Where you live: the best places

They’re such a big target – and everyone who reads them knows how easy it is hit the logical lunacy of columns by Tom Friedman, David Brooks, and Maureen Dowd, among others. But this New York Times interactive feature on the best and worst places to grow up also leaves a bit to be desired.

Where to live

I don’t think its fact are wrong, per se; indeed they quite accurate, I’m sure. It’s just that there is far more to the story, which assumes that everyone is only living to earn as much as possible. Certainly, many people are. But do we have to cater every possible thought and thought process toward them? What if you are living to become the best person you can? Or to help make your community a vibrant, welcoming place? To use less energy? To achieve some kind of work-life-family balance? There are a whole host of reasons to live any place, and they can’t be completely disentangled.

Also, for counties where there is extremely bad income mobility for children in poor families, the accompanying text boldly suggests that families should move to a better, adjoining county. There are so many reasons that this would be a terrible idea in many cases that it undermines that case for the entire (and exhaustively robust) info graphic in the first place. That’s the take away? To move? What about the other factors that would surely follow? Besides the obvious impossibilities that would come into play for most people – this is akin to advice that, if your job doesn’t pay well enough, just get another, better paying job – the array of other impacts, less diversity, no public transportation, less nightlife and restaurants, driving (if applicable) back from the terrible place you lived where there was more going on after a few drinks to your Shangra-la out in the (gated, even) sticks, more TV watching, fewer neighbors… the whole thing becomes absurd when imagined within these all-too-likely outcomes.

It is great to acknowledge (and visualize) societal problems. But let’s don’t get too secure in the availability of easy answers.


Tubman_20With some ferocity, I usually resist the impulse to delve into matters financial. But this Dr. K item on GE Capital seems both clear-cut and easy-to-understand:

Most economists, I think, believe that the rise of shadow banking had less to do with real advantages of such nonbank banks than it did with regulatory arbitrage — that is, institutions like GE Capital were all about exploiting the lack of adequate oversight. And the general view is that the 2008 crisis came about largely because regulatory evasion had reached the point where an old-fashioned wave of bank runs, albeit wearing somewhat different clothes, was once again possible.

So Dodd-Frank tries to fix the bad incentives by subjecting systemically important financial institutions — SIFIs — to greater oversight, higher capital and liquidity requirements, etc.. And sure enough, what GE is in effect saying is that if we have to compete on a level playing field, if we can’t play the moral hazard game, it’s not worth being in this business. That’s a clear demonstration that reform is having a real effect.

Bold is mine, because this is key, both to Dodd-Frank and what largely works for business in the U.S. today at the behemoth level. Orwellian language about fairness and tax burdens and putting America to work [again] is just that – all myth. The megacorps want every tactical advantage to operate as alpha predators, forcing all non-megacorp entities to use language like this to accurately describe their actions. It’s win-win, and very savvy of them. Terrible for everyone/thing else. But his little crack of light – an admission that they can’t play if those are the rules is telling, so let’s listen.

Image: will we put American heroine Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill?

All’s Fare in Love and Mass Transit

126th-anniversary-eiffel-towerIn honor of today’s Google doodle of the anniversary of the Eiffel Tower, a word from the fair city – more than a mot, several in fact, on encouraging more transit use and social integration:

What if it were possible to travel as much as you’d like by train or bus within Connecticut, from Stamford to New Haven, Hartford, New London, Waterbury, Danbury, Putnam, and hundreds of other towns, and then to travel within them, all on one transit fare card at the monthly price of just $76?

That’s what, in essence, will occur beginning in September in Île-de-France, the region that surrounds and includes Paris and which is practically the physical size of Connecticut—albeit far more populous and benefiting from a far more extensive transit system.

The plan is to eliminate the current five-zone transit fare system for people holding weekly or monthly passes and replace them with a universal, unlimited fare. The universal card will apply to virtually all transit services within Île-de-France, which is the most populous region in France, with 12 million inhabitants spread over 4,638 square miles (for comparison, the city of Paris proper has 2.3 million residents in 41 square miles, and New York City, which has a universal fare card for Subways and buses, is 305 square miles).

Meanwhile, back at the front… of moving forward with big ideas that help people and planet. Nearer the rear, let’s make sure we continue to wage the battle on whether high speed rail makes sense and against climate scientists lining their pockets with melting glaciers.

Moral Illusions


Discussions about morals can make people uneasy, especially Americans, who believe their/our morals are beyond reproach. But if we can step back far enough from issues of the day, especially those that seem to make no sense, to be moral contradictions of intractable disagreement, we might begin to make sense of why we can’t have stricter guns laws, or can’t manage to quite take care of the poor or allow immigrant children an education or protect drinking water from polluting industries. It is disfunction of the kind of obviousness we can recognize in other societies, communist Czechoslovakia, for example. And when Václav Havel spotted it, we could be like, well yes, duh:

Though the hated state security organs had infiltrated deep into society, even into the ranks of the dissidents, Havel forbade a witch hunt to root them out. In his first address as president, he sternly told his listeners that they were as corrupt as the regime that had just been overthrown:

The worst thing is that we live in a contaminated moral environment. We fell morally ill because we became used to saying something different from what we thought. We learned not to believe in anything, to ignore each other, to care only about ourselves.

It is rare for a leader to attack the moral illusions of his audience, and rarer still to resist the validating temptations of self-righteousness.

That is rare, and it’s at least as rare for people in a country to be able to recognize the nefarious effects of their own system – the guarantees, the openness, the fidelity to ideas that bypass human concerns in ways we castigated in communist regimes, but defend to the hilt under capitalism. We have to consider the moral depravity of the latter, because if that is off limits, then we are no better than the worst party apparatchiks and informers.

 Image: author photo from old town Prague, near the astronomical clock.


ISIS as Islamic Reformation?

Unpacked take on the Islamic State phenomenon as a microcosm of the Protestant religious wars that ripped apart Europe for centuries:


The problem set that we face with ISIS has several components. Among the biggest is that this is a problem internal to Islam. As a result Muslims have to resolve it for themselves. In many ways what we are watching in real time is the Islamic equivalent of the Reformation, counter-Reformation, and then the splintering within the Reformation that led to hundreds of years of struggle, conflict, and warfare in Europe. A lot of it had to do with which version of Christian theology and dogma was supposed to be correct and followed, but a lot of it used that as a motivating factor so elites and notables could control resources. Ultimately they became so intertwined, that even into the 1990s in Northern Ireland or the Balkans they could not be easily teased apart. The other big one for me is that America and its Western allies cannot really resolve this problem set. Even if we were to go in with overwhelming force and just decimate ISIS it would not resolve this dispute, which is multifaceted and internal to Islam.

Read the whole thing, for sure. It’s a response to/critique of a long read in The Atlantic on the same subject. Are these in any way analogous? Even considering it outs the struggle into a different context.

Image: Pilgrimage to St. Isidore’s well, Francisco Goya, 1819-1823, Museo del Prado. Also known as The holy office. The holy office is another name for the inquisition.

Public Art Wars

Now this is how you do it, when you can do it. Seattle’s The Stranger.CapHillPSA

The Paid poster is part of #CapHillPSA, a collection of posters made by local artists addressing the issue of public safety on Capitol Hill. A press release suggests the campaign was intended by organizers Courtney Sheehan and Yonnas Getahun to “demonstrate the role art can play in shaping personal reflection and community action.” As the name suggests, it’s less an art show and more a propaganda campaign, as demonstrated by Ken McCarty’s red-and-black poster displaying a close-up of the barrel of a handgun with the words “STOP THE VIOLENCE” printed on top. It’s purely political, a simple message that wouldn’t be out of place in a church basement or a school hallway.

Most of the work in #CapHillPSA demonstrates a bit of political cartoon DNA tossed in too, with a plucky juxtaposition between words and pictures. Christian Petersen’s poster reads “ALLDICKHEADS-SHOULDFUCKOFF,” with a smiley face in place of the o in “should.” Meng Yu’s poster shows a popped-collar douche rendered in soft neon colors, with the words “Welcome to the neighborhood AGRO BRO” drawn over his turquoise hair. A couple of the works, like Jite Agbro’s gorgeous moody moonlit landscape or Shogo Ota’s prickly hairy-chested figure wearing a vicious-looking spiky bustier, are a little more ambiguous and a lot more visually rewarding.

Protect your town and your neighborhoods, and its weirdness, any way you can. I think the publication’s title is actually a comparative adjective, for what its worth.



The Nation’s Racial Divisions at the Time

mlk01_JaarChilean artist Alfredo Jaar produced this work in 1995, and however it hits you will produce the best sketch of your feelings about where we stand as a country, right now, on our continuing struggles with race.

The artist found it unimaginable that so few whites would attend Dr. King’s funeral:

How could Americans of all racial backgrounds not have mourned the death of the great civil rights leader?

“When I started looking at the shocking absence of white faces, I couldn’t believe it,” Jaar said, “so I started looking for a way to represent this in a graphic and almost funny way. I did not want to preach to people. This was a way for me to express my outrage to what these images reveal.”

How, indeed. In too many ways, the distance between these dots has only grown, even if there are more of them.

The Entitlements entitlement

social securityWho is entitled to endlessly concoct reasons to tear apart a perfectly functional social safety net? Republicans, apparently:

With a little-noticed proposal, Republicans took aim at Social Security on the very first day of the 114th Congress.

The incoming GOP majority approved late Tuesday a new rule that experts say could provoke an unprecedented crisis that conservatives could use as leverage in upcoming debates over entitlement reform.

The largely overlooked change puts a new restriction on the routine transfer of tax revenues between the traditional Social Security retirement trust fund and the Social Security disability program. The transfers, known as reallocation, had historically been routine; the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities said Tuesday that they had been made 11 times. The CBPP added that the disability insurance program “isn’t broken,” but the program has been strained by demographic trends that the reallocations are intended to address.

On the one hand this is sneaky, and on the other it is completely duplicitous. That’s all the hands we have. The retirement fund and the disability fund can be made completely solvent with an easy and frequently used reallocation. The entire conceit of a “broke’ government – concerned citizens in rural towns across the country love to erect these billboards denoting how we are out of money – is simply a rationale constructed to support policy ends otherwise unsupportable. Alongside the fact that no republicans actually campaign on this and such a scheme as outlined in the article must come cloaked in euphemism and  only quietly discussed.

All the while, real opportunities to correct budget priorities are beyond discussion. Entitled to be wrapped in a flag, indeed.

But the real question is, why do we even want to take care of people?

Image:Following the passage of the Social Security Act of 1935, a visiting nurse visits a rural family. Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, courtesy http://www.archives.gov


In A World

…that has a day on which there is an election

in which voters have been bombarded by nonsense

and limited in the number of their votes that will actually be cast

to decide whether a range of important problems will be addressed

and to determine whether crisis-level issues will even be acknowledged,

one woman man group of candidates voter can make all the difference.

That difference is the key, and that voter is you!

So get out there. Too many people have suffered, fought and died for this right for it to be allowed to lay fallow.

Washington isn’t the problem. The problem is the problem, and you can be part of the solution.

Yes, you can.

Eco Hustle – climate change versus the recession

Sounds like a really long band name but no, it’s the gist of an Eco Hustle column from March 2011. From the archives of Flagpole and sadly, still relevant, to wit:

On the off chance that it is becoming possible to think about the climate crisis and our economic collapse as related events, consider the admonitions coming from the financial institutions, corporate media and political establishment of late. Is there any doubt that most of the talking heads on cable, along with an uncomfortable ratio of the professional politicians they report and comment on, do not know what they’re talking about when it comes to the causes for and ways out of our economic recession? Why does the picture seem so incomplete? What’s being left out of the discussion? Who, speaking through silence, bears the name of the one who signs the text?

Perhaps the most famous man to shed a tear in a television commercial was a Sicilian actor named Iron Eyes Cody. Dressed as a Native American of indeterminate tribal affiliation, he paddles a canoe through stagnate waters to a shore littered with all kinds of trash, smokestacks chugging away in the background, eventually arriving at a crowded highway. “Cannon” and “Bullwinkle” star William Conrad intones, “People start pollution. People can stop it.” The Keep America Beautiful ad left us with the salutary glimpse of the tear running down his face.

Maybe this very powerful ad seemed like a turning point when it aired in 1971, and maybe it was because we’ve been tacking the other way ever since. Instead of giving the crying Indian a reason to dry his eyes, we’ve spared no expense to design the perfect towelette to wipe his tear, while generally discouraging such public displays of disaffection. Rather than seeing it for what it was, this example is much more instructive in the service of what was to follow.

The reality show of the American energy future has continued apace, not unrelated to where we left the crying Indian with trash at his feet a few short years ago. Built on the distinct appeal of “tune in next week to see what happens,” it has evolved into an elimination of survivors where we’re making do with what’s left. Yet even as we’re all quite sure that cheap oil won’t last and that anthropogenic C02 emissions will alter the chemical equilibrium of the Earth, the pre-eminent question remains not how, but whether we will plan ahead.

We facilitate this down the line – from the shows we watch to the books we read to the politicians we elect. It’s pretty much an accepted fact that a singular hyperpower will eventually be ruled by an oligarchy. Pace Jefferson and Payne, no one knew how candid this transition might be under the direction of democratic capitalism. Corporatized masses looking to further their economic advantages any way possible foment a reality we are only on the lookout for more ways to showcase…

Read the whole thing, as the kids say.