November 4, 2013

Get Busy Living Or Get Busy Dying

"Get busy living or get busy dying."
Scene from the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption
YouTube video posted by L. Blumberg

October 27, 2013

But Prosperity For Whom?

Se Necesitan Bar Maids (Barmaids Needed) 
sign seen on Roosevelt Avenue in 
Photograph courtesy Pak So and Anna Tan

Excerpts below from Inequality Is a Choice, an op-ed by economist Joseph E. Stiglitz published in the October 13, 2013 edition of The New York Times:

The United States provides a particularly grim example for the world. And because, in so many ways, America often "leads the world," if others follow America's example, it does not portend well for the future.

. . . . . . 

Last year, the top 1 percent of Americans took home 22 percent of the nation's income; the top 0.1 percent, 11 percent. Ninety-five percent of all income gains since 2009 have gone to the top 1 percent. Recently released census figures show that median income in America hasn't budged in almost a quarter-century. The typical American man makes less than he did 45 years ago (after adjusting for inflation); men who graduated from high school but don't have four-year college degrees make almost 40 percent less than they did four decades ago.

American inequality began its upswing 30 years ago, along with tax decreases for the rich and the easing of regulations on the financial sector. That's no coincidence. It has worsened as we have under-invested in our infrastructure, education and health care systems, and social safety nets. Rising inequality reinforces itself by corroding our political system and our democratic governance.

And Europe seems all too eager to follow America's bad example. The embrace of austerity, from Britain to Germany, is leading to high unemployment, falling wages and increasing inequality. Officials like Angela Merkel, the newly re-elected German chancellor, and Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, argue that Europe's problems are a result of a bloated welfare spending. But that line of thinking has only taken Europe into recession (and even depression). That things may have bottomed out - that the recession may be "officially" over - is little comfort to the 27 million out of a job in the E.U. On both sides of the Atlantic, the austerity fanatics say, march on: these are the bitter pills that we need to take to achieve prosperity. But prosperity for whom?

. . . . . . 

Inequality and poverty among children are a special moral disgrace. They flout right-wing suggestions that poverty is a result of laziness and poor choices; children can't choose their parents. In America, nearly one in four children lives in poverty; in Spain and Greece, about one in six; in Australia, Britain and Canada, more than one in 10. None of this is inevitable. Some countries have made the choice to create more equitable economies: South Korea, where a half-century ago just one in 10 people attained a college degree, today has one of the world's highest university completion rates.

For these reasons, I see us entering a world divided not just between the haves and the have-nots, but also between those countries that do nothing about it, and those that do. Some countries will be successful in creating shared prosperity - the only kind of prosperity that I believe is truly sustainable. Others will let inequality run amok. In these divided societies, the rich will hunker in gated communities, almost completely separated from the poor, whose lives will be almost unfathomable to them, and vice versa. I've visited societies that seem to have chosen this path. They are not places in which most of us would want to live, whether in their cloistered enclaves or their desperate shantytowns.

October 6, 2013

Here's To Cowboys And All They Stand For

Here's to Cowboys and All They Stand For, c.1980
Photograph by Nathan Lyons
From the series Riding First Class on the Titanic

Excerpt from Our Democracy Is at Stake, an op-ed by Thomas L. Friedman published in the October 1, 2013 edition of The New York Times:

"This time is different.  What is at stake in this government shutdown forced by a radical Tea Party minority is nothing less than the principle upon which our democracy is based: majority rule.  President Obama must not give in to this hostage taking - not just because Obamacare is at stake, but because the future of how we govern ourselves is at stake.

What we're seeing here is how three structural changes that have been building in American politics have now, together, reached a tipping point - creating a world in which a small minority in Congress can not only hold up their own party but the whole government.  And this is the really scary part: The lawmakers doing this can do so with high confidence that they personally will not be politically punished, and may, in fact, be rewarded. When extremists feel that insulated from playing by the traditional rules of our system, if we do not defend those rules - namely majority rule and the fact that if you don't like a policy passed by Congress, signed by the president and affirmed by the Supreme Court then you have to go out and win an election to overturn it; you can't just put a fiscal gun to the country's head - then our democracy is imperiled.

This danger was neatly captured by Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, when he wrote on Tuesday about the 11th-hour debate in Congress to avert the shutdown.  Noting a shameful statement by Speaker John Boehner, Milbank wrote: "Democrats howled about 'extortion' and 'hostage taking,' which Boehner seemed to confirm when he came to the floor and offered: "All the Senate has to do is say 'yes,' and the government is funded tomorrow.' It was the legislative equivalent of saying, 'Give me the money and nobody gets hurt.' "

Excerpts below from What's the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America by Thomas Frank, first published 2004 by Henry Holt and Co.:

... The high priests of conservatism like to comfort themselves by insisting that it is the free market, that wise and benevolent god, that has ordained all the economic measures they have pressed on America and the world over the last few decades.  But in truth it is the carefully cultivated derangement of places like Kansas that has propelled their movement along.  It is culture war that gets the goods.

From the air-conditioned heights of a suburban office complex this may look like a new age of reason, with the Web sites singing each to each, with a mall down the way that every week has miraculously anticipated our subtly shifting tastes, with a global economy whose rich rewards just keep flowing, and with a long parade of rust-free Infinitis purring down the streets of beautifully manicured planned communities.  But on closer inspection the country seems more like a panorama of madness and delusion worthy of Hieronymous Bosch: of sturdy blue-collar patriots reciting the Pledge while they strangle their own life chances; of small farmers proudly voting themselves off the land; of devoted family men carefully seeing to it that their children will never be able to afford college or proper health care; of working-class guys in midwestern cities cheering as they deliver up a landslide for a candidate whose policies will end their way of life, will transform their region into a "rust belt," will strike people like them blows from which they will never recover.

. . . . . . . . 

Viewed from Mission Hills, this is a social order that delivers quaint slate roofs, copper gutters, and gurgling fountains in elegant traffic islands; viewed from Garden City, it is an order that brings injury and infection and death by a hundred forms of degradation; rusting playgrounds for the kids, shabby decaying schools, a lifetime of productiveness gone in a few decades, and depleted groundwater, too.  The anthropologists caution us in their sober way about a recipe for "growth" that blandly accepts a permanent impoverished class, but the people of Mission Hills are unfazed.  They may be too polite to say it aloud, but they know that poverty rocks.  Poverty is profitable.  Poverty makes stocks go up and labor come down.

. . . . . . . .  

Let us pause for a moment to ponder this all-American dysfunction.  A state is spectacularly ill served by the Reagan-Bush stampede of deregulation, privatization, and laissez-faire.  It sees its countryside depopulated, its towns disintegrate, its cities stagnate - and its wealthy enclaves sparkle, behind their remote-controlled security gates.  The state erupts in revolt, making headlines around the world with its bold defiance of convention.  But what do its rebels demand?  More of the very measures that have brought ruination on them and their neighbors in the first place.

This is not just the mystery of Kansas; this is the mystery of America, the historical shift that has made it all possible.

. . . . . . . . 

This situation may be paradoxical, but it is also universal.  For decades Americans have experienced a populist uprising that only benefits the people it is supposed to be targeting.  In Kansas we merely see an extreme version of this mysterious situation.  The angry workers, mighty in their numbers, are marching irresistibly against the arrogant.  They are laughing at the dainty affectations of the Leawood toffs.  They are massing at the gates of Mission Hills, hoisting the black flag, and while the millionaires tremble in their mansions, they are bellowing out their terrifying demands.  "We are here," they scream, "to cut your taxes."

. . . . . . . . 

This makes sense when we recall that the great goal of the backlash is to nurture a cultural class war, and the first step in doing so, as we have seen, is to deny the economic basis of social class.  After all, you can hardly deride liberals as society's "elite" or present the GOP as the party of the common man if you acknowledge the existence of the corporate world - the power that creates the nation's real elite, that dominates its real class system, and that wields the Republican Party as its personal political sidearm.

The erasure of the economic is a necessary precondition for most of the basic backlash ideas.  It is only possible to think that the news is slanted to the left, for example, if you don't take into account who owns the news organizations and if you never turn your critical powers on that section of the media devoted to business news.  The university campus can only be imagined as a place dominated by leftists if you never consider economics departments or business schools.  You can believe that conservatives are powerless victims only if you exclude conservatism's basic historical constituency, the business community, from your analysis.  Likewise, you can only believe that George W. Bush is a man of the people if you have screened out his family's economic status.  Most important, it is possible to understand popular culture as the product of liberalism only if you have blinded yourself to the most fundamental of economic realities, namely, that the networks and movie studios and advertising agencies and publishing houses and record labels are, in fact, commercial enterprises.

. . . . . . . . 

... As we have seen, conservatives grandstand eloquently on cultural issues but almost never achieve real-world results.  What they're after is cultural turmoil, which serves mainly to solidify their base.

. . . . . . . .

The Kansas conservatives, it seems to me, can be divided into two basic groups.  On one side are the true believers, the average folks who have been driven into right-wing politics by what they see as the tyranny of the lawyers, the America-haters at Harvard, the professional politicians in Washington, or the eviction of God from public space.  These kinds of Con will throw themselves under the wheels of an abortion doctor's car; they will go door-to-door and spend their life savings for their causes; they will agitate, educate, and organize with a conviction that anyone who believes in democracy has to admire.

On the other side are the opportunists: professional politicians and lawyers and Harvard men who have discovered in the great right-wing groundswell an easy shortcut to realizing their ambitions.  Many of them once aspired to join - maybe even did join - the state's moderate Republican insider club.  Rising up that way, however, would take years, maybe a lifetime, when by mouthing some easily memorized God-talk and changing their position on abortion - as Brownback and other leading Cons have done - they could instantly have a movement at their back, complete with superdedicated campaign workers they wouldn't have to pay and a national network of pundits and think tanks and talk-show hosts ready to plug them in.

Kansa's bright young Republicans know which way the wind is blowing.  The old Mod machine, they can tell, is tired and aging and clearly out of step with the national trend to the right.  Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum are long gone, while Brownback, Tiahrt, and company promise to be with us for decades to come.  The state's smart young lawyers these days all become Con men, as do its Harvard grads and its Rhodes scholars.

. . . . . . . . 

... The fever-dream of martyrdom that Kansas follows today has every bit as much power as John Brown's dream of justice and human fraternity.  And even if the state must sacrifice it all - its cities and its industry, its farms and its small towns, all its thoughts and all its doings - the brilliance of the mirage will not fade.  Kansas is ready to lead us singing into the apocalypse.  It invites us all to join in, to lay down our lives so that others might cash out at the top; to renounce forever our middle-American prosperity in pursuit of a crimson fantasy of middle-American righteousness.

July 24, 2013

Think For Yourself Or Someone Else Will Do It For You

The Serra Pelada Gold Mine, Brazil, 1986
Photograph by Sebastiao Salgado

Following are excerpts from How Media Bosses Undermine Democracy by Yavuz Baydar, published in the July 21, 2013 edition of The New York Times:

"As the social unrest reached a peak on May 31 with clashes between tear-gas-happy police officers and protesters spreading through the heart of the city, the lack of even minimal coverage by seemingly professional private news channels presented the residents of Istanbul's upscale neighborhoods near Taksim Square with a moment of truth. They could see, hear and smell the truth from their windows, and they quickly realized how their TV channels had lied by omission.

As the city center turned into a battlefield, 24/7 news channels opted to air documentaries about penguins or to go on with their talk shows. One channel, Haberturk TV, only 200 yards from the now famous Gezi Park, had three medical experts discussing schizophrenia - an apt metaphor for the state of journalism in Turkey."

. . . . . .

"The plague of sanitized media coverage reaches far beyond Turkey. Across the globe, and especially in young or struggling democracies like Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil, the Philippines, South Africa, Hungary and Albania, the lack of media independence is doing real damage. Media executives who intimidate or censor reporters while kowtowing to governments to protect their other business interests are undermining the freedom and independence of the press that is vital to establishing and consolidating a democratic political culture.

Dirty alliances between governments and media companies and their handshakes behind closed doors damage journalists' role as public watchdogs and prevent them from scrutinizing cronyism and abuses of power. And those who benefit from a continuation of corrupt practices also systematically seek to prevent serious investigative journalism.

The problem is simple: one need only follow the money. Turkey's mainstream media is owned by moguls who operate in other major sectors of the economy like telecommunications, banking and construction. Since only a few large TV channels and newspapers make profits, the proprietors tend to keep them as bait for the government, which needs media managers who are submissive to the will of politicians."

. . . . . .

"Turkey's rapidly growing economy has caused such greed that the media owners regularly counteract the judgment of professional journalists who are trying to do their jobs on behalf of the public. Editorial content is strictly controlled by media bosses who have other business interests and are submissive to the government."

June 3, 2013

The Game Is Rigged

Park Avenue: Money, Power & the American Dream
A film by Alex Gibney first broadcast 
on PBS on 11/12/2012

March 5, 2013

The Ghost Of Romance In Paris, France

The Kiss, 1907 by Constantin Brancusi
Sculpture seen above Tania Rachevskaia's 
tombstone at the Cimetiere du Montparnasse 
(Montparnasse Cemetery) in Paris, France
Photograph by Anna Tan and Pak So

Tombstone of Constantin Brancusi
Cimetiere du Montparnasse, Paris, France
Photograph by Anna Tan and Pak So

Tombstone of Jean Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir 
Cimetiere du Montparnasse, Paris, France
Photograph by Anna Tan and Pak So

Tombstone of Man Ray and his wife Juliet (Browner) 
inscribed "Unconcerned, but not indifferent" and 
"Together Again". Seen at the Cimetiere 
du Montparnasse in Paris, France.
Photograph by Anna Tan and Pak So

Lovers in the Latin Quarter, 1932 by Brassai

Couple d'Amoureux, Quartier Place d'Italie, 1932 
by Brassai

Couple d'Amoureux dans les Jardins 
des Champs-Elysees, c.1932 by Brassai

Tombstone of Brassai (Gyula Halasz)
Cimetiere du Montparnasse, Paris, France
Photograph by Anna Tan and Pak So

February 9, 2013

Year Of The Snake

YouTube video posted by comaco

Time to usher in Chinese New Year with Sam Hui's classic tribute to the God of Wealth from late 1970's Hong Kong!

February 3, 2013

Ordinary Human Beings As Machines

Thanks to A. for sharing the book Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut, first published in the U.S. by Delacorte Press, 1973.  Following is an excerpt from the novel.

A lot of the nonsense was the innocent result of playfulness on the part of the founding fathers of the nation of Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout. The founders were aristocrats, and they wished to show off their useless education, which consisted of the study of hocus-pocus from ancient times. They were bum poets as well.

But some of the nonsense was evil, since it concealed great crimes. For example, teachers of children in the United States of America wrote this date on blackboards again and again, and asked the children to memorize it with pride and joy:


The teachers told the children that this was when their continent was discovered by human beings. Actually, millions of human beings were already living full and imaginative lives on the continent in 1492. That was simply the year in which sea pirates began to cheat and rob and kill them.

Here was another piece of evil nonsense which children were taught: that the sea pirates eventually created a government which became a beacon of freedom to human beings everywhere else. There were pictures and statues of this supposed imaginary beacon for children to see. It was sort of an ice-cream cone on fire. ...

... Actually, the sea pirates who had the most to do with the creation of the new government owned human slaves. They used human beings for machinery, and, even after slavery was eliminated, because it was so embarrassing, they and their descendants continued to think of ordinary human beings as machines.

The sea pirates were white. The people who were already on the continent when the pirates arrived were copper-colored. When slavery was introduced onto the continent, the slaves were black.

Color was everything.

Here is how the pirates were able to take whatever they wanted from anybody else: they had the best boats in the world and they were meaner than anybody else, and they had gunpowder, which was a mixture of potassium nitrate, charcoal, and sulphur. They touched this seemingly listless powder with fire, and it turned violently into gas. This gas blew projectiles out of metal tubes at terrific velocities. The projectiles cut through meat and bone very easily; so the pirates could wreck the wiring or the bellows or the plumbing of a stubborn human being, even when he was far, far away.

The chief weapon of the sea pirates, however, was their capacity to astonish. Nobody else could believe, until it was too late, how heartless and greedy they were.

January 16, 2013

The Whole Universe Is The Canvas

Thanks to Bryan for sharing the book Zen In The Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel, first published by Pantheon Books, Inc., 1953. Following is an excerpt from the introduction to the book by Daisetz T. Suzuki:

When a man reaches this stage of "spiritual" development, he is a Zen artist of life. He does not need, like the painter, a canvas, brushes, and paints; nor does he require, like the archer, the bow and arrow and target, and other paraphernalia. He has his limbs, body, head, and other parts. His Zen-life expresses itself by means of all these "tools" which are important to its manifestation. His hands and feet are the brushes and the whole universe is the canvas on which he depicts his life for seventy, eighty, or even ninety years. This picture is called "history."

January 15, 2013

You Can Make Your Own Taste

Excerpts below from Richistan: A Journey Through The American Wealth Boom And The Lives Of The New Rich by Robert L. Frank, published 2007 by Three Rivers Press, NY:

It's not the high prices for "quality" art that bother Ebsworth. Picasso's Boy with Pipe, which sold for $104 million in 2004, he says, was "worth every dollar." So was the Klimt. What troubles him - and signals an irrational market, fueled by Richistani competition - are the huge prices being paid for bad art.

"When you see a late '60s Picasso selling for more than $15 million, that's crazy. That was his weakest period. These people have a lot more money than smarts. They're buying the name, nothing else. The dealers are flakking these B-minus pictures as if they're great works, and buyers don't know the difference.

The art market hasn't seen such a run-up in prices since the late 1980s. And while many say history is bound to repeat itself - with a speculative bubble followed by a sudden collapse in prices and demand - others say supply and demand will dictate a continued rise in prices. There are, quite simply, too many rich people chasing the same paintings.

The big auctions in New York have become like spectator events for competitive spending. Sotheby's and Christie's racked up combined sales of $729 million during their fall 2006 contemporary-art auctions - more than 10 times their total in 2000.

Richistanis like their art large and loud. As one New York dealer told me, "Today's collectors are buying with their ears, not their eyes." And they want brand names. They want their guests to notice the Picasso signature above the dining table or the Jackson Pollock splatter painting next to the big-screen TV.

"They've got the yacht and the three homes, so what's left?" Ebsworth says.

Beyond filling space on their walls, the New Rich have been convinced that art is an investment product. Wealth managers, financial advisers, art dealers, galleries and auction houses have all colluded to push the concept of art as a way to make money. A Chuck Close portrait isn't just a painting: it's a "noncorrelated asset." Art doesn't just balance the living room; it balances your portfolio.

By turning art into a financial product, art dealers have made the market much more appealing to Richistanis. Richistanis may not understand the cultural importance of Campbell's Soup Can with Can Opener, but they do know that price increases for Warhols have far outpaced the stock market in recent years. The Mei Moses Fine Art Index, which aggregates the prices of artworks that have sold publicly at least twice over their lifetime, has handily outperformed stocks in the past five years.

. . . . . . . .

... Many hedge funders have become savvy art flippers, using their expertise in financial trading and market-making to buy and sell paintings. Contemporary art is especially attractive, since prices are set more by trading activity than by history and critics. In 2003, Dan Loeb, the 43-year-old hedge-fund manager partner at Third Point LLC, bought a painting titled UNO-Gebaude Haus per la pax, by the German artist Martin Kippenberger. In 2005, he sold it to British collector Charles Saatchi for a 500 percent profit, making a quick $1 million.

"With this kind of art, you can make your own taste," quipped hedge-fund manager James Chanos.

Some hedge-fund managers invest heavily in one or two artist, build up a "position" and help boost their prices before unloading the works at a profit.