Monthly Archives: February 2009

A Huge Deficit and Nothing But Guns to Show For It

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In today’s Washington Post, ultra-conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer writes that Obama wants to make the U.S. like Europe. Some Americans like me who actually live in Europe don’t think that is necessarily a bad idea.

I think I have already made this point ad nauseum, but I will repeat myself: throughout continental Europe, health care is free and universal and there is no noticeable difference in quality to that in the U.S. Meanwhile, public transportation and infrastructure is very noticeably superior in Europe and crime rates are much lower. And imagine, with fewer vacation days and labor strikes, American workers are actually on par with their French counterparts in terms of productivity. Continue reading

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More Fascism than Socialism

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Recently, I have been making the argument that the U.S. should be defined more by government intervention than by truly free market capitalism. Since Reagan in the 1980s, in spite of the propaganda to the contrary, we have seen a consistent and significant increase in deficit spending and in the government’s share of GDP (i.e., more, not less, government participation in the economy). Thus, it seems completely absurd to hear Republicans suddenly complain that the Obama administration is somehow bringing back “big government”.

Maybe Obama’s promise to provide universal health care significantly alters the rhetoric of the role of government in society. Some conservatives may call that type of government intervention — spending tax payer dollars on services that go to tax payers — socialism, but then how would they describe the previous thirty years of government intervention? The government intervention in Iraq, equaling the cost of the stimulus; defense spending disproportionate to that of the rest of the world, without a convincing military victory since World War II; deregulation of financial services, health care, and industry that does not benefit the consumer or the free market but only the banks, HMOs, and oil companies; and policies that subsidize and perpetuate mega farms and uncompetitive mining and automobile companies at the environmental and health expense of citizens. When the government, be it at the helm of Bush or Obama, passes bailouts and stimulus packages that protect the mismanaged from the free market, that is not socialism. It is more like national corporatism, a.k.a. fascism.

Even the moral hazard argument has been applied with a clear bias. When people have been unable to meet their mortgages, there has been a tendency to say tough luck, caveat emptor. You were stupid and the government’s role isn’t to help the stupid. But when Wall Street can’t meet its obligations, it is still considered highly qualified, sophisticated, and its livelihood essential. Simon Johnson describes the banking industry as an oligarchy comparable to those in emerging markets. Ironically, the U.S. is bailing out the oligarchy with the exact opposite remedy we have always proscribed to failing economies. So then where do these bailouts and stimuli leave the U.S. on the political spectrum? Closer to socialism or fascism?

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Hairstyles of the Damned

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I just finished Hairstyles of the Damned by Joe Meno,  a coming of age tale about high school students set in 1990-91. Meno does a fantastic job of portraying all of the angst of high school: the conflict between trying to fit in and be unique at the same time, hormones run wild, parents and a loss of innocence about marriage and family continuity, and inevitability of adulthood. As reflected in the title, the characters’ hairstyles are one way that the teenagers define themselves. More interesting than their hair, though, is how music plays such an important role in their search for identity and belonging, but more so in what I would argue to be music’s role in moderating one’s emotions. Just think about how — be it metal, punk, hip-hop or dance — teenagers have always gravitated to loud music, muffling all of those conflicting voices that distract their already distracted minds.

Most of all, Hairstyles of the Damned simply reminded me of high school. Ironically, though, while so many of the characters resembled people I grew up with (I graduated one year before those in the book), my personal high school experience was completely different. For some reason, I never fell into any of those traps, for I was completely indifferent to being cool, fitting in, or listening to “cool” music. I spent my time playing soccer and listening to Reggae by myself. I was in my own world.

What I didn’t like about the book was that it made me feel old. Being a contemporary of characters set in a historic context, as mentioned in number 9 of 25, made me feel irreversibly fleeting, like the past.

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Penelope Oscar Barcelona

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I suppose it is no surprise when mediocrity is rewarded with an Oscar. Nevertheless, I always feel a sense of dismay whenever a tearful actor or actress expresses gratitude to loved ones for some remarkably average performance in some remarkably average movie that deserves to be classified merely as a “show” rather than art.

Penelope Cruz’s Oscar award this year for Best Supporting Actress, therefore, should not have surprised me either. Yet instead of reinforcing mediocrity the Academy rewarded her total lack of credibility. Penelope Cruz’s performance in Vicky Cristina Barcelona was little more than  bilingual yelling. As a matter of fact, both her and Javier Bardem’s characters were two of the least plausible character portrayals I can recall. The fact of the matter is that after almost nine years of living in Spain and 20 years of traveling to Spain, neither character even remotely resembled any Spanish person I have ever dealt with. And Woody Allen deserves most of the blame. Continue reading

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Jazz Loft and Treasure Trove

In recent years some great live Jazz performances, dust-ridden and forgotten, have been discovered in the back of some warehouse. The most famous of these is a live performance of John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk playing together at Carnegie Hall. Perhaps even more exciting is the new discovery of 3,000 hours of tapes from a New York City loft where Thelonious Monk and other Jazz musicians hung out and practiced. While perhaps Monk preparing for his ground breaking Town Hall Concert is the most newsworthy aspect of these tapes, the mikes also spontaneously captured other moments that give a unique glimpse into Jazz’s past, including a drug overdose by Sonny Clark (another of my favorite Jazz pianists).

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When You’re Allowed to Be Racist

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I just read this article about how a man kills his wife by cutting her head off. The title of the article is “Muslim TV exec accused of beheading his wife”. Maybe I could understand if this article were written say in the Spanish press where the nationality or religion of a crime suspect (when not Spanish) is considered newsworthy as if criminality and ethnicity were intimately related. But in the American press, political correctness and journalistic integrity long ago recognized the racist pitfalls in defining suspects by their race, religion or ethnicity.

Nevertheless, a man kills his wife and he happens to be Muslim, so there is the presumption that Islam is the culprit. Isn’t it funny how the political correctness of the American media and society would never have allowed anyone to bring up the man’s race or religion were he Jewish, Christian, Black, or Hispanic?  It would not be considered newsworthy, but Islamophobia is so strong that no one complains and everyone is eager to draw conclusions. Meanwhile men are killing there wives all the time throughout the world. In Spain, it is actually a big problem, but no one is claiming there is a Spanish tradition of honor killing.

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Time for a Wake Up Call

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I love my country. I love the fact that we are a nation based on a political ideology of separation of powers and separation of church and state. I love our notions of equal protection and due process, and the uniqueness of our civil rights movement. I love that we are a nation of immigrants and have no official language. You won’t find that anywhere else in the world.

But just as you won’t find a Barack Obama, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, or George Soros flourishing elsewhere in the world, the United States is due for a serious wake up call; it is falling behind. The best example of this are the ridiculous accusations of “socialism” by America’s conservatives as a last ditch effort to dissimulate their own lack of ideas and deflate Obama’s optimistic bubble.

Let’s look at the facts. Republicans have nothing left but fear-mongering, falling back on the 1980s Reagan anti-communism rhetoric to call Obama’s stimulus plan socialism. Ironically, just as the Republicans have deified Reagan as capitalism’s heroic slayer of communism, the majority of the world now views American capitalism as the principle culprit in the global economic crisis. America has become the easy scapegoat.  Here’s how the story goes: when we’re not bombing the world to fuel our SUVs at home, we’re bullying countries to open their markets to American goods and services and to liberalize their banking systems. They followed suit, got burned, and now have to pay the price for a failed economic policy.

As I have already mentioned, free market capitalism has never been honestly practiced in the U.S. Rather, our government has consistently intervened, through corporate tax breaks, licenses and permits, deregulation and military action, in favor of large companies at the cost of taxpayers and the free market. So what are the Republicans proposing now? More of the same. As Paul Krugman writes in The New York Times:

But it’s now clear that the [Republican] party’s commitment to deep voodoo — enforced, in part, by pressure groups that stand ready to run primary challengers against heretics — is as strong as ever. In both the House and the Senate, the vast majority of Republicans rallied behind the idea that the appropriate response to the abject failure of the Bush administration’s tax cuts is more Bush-style tax cuts.

It’s time that we had an honest conversation, and by honest I am mean free of the brainwashed anxiety about socialism and bread lines. It’s time to face the fact that we have fallen behind the rest of the world. How much better are we than other developed nations? Continue reading

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