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Political Revolution?

Feb 11, 2016
Political revolution? As we bask in the short interval between Bernie’s New Hampshire rout of the Democratic establishment this week and the unknowable future in Nevada, South Carolina, and beyond, perhaps we can pause a moment to contemplate the possibility.

I have written in this space of my reservations regarding Bernie’s agenda, particularly his flagship issue of income inequality. His plan for a $15-per-hour minimum wage in a few years is hopelessly inadequate.

However, it is inarguable that he has hit the nail on the head regarding the ills America faces. And, incredibly, the electorate is responding to his message. Incredible, because most candidates never shut up about how exceptional and wonderful and perfect America is compared to the rest of the dreary, ill-informed, and dysfunctional world. Newsweek, too, had a piece following the NH primary which noted how very unusual this campaign round is in that regard.

I have also written in this space, “We will take our country back by ballot or by bullet. I cannot see any third alternative, and bullets are notoriously unpredictable. People are making noises about third parties, but nothing significant has been launched that I know of. Now is the time.”

This was way back in October 2011, when there was no hint of a Sanders candidacy. I wrote quite a lot about third parties back then because I could not imagine the coming of a candidate from either major party (could you?) who would espouse systemic reform to the extent that Bernie has.

So perhaps we do have a political revolution in the making. We certainly have as much of one as I am likely to see in my few remaining years. The establishment, as we have seen, will stop at very little to put the kibosh on that revolution, as they must. Establishments don’t make revolutions, people do.

So thank you, Bernie, for the frisson of hope you gave us this week. If the ball keeps rolling, well and good. If it falters, if the misrepresentations, belittlement, threats, and prognostications of doom from the establishment pundits, pols, and plutocrats combine to sufficiently intimidate and frighten the sovereign voters of this great nation, well, no one will be surprised.

But we’ll always have New Hampshire.

tags: Politics | Governance | Candidates

My Four-Star Books in 2015

Jan 31, 2016
I rate the books I read (I usually finish about 64 a year). Three stars is Recommended; four stars is Highly Recommended. Here are my 26 Four-Star (and one rare Five-Star) books from 2015 (the most since 2011). This was the year I discovered Mary McGarry Morris, a great teller of tales. Bold-faced items are standouts:

Masters of Atlantis, Charles Portis
The blazing world, Siri Hustvedt
Closing time, Joe Queenan
Just mercy, Bryan Stevenson
History of the rain, Niall Williams
And so it goes, Charles J. Shields
Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
How to build a girl, Caitlin Moran
The collected short fiction of Bruce Jay Friedman
How it all began, Penelope Lively
Preparation for the next life, Atticus Lish
An army at dawn, Rick Atkinson
England and other stories, Graham Swift
The trees, Conrad Richter
Songs in ordinary time, Mary McGarry Morris
Euphoria, Lily King
American rust, Philipp Meyer
Vanished, Mary McGarry Morris
Bunker Hill, Nathaniel Philbrick
A dangerous woman, Mary McGarry Morris
Pride and prejudice, Jane Austen (A rare five stars)
A hole in the universe, Mary McGarry Morris
Honeydew, Edith Pearlman
10:04, Ben Lerner
The god delusion, Richard Dawkins
Mislaid, Nell Zink
Persuasion, Jane Austen

tags: Books and Libraries

Sermon on the Slope

Jan 01, 2016
We all are angry. We all are vindictive. We all are envious.

None of us of sound mind and body is free of the inclination, all too often, to feel and express the most deplorable, dispiriting, and destructive of human emotions. And the fact that we all are also capable of compassion and the many varieties of love does not compensate for that fact, unless we consciously reject the destructive in favor of the life-affirming attitudes and emotions.

It is especially important that we do this in the political arena. The Republican field in the 2016 presidential race is filled with individuals who are adept at arousing our least admirable and most destructive emotions. The more adept they are, the higher they rank in the polls, with Donald Trump—part demagogue, part buffoon—today leading the pack.

These people, whichever of them becomes the party’s nominee, would have us renege on the social contract we have with ourselves.

They would increase the income inequality that already today is marked by the largest gap in history and a disappearing middle class.

They would consign to the capitalist system large swaths of public life—education, retirement, infrastructure—that depend upon cooperation and not competition or the profit motive to succeed.

They would marginalize and criminalize large sectors of our population while protecting the privileges and power of a tiny band of the super-rich.

They would enter upon dangerous military adventures that have already siphoned trillions from our coffers in pursuit of losing battles and in support of corrupt dictatorships that tyrannize and murder their own people.

Unfortunately, on the Democratic side, though the picture is not so dire, neither can it be considered very hopeful. Hillary Clinton is the epitome of a “business as usual” candidate, and only at our great peril can we carry on as we have for the past 35 years. And even Bernie Sanders, with his “political revolution” fails to adequately address questions of militarism, domestic unrest, environmental catastrophe, and—surprisingly since this is his defining issue—income inequality (see my Open Letter to Bernie Sanders in September 2015).

We must set aside our anger, our vindictiveness, our envy, and our fears. We are better than this. We are stronger than this. We are a caring, liberty-loving, rambunctious, ingenious, and generous people. And our happiness depends on promoting the happiness of others. The fact that we have not attended to this business for a generation or two is responsible for the sorry state we find ourselves in at this start of a new year.

tags: ATN | Politics

Einstein and Me

Dec 06, 2015
It’s gratifying when you find a genius who agrees with you. Here’s what Einstein once said:

Strange is our situation here on Earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine a purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: that man is here for the sake of other men—above all for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness depends.

Einstein doesn’t just mean you need to keep your boss happy. If, for instance, your fellow citizens are ill-housed, un- or underemployed, impoverished, unhealthy, and uneducated, you can bet your life your happiness will be diminished if not ultimately destroyed.

Your happiness is diminished when your paycheck is plundered to provide a niggardly subsistence to those unable to provide for themselves. This includes the three million people who earn at or below the minimum wage (Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics), not to mention the millions more who earn less than a living wage.

The current federal minimum wage ($7.25/hour since July 2009) is considerably less than half a living wage by most accounts (see, e.g., the living wage calculators at MIT and the Economic Policy Institute).

Your happiness is diminished by the increase in all sorts of crime and corruption that thrive in times when the absence of “smiles and well-being” is so apparent among so many. We are living in an angry world, where in the U.S. a mass shooting happens on average more than once a day; where millions risk death to flee places that should be considered their home and sanctuary; where existence is threatened for other millions by rising ocean levels and capricious weather patterns; where a vicious fundamentalism has replaced strong-man tyrannies and spread its venom throughout the world.

Your happiness is diminished by the cost of dealing with all this unhappiness, in domestic surveillance, enforcement, and imprisonment; and in international conflicts that siphon trillions from our treasury.

In Darwinian terms, ensuring the other guy’s “smiles and well-being” is a survival mechanism, not some feel-good, altruistic effort, and this is Einstein’s point: Our survival depends on the other person’s survival; our happiness on their happiness.

No candidate for president has proposed policies or programs that are not, finally and essentially, business as usual, or worse, or much worse. No candidate has proclaimed that we must rewrite our social contract with ourselves, to acknowledge the truth of Einstein’s observation and to pursue its goals with dispatch. Not even Bernie.

And for that reason, I despair of the short-term future for our nation, and of the long-term future for our planet.

tags: People | Poverty | Politics

The Road Ahead

Nov 14, 2015
You reap what you sow.

Western Europe and the United States have, for several hundred years, enslaved, colonized, and ravaged peoples around the world. We have overthrown legitimate governments and established and supported brutal tyrannies in the name of stability and to support unbridled capitalistic pursuits. While our enviable democracies have enabled a level of peace and plenty which made of us the beacon of hope for the rest of the world, we have taken every opportunity to withhold a share of our good fortune. And in being willing to go to any lengths to protect and enhance our own interests, we have created monsters of much of the rest of the world.

What happened in Paris last night; in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC, in 2001; in Madrid in 2004; in London in 2005; is going to happen continually and forever. Unless we change.

We know what we have to do, to undo what we have done. It will be a long and bumpy road. If we don’t decide to take it, however, we know the cost, as we already have begun to see our enviable democracies under attack, both from within and without.

Our only avenue to continued peace, liberty, and plenty is to bring peace, liberty, and plenty to the world.

tags: Terrorism | Europe | Human Rights

Talk Back!

Sep 30, 2015
Thanks to a cool new tool called Genius, you can now talk back to me with comments, arguments, guffaws, whatever. Simply block any word, phrase, sentence, or group of sentences. An odd-looking icon (what is that, anyway?) will appear above the blocked copy. Click it and an annotation section will open up on the right side of your screen. Once you annotate something, it thereafter displays with a yellow background. Click anything with a yellow background, and its associated annotations open up.

You may be sure I will keep an eye open for annotations and will respond to any that are not abusive, profane, or stupid. It would be even better if Genius could send me an email alert whenever a new annotation is created.
tags: ATN | Working Together

Open Letter to Bernie Sanders

Sep 26, 2015
Bernie,

I am writing this letter to you on my page because, even though the email I received from you today says, “we need to hear your ideas as to what issues are most important to you ....” there is nowhere on your official campaign website for me to say these things to you.

It is good to see you are fleshing out your platform beyond the one-note income inequality issue with which you launched your campaign. I agree with everything in this email that sets forth your position on many issues, with the following exception:

You say, “We need to raise the minimum wage to a living wage. . .Over a period of a few years the national minimum wage should be $15 per hour.”

You need to go much further than this. For one thing, $15 per hour is not a living wage right now, let alone will it be in a few years. MIT has an excellent Living Wage Calculator which I believe originated at Penn State. It indicates that a living wage for an adult with one child in our state of Vermont is already $22.04 per hour. Now of course what constitutes a living wage must of necessity be a matter for careful study and computation. The Economic Policy Institute, for example, estimates a living wage for the same adult with one child living in Vermont at $25.71 per hour.

I hate to say this to you, Bernie, because I believe you are sincere in your campaign. However, anyone arguing for less than a living wage TODAY is playing into the hands of the corporatocracy, not to say colluding with them, to maintain a high level of poverty in this country.

I have taken the pledge not to vote for any candidate who does not support my personal platform: A guaranteed job at a living wage for any adult 18-65 who wants one. Then dismantle the huge, expensive, humiliating, and ineffective social “safety net” of alphabet programs that simply sustain dependency among a population perfectly capable of independence.

The second essential plank of my platform is real education reform. The waste of brain power in this country (and throughout our world) is a disgrace. Real reform is going to be expensive and disruptive. However, it needs to be pursued with a single-minded purpose: That ALL our children will be provided with a quality education, whatever it takes, whatever it takes, whatever it takes.

So good luck, Bernie. I don’t expect to be voting for you or anyone else in 2016, unless a candidate comes along who is truly willing to speak truth to a populace exhausted by the wretched governance that has been foisted on us since the Reagan administration. We are in a downward spiral in this country, and a $15 minimum wage in a few years is not going to slow that descent one little bit.
tags: Politics | Labor | Employment

Keeping the Waltons Out of the Poorhouse

Apr 18, 2015
A new study by the Center for Labor Research and Education at UC/Berkeley quantifies the amounts spent by federal and state governments on four of the most costly public assistance programs. The researchers gathered data on expenditures for Medicaid/CHIP, Temporary Aid to Needy Families, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Between 2009 and 2011, $152.8 billion per year was spent on just these four programs. And the most shameful fact, which was no surprise to me, was that over half of that state and federal money—56%—went to working families.

You and I help support millions of underpaid workers while their employers, people like the heirs of Sam Walton, become multi-billionaires. Much of those billions going into their pockets are dollars you and I have worked hard to earn. How is it we can be played for such suckers?

The report also repeats some familiar and equally dismal facts: Real hourly wages for the median American worker increased by only 5 percent between 1979 and 2013. And for the bottom 10% of workers, the wages were 5 percent lower. Furthermore, wages for the bottom 70% of workers were either flat or in negative territory between 2003 and 2013. The rich are getting fabulously richer, the poor are getting poorer, and you and I are struggling hard to stay where we are.

There is something very wrong with this picture. We have two options: solve the problem or watch it get worse. Powerful forces in American politics are at work to guarantee the latter. If no one emerges to challenge the essentially identical economic programs of the current left and right, things will only get, in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, “unimaginably worse.” Just how bad do they have to get?

The solution is a simple one: Jobs for all, at a living wage, and end the many inefficient, ineffective, and humiliating programs masquerading as “safety nets” for the poor. All they do is sustain poverty and allow a capitalistic system run amok to maneuver more of us into that category.
tags: Politics | Poverty | Governance

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