with its bustles and frustrations had been a dream of mine since I was little. Learning the city means making it a part of your body–you have to know the rhythms, the steps, the hustles, the battles. You have to know when to step back from the subway. You have to know when to fight city hall and when not to. When you make the city so much a part of your own body, perhaps it just makes sense that you would hurt when it hurts. The strangest thing I can say about 9/11 is that, even though I didn’t lose anybody close to me in those planes or in those buildings, I took the attack very personally. This great metropolis they had built was in my mind, despite its flaws, a paradise. And to see so many ideals ripped down at once–the aspirations of young people, the aspirations of peace makers, and the aspirations of people who build things like tall buildings–was the saddest thing to me as a New Yorker and a young person, too. Soon, I wasn’t young anymore.

Photo: The 9/11 Tribute in Light

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Did any of you see this “oops” moment in the investment world–how many socially responsible investors and “green” mutual funds were actually invested in disgraced oil giant BP when the Deepwater Horizon exploded? That means if you were an investor trying to plow your money into environmentally sensitive businesses, you might have been unhappy in March to find yourself part-owner of a giant oil company with a bad safety record.

We wrote a couple of articles about it at the magazine I write for, Financial Advisor, where I’m the senior editor. The situation is not as simple as it seems, and if anything, it should remind you that economics make even stranger bed fellows than politics. The reason many socially responsible investors were holding BP was not just so they could boost returns and screw the planet. It is part of a broader engagement to get those companies in the biggest polluting industries to play ball. BP had a stated willingness to lower its greenhouse gas emissions and discuss climate change, unlike some of its brethren in the industry. The bad news is that the company had a crap safety record. This set off warning bells, and many socially responsible funds earlier this year started thinking of dumping the company before something really bad happened.

Before they knew it, something did.

I’m sure The Wall Street Journal article on the story is better than mine, but if you do want to read my story and get more esoteric facts about how socially responsible funds score and rate their holdings, you can see it here.

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