A Socialist by Necessity: Losing the Angry Man

There is no singular road-to-Damascus event that triggered a socialist conversion.  It cannot be measured in a few years, but instead by decades.  Many Republicans today bemoan that the party shifted to the right and left them where they were.  In my case, experiences and observation have progressively forced me to the left so that I am  now functionally socialist.

PracticalDad:  A Socialist by Necessity

…and a little child shall lead them.

Isaiah 11:6

Becoming a socialist didn’t happen overnight.  It came by degrees over the span of decades via divergent experiences that forced me to reassess not only my political beliefs, but also what would be necessary for my own children – and grandchildren – to have a semblance of an economically stable life.  The first step of that transition was simply an occurrence which in the moment made the home atmosphere a little lighter:  shutting down talk radio.  And as Isaiah noted, it was a little child – my then three-year old daughter, Eldest – who led me.

Like many conservatives, I listened to Rush Limbaugh.  I wasn’t there at the very beginning of his decades long run but I did start listening in 1991 when I began to share an office with a talkative and easy-going co-worker while working in North Carolina.  Nor was I a daily listener for the full three hours because part and parcel of the job was to spend considerable time walking the enormous medical center complex as a member of the Risk Management department.  But when we were both in the office, Rush was reliably in the background.  When I paid attention, I didn’t always agree but I did find him politically well-versed and frankly entertaining.  As his popularity grew over the next several years, I listened intermittently simply because my new job in DC didn’t allow radios in the offices.

That listener status changed in the latter half of 1994 however, with the birth of Eldest and our mutual decision that I should stay home with the baby.  While it is far more common for fathers to do so in 2020, it wasn’t the case in 1994.  Perhaps the most frustrating aspect to being the stay-at-home father was the isolation.  Mothers that I met at the playground were talkative and friendly but once they understood that I was the primary caregiver and not the engaged father with a day off, a switch was literally flipped.  So what’s his deal?  Is he unable to hold a job or is there something wrong here?  Wow, his poor wife…  Chat would peter out and any hope of setting up a play date for the toddler would wither like an elapsed time rose on the trellis.  Starved for adult conversation and any variety in the day, I began to flip on Limbaugh at noon when Eldest and I had lunch and it stayed on when I put her down for her nap.

This routine continued for three years.  It wasn’t as though I ignored Eldest and we ate in silence; children require conversation and interaction and as she grew, we would discuss the trip to the park or the change in seasons or even the squirrel who seemed to enjoy putting on a show retrieving plums from the tree outside the kitchen window.  But Limbaugh was also on low in the background and I would listen more intently after she was napping, keeping me company while I cleaned up the kitchen or any other number of household chores.  Until one day when was three years of age and she commented at the table about “the angry man”.  The conversation proceeded along the lines of :

Daddy, why is the man so angry all the time?

What man?  I don’t know who you are talking about.

Him, Daddy.  The man who is angry.

I don’t know who you are talking about, honey.

Him, Daddy.  The man who is talking now.  He’s always so angry.  Why?

It wasn’t until she mentioned that he was talking at that moment that I finally understood.

I made a point of relating that head-scratching conversation to my wife that evening after Eldest and Middle, the infant, were in bed.  It was treated as a curiosity item from the day but my wife, BH, didn’t leave the conversation there.  Maybe it’s more than just a remark by a little girl.  His tone is obviously something that has caught her attention and sufficiently enough to remark upon it.  And she’s saying that he’s always angry.  When I responded to the effect that he wasn’t always angry and that such was part and parcel of his persona, she retorted that a persona was beyond the comprehension of a three-year old child. Her final question was succinct:  Is this the kind of atmosphere that we want in the house through the day?  

Point taken.  With that, Limbaugh was off the air when Eldest was awake.  It wasn’t that the kids were running the household and we were beholden to them; it was simply that every household has a particular rhythm and vibe and we chose not to have this ever-present angst humming in the background.  By now, Eldest had been joined by Middle and the game of Dad, the Human Pinball was starting to get interesting and as the kids grew, there would be sufficient paternal crankiness without the talk-radio overlay nudging it along.  Seriously, as much as you love your children and would die for them, raising small children is sometimes like being continually pecked by ducks.

There were occasions that I continued to tune in when the opportunity arose, even if I increasingly disagreed with him.  But the final break occurred in the late 1990s when Congress was looking to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, a mainstay of financial regulation.  Limbaugh continually argued with through that period that government regulation was as unnecessary in the financial sector as it was in the other sectors.  He remarked – presciently – that far more wealth would be generated if the government and the liberals would only step back and let Wall Street make money.  It was his use of the term liberal during one of these monologues that grabbed my attention one evening.  Seriously…liberal?  The principal Senate sponsor of the bill was  Democratic Senator Carter Glass of Virginia.  He was actively involved in laying out multiple pieces of key federal legislation regarding the national financial system, including the passage of the Federal Reserve Act of 1913.  He was also a highly conservative segregationist, certainly not one of this generation’s Democrats.  After multiple Congressional hearings about the collapse of the market in 1929, Glass was ready to move with FDR’s inauguration and sponsored the act that subsequently bore his name.  This bill was one of the few areas in which he agreed with FDR and he pushed for it because he saw that the collapse occurred due largely to the lack of any meaningful regulatory oversight of a laissez-faire financial sector that went far beyond the bounds of any semblance of rational behavior.

Glass-Steagall was not about ratcheting down and stifling innovation.  It was about creating and maintaining a set of boundaries on unethical and dangerous financial behaviors.  It was Limbaugh’s willful disregard that finally made me turn him off.

Through the subsequent years, talk radio expanded.  It expanded across media platforms to television and podcasts as well as the political spectrum so that even the most far-left and far-right proponents had their own shows.  That I didn’t listen was more about the function of time than dislike.  By now, Eldest and Middle were joined by Youngest and there were now three children across a span of three educational levels.  With constant activities and oversight, who had time?  I might still hear a little bit here and there and I was well aware enough that I knew who was now on the airwaves.

This dislike of broadcast punditry fully blossomed when Youngest was in elementary school and I began to share greater responsibility with my sibling for an aging parent.  Our father had died years before and as our mother aged and her horizons shrank, she increasingly spent her time watching Glenn Beck and all of the Fox evening programming.  Her natural conservatism sharpened with the ongoing stories of liberals and societal decline and her fear increased.  Over time, there were more phone calls seeking reassurance about that or that political issue, or why the Democrats would allow themselves to run a candidate who wasn’t actually an American citizen, let alone a Muslim.  What I noted when I visited her retirement community apartment was that all of the public area televisions, as well as in the apartments whose residents had left the doors open, were tuned to Fox News.  Her final four years were notable by an increasing level of paranoid dementia.  She wasn’t incompetent but obviously paranoid and this was only fed by the constant barrage of fear-mongering and criticisms from Beck, O’Reilly and Hannity.  The number of phone calls increased further and the tenor of our visits changed dramatically.

My mother’s television faced the front door to her apartment and when I entered, after a short hallway silent prayer and an unheard knock, I could tell what kind of day it would be.  If she sat in her swivel chair facing the television and Fox News was airing, I knew that she had watched at least some of Fox and Friends and with her anger stoked, some fresh new misery awaited me.  In those instances, she would hear me loudly call out a greeting, swivel her chair towards me like the turrets on a battleship and fire the first of what would be multiple angry salvos.

These instances, and the phone calls, increased in frequency and yes, they were also synced to her mental status decline.  By the time that Eldest was in college and gearing up for a semester abroad to Central America, the dam broke while having lunch with her in the community cafeteria.  This was also during the period that candidate Donald Trump was proclaiming Mexico as a land of rapists and drug dealers, his immigration comments trumpeted by the evening Fox commentators.  Confused about where Eldest was traveling, she began by loudly questioning my competence as a father by allowing my daughter to travel to such a place.  Heads swiveled across the entire cafeteria as she yelled.  She couldn’t identify the destination that so badly scared her, simply referring to it loudly as there.  Nor could she say who it was that scared her, only repeating the words them and those people.  It required some minutes of quiet conversation to talk her down and get her to understand that her granddaughter would be safe from them, those unknown people that she couldn’t name but who scared the living shit out of her because the Republican candidate and good folks of Fox News said that they were bad.

As the comment goes, no amount of therapy and bourbon will erase that.

It is now impossible to avoid the political punditry even if I keep the programs turned off.  The gas-bagging has taken over the actual news cycles and they are replete with reports about what nonsense has been uttered by Limbaugh or Carlson.  Even Maddow and Scarborough on MSNBC make news with their  commentary.  I will sometimes verify what I read or hear and it is usually correct in it’s ridiculousness.  I suppose that it would be exactly as the late Roger Ailes would have wanted with various commentators tossing out verbiage that itself becomes the news instead of the reality of what is actually occurring.  The death toll today was more than a thousand lives, but did you hear what Carlson said?  Roger Ailes would be proud.  He helped to create Rush Limbaugh in the late 1980s and under his later guidance, he led Fox News to top ratings and immense profitability.  It was, is and will be about the money and if you doubt that, I refer you to then-CBS President Les Moonves comment in 2016 about candidate Donald Trump:  It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.

As I write this, Rush Limbaugh is still broadcasting despite stage IV lung cancer.  I haven’t listened in years apart from the rare verification under the heading of did he really say that?  My own father passed away of that illness almost twenty years ago and having been there with my sister at his death, I don’t wish poorly for Limbaugh because it’s not likely to be an easy death.  But I will absolutely not miss his presence.  What he and his ilk, on both sides of the  airwaves, have done in the pursuit of ratings and profit is multi-fold.  They have assisted in the fragmentation of a nation and encouraged the practice of reducing people to broad-stroke caricatures.  They dumbed down important topics and abetted the corporate class in selling and justifying a system of wholesale greed and theft.  They preyed upon and fed the fears of a multitude of elders, including my mother, frightened by the natural course of change.  They made the personal lives of so many adult children all that more difficult for their fear-mongering and dissembling.

More importantly for me however, it was the observation of a pre-schooler that forced me to re-evaluate my own involvement.  It freed me from the constant barrage of one-sided narrative and gave the latitude to pursue current events free of the profit-driven angst and come to my own conclusions about the state of American society.

That was frightening enough, without the assistance of any of the gas-bags.

A Socialist by Necessity

“April 29, 1938

To the Congress:

Unhappy events abroad have retaught us two simple truths about the liberty of a democratic people.

The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself.  That, in its essence, is Fascism – ownership of Government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power.

The second truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if its business system does not provide employment and produce and distribute goods in such a way as to sustain an acceptable standard of living.”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Message to Congress on Curbing Monopolies

“Dad, I don’t think that people understand how liberal you are.”

Middle to PracticalDad, approximately 2015

The Facebook profile photo changed in April as Middle and I were driving home from an errand during the Pandemic.  We chatted and he commented that perhaps it was time to remove the outdated picture of Andrew Jackson, which I had placed there years before.  Perhaps I needed something more fitting with my political inclinations and I concurred.  There was a time, almost a decade ago, that we needed a Jackson-esque leader who would take on the monied interests and restore a sense of balance to the economy.  But instead, we got…well, you know who.  As I prepared to make an ironically appropriate left turn into the neighborhood, I said that the picture should be Karl Marx.  Trusting him with my password, he made the swap as I finished the drive home.

Arriving at the point of adopting a photo of Karl Marx has been a process.  I didn’t awaken that morning and decide to spontaneously declare to the essential grocery workers that you need to unite and take back the means of production for you have nothing to lose but your chains!  It has been decades since I read any of Das Kapital, a challenge because Marx wrote with the torpid grace and style of an artery accumulating plaque.  My real takeaway was the understanding that he wasn’t a fire-breathing demon but instead a corpulent intellectual repulsed by the grotesque economic inequities of his period in the mid-19th century.  That it seems strident is understandable given the initial publication in 1867, only two decades removed from the failed European-wide rebellion of 1848.  Rebellion?  Yeah, the rebellion that led to a Prussian repression which caused a huge influx of German immigrants to America in that same period.

I am now a Socialist neither by choice nor inclination, but by necessity.

I am a Socialist by necessity because the monied interests have used the power of the purse to capture the political system via massive amounts of dark money political contributions and lobbying.

I am a Socialist by necessity because that capture has fostered an economic system that benefits them to the harm of the rest of the citizenry.  The Middle Class was failing before this President, but the Pandemic exposed our economy for the Potemkin Village that it truly was.  Tens of millions have been thrown out of work and the national average of Americans facing eviction is at 40%, with some states above 50%.  Simultaneously, a handful of billionaires have seen their wealth during this Pandemic increase by $584 billion while the rest of America’s households lost more than $6 trillion in wealth.

I am a Socialist by necessity because so many of the programs and benefits that supported our great-grandparents and grandparents have been rolled back and carved away, placing those burdens upon the American family itself.  As of this writing, the President has commented that if he is re-elected, he will move to permanently end the payroll tax; this would effectively starve the Medicare and Social Security programs upon which so many of our elders depend.

I am a Socialist by necessity because a one-sided media complex has hijacked the airwaves with a malign gospel that those who require assistance in today’s America are somehow lazy or at fault, instead of asking how our nation reached a condition in which someone working a full-time job still cannot afford to survive.

I am a Socialist by necessity, having raised children into a rapacious, grotesque economic system devoid of the under-girding of the rule of law and a system of governance that would give a shuddering sensual thrill to Ayn Rand.  Reusing the word grotesque isn’t editorial laziness but instead an indication that America has reached a condition recognizable to Dickens.

I am a Socialist by necessity because it is going to take a massive and prolonged effort to reform and restore the rule of law, especially regarding the financial sector where much of this started.  It is going to take serious push-back against a conservative media that sells a mythic version of America and routinely describes any who disagree as them, and sometimes worse.  This will be an unpleasant process if the labor history of the late 19th and early 20th century is any guide.

This election, and the next several afterwards, are crucial.  Why?  Because this nation has continually abused its currency, which also serves as the global reserve currency.  For that, the world will be – is – looking to see what will replace the Dollar.  This election, and the next several afterwards, will help decide how we choose to subsequently allocate our national resources which will no longer enjoy the privilege bestowed upon the global reserve currency.  That coming date is unknown, but it will arrive sooner than later.

My upbringing wasn’t socialist and in some ways, I am still the product of a mid/late 20th century corporate family mindset.  I still believe in property and the idea that there are some things that are better handled by the private sector (not including the prison system).  Taxes can be too high and I am not in the least comfortable with the surveillance authority that we have given our government.  I believe that people should be allowed to prosper and succeed…within reason.  If you want to make three quarters of a million dollars and enjoy the fruits of that labor, have at it.

The problem is this:  despite decades of commentators spouting descriptions of America as a land of unlimited opportunity and endless potential, there are still a finite number of zeroes in a 2019 national GDP of $21,430,000,000,000.  Our national output is indeed immense, but it is still finite and the massive wealth disparity is clear evidence that all of this money is now going to only a small handful of people.  There is a point at which wealth accumulation becomes a zero sum game and a person’s accumulated gains indeed rob many of the sheer means of survival.  When a literal handful of billionaires make more than $584 billion in a period when the annualized GDP declines by almost 33% in a single quarter?  Well, this is long past zero sum.

This is economic cannibalism.

There is no singular road-to-Damascus event that triggered a socialist conversion.  It cannot be measured in a few years, but instead by decades.  Many Republicans today bemoan that the party shifted to the right and left them where they were.  In my case, experiences and observation have progressively forced me to the left so that I am  now functionally socialist.  Do I hate capitalism?  No.  I frankly think that it is a more efficient allocator of resources than socialism but it requires a degree of morality and above all else, a willingness to let failure occur.  With the failure to address real systemic issues after the Long Term Capital Management and the 2008 Financial crises, and obscene amounts of liquidity to buoy the markets, it was obvious that the fix was in and honest-to-God capitalism was dead.  If you ascribe to FDR’s 1938 description of fascism noted at the outset of the article – and I do – then we’ve been living in a charcoal gray, wing-tipped corporate fascism for the past two decades.  That our President has harnessed fear and division to create a racist neo-brown shirt movement is only a shift to a more recognizable variant that we witnessed in Nazi Germany.

But make no mistake that we were functionally fascist before this President.

There are different route steps on my arrival as a Socialist by necessity and most are framed within the context of children and family.  Each will be covered separately in the coming weeks.

First, I stopped all routine listening to any manner of broadcast political commentary on both sides of the spectrum because that is simply a business model of anger generation.

Second, I came to understand that capitalism was replaced by what some refer to as corporate socialism (where gains are privatized and losses are socialized), or simply fascism.

Third, I witnessed first hand the callousness and disregard of senior corporate management towards innocent employees.

Fourth, I literally stopped watching all television, varied my news sources and simply read.  A lot.

Fifth, I spent considerable time on the internet, backtracking information and learning which sites were trustworthy and which were trash.

Sixth, I learned that it is indeed possible to take these various social and economic statistics and see them in action in my daily life and in my community.

Finally?  I have tried to listen to the youngsters as they have grown and matured, opening myself to learning from them.  This includes understanding that my focus upon family and economics simply didn’t give anything close to sufficient acknowledgement to the effect of racial disadvantage in the spectrum of daily American life.

Yes.  Black Lives Matter.

 

 

 

 

 

The Consumer Economy Headshot

The truth is that the consumer-driven model is now functionally dead, an economic zombie shambling along and awaiting the merciful head shot that drops it, allowing it to be kicked into the gutter and out of the way.

PracticalDad, Post-Consumer Parenting (April 8, 2016)

The consumer-driven model that has powered this nation’s economy for three quarters of a century is now officially dead, the head shot delivered by…a virus.  Like any zombie, it was compelled to mindlessly consume yet was malnourished by an increasingly severe lack of purchasing power.  I would have been less surprised by the manner of death than to find that Bette White was cast as the new villain on The Walking Dead.

It starved for years, certainly longer than April 2016, when I wrote the above linked post.  Zombification occurred in stages over the course of decades.  One contributing factor was the effort by corporate employers to shift from pensions to 401k plans, citing the need to cut costs and allow for funding to compete against other companies.  Another was the claimed throttling cost of benefits, consequently cutting back on health care benefits in the face of rising costs.  Yet another was the drive to maximize shareholder value by decreasing labor costs, shipping jobs – even entire plants – overseas or increasing the drive to automate them.  Even with these ongoing hits, the process was accelerated by an economic demand that now mandated a college degree for entry into the fabled American Middle Class.

The condition however, became terminal with the Financial Crisis of 2008, from which it never recovered.

The symptoms have been there for years in any variety of news articles:

To quote Captain America:  I can do this all day.

Understanding the impact of this collapse is helped by understanding how the model came about in the first place and for that, you have to return to the period immediately prior to the Great Depression.  Economists were developing the Expenditures Theory of Gross Domestic Product:  C + I + G +(X – M) to help create a systemic framework for understanding the national economy .  Simply put, a nation’s GDP is a function of the aggregate spending of Consumers (C), Business (I), Governments (G) as well as the aggregate international balance of trade between exports (X) and imports (M).

We might recall the decade as the “Roaring Twenties” but the reality was different.  There was supreme confidence in the business community and many industrialists and financiers bought into the notion that the historic business cycle of boom-and-bust had been eliminated.  But there was an awareness among others that significant problems still existed.  The agricultural sector was mired in an economic depression as crop prices had collapsed years before the Wall Street collapse.  Some were aware of the inequitable distribution of wealth in society and others noted that the lion’s share of the economy’s productivity gains through the decade had accrued to the wealthiest class.  The average American worker saw significant wage gains but the top 5% of wage earners garnered 34% of the disposable income, up from 24% in 1920.  Then came the collapse of 1929.

President Herbert Hoover’s responses to the Great Depression were constrained by the philosophy – along with almost everyone else – that the Federal Government must annually balance it’s budget.  There was plenty of rah-rah jawboning and some effort to run a small deficit and create additional relief programs but in the end, he was bound by his personal belief that it was up to American individualism to find a way out instead of government action.  Relief programs were left to charity and local and state governments but the continued spiral downwards left everyone without money so that by 1932, destitution reigned; the economy was at the point of real collapse and Senators were warning of open revolt by the election of 1932.

Yet debate among economists continued during that period and it was in 1930 that John Maynard Keynes wrote A Treatise on Money, which became the basis for what we now know as Keynesian Economics.  Another economist caught the ear of nominee FDR in that period however, and his name was William Trufant Foster.

The heart of Foster’s concept was that the Depression was ultimately caused by under-consumption, that the average person simply didn’t have the financial wherewithal to support the purchasing power required for all of the economic output produced.  If there was to be renewed growth of output and through it, employment and wage growth, it had to come via increased consumption in any fashion, whether by the individual, the business sector or the government.  Keynes’ work provided the intellectual justification to allow government deficit spending to spur that aggregate demand in economic downturns.

I don’t know that we can now appreciate the level of political and economic chaos in the period between FDR’s election in November 1932 and his inauguration in March of 1933 (the inauguration date was later moved to January).  Farmers were banding together to actively deter farm foreclosures via threat and in some cases, actual violence.  The Soviet government actively supported a rising Communist party and through it all, hundreds of banks across the country were closing their doors, destroying the little savings that were left to the individual.  Two states independently declared bank holidays, temporarily closing all banks within the state for a one or two week period.  Why?  Fear.  The average American had so lost faith in the system and government that, anticipating his or her own bank to collapse, began pulling all their remaining money from banks.  By doing so, they themselves guaranteed a collapse.

Fear.

This was the backdrop for FDR’s now-famous First 100 Days.  It was the backdrop for the creation of new and untested programs to get people working and money once again flowing through the economy.  Fear was the enemy that FDR fought in that early period of his Administration and was the basis for his statement in his first inaugural address, The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.  FDR understood that money must be flow and consumption must be restored and in the short-term was willing to use the government budget to do it.  He also acknowledged the power of the budget and knew that in the longer term, the average citizen would have to step up and this could not happen until fear was lessened and purchasing power grown.

Why the introduction of bank deposit insurance via the FDIC?  To lessen the fear of bank collapse with the resulting loss of savings.

Why the introduction of Social Security?  To lessen the fear of poverty in old age.

Why the creation of multiple job and agricultural programs?  To lessen the fear of poverty, bankruptcy and ultimately, starvation.

And why the creation of multiple public authorities such as Rural Electrification and the Tennessee Valley Authority?  To spur the development of the physical infrastructure necessary for future growth and keep it out of the hands of the private sector, most particularly the financiers.

All of this was undertaken to rebuild the purchasing power of the American citizen and ultimately, to diminish fear because fear eroded faith in the system.

Remember that phrase:  purchasing power.

Government spending alone was insufficient however, and it was clear by the severe recession of 1937 that something new had to be tried.  This was interrupted by the Second World War and any other activity was shelved for the duration.  What happened through the post-war period however, was a series of measures that, by design or happenstance, assisted not only the economy and purchasing power of the American consumer but diminished the fear that kept it from being exercised.

  • The wide-spread availability of health insurance from employers meant that Americans were relieved of the fear of crippling medical bills.
  • Higher education was made more available to the large number of returning veterans via the GI Bill of 1944 and the quality of that education was increased with significantly higher public funding for facilities at state universities.
  • The existence of Social Security and the availability of company sponsored pension plans meant that Americans were, to a considerable extent, relieved of the fear of poverty in their old age.

This is where we find ourselves today.  The Consumer-driven economic model was predicated not just upon the wealth and incomes to support reasonable purchasing power, but also the assurance that there was a sufficient safety net to protect the constituent consumers.  The high cost of healthcare via premiums, deductibles and co-pays has shifted to the family with a subsequent loss of purchasing power.  The high cost of the college degree that is now a prerequisite to a job that at least promises stability has shifted first to the family, and then to the youth, with a subsequent loss of purchasing power.  The decrease of pension plans and the rise of self-funded retirement has shifted that to the family as well, with a subsequent loss of purchasing power.  Couple these with the disproportionate rise in the actual costs for healthcare and higher education?  Disaster.

There is a terminal lack of purchasing power.  That the average American had nothing upon which to rely when social distancing shutdowns occurred with no economic support forthcoming while the financial system and corporations were backstopped fed a smoldering anger.  That small business was forced to shutter while certain large retailers were declared essential spiked that anger.  People can talk all that they want about the pandemic measures impinging upon their rights, the underlying fear is that they face economic ruin unless they can return to their jobs.  Regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, it is ultimately an anger built upon the practical implications of economic inequality that we have allowed to take root.

Perhaps the only remote silver lining to this freakishly misbegotten shit show is that it is occurring in an election year.  What we have known as an economy is functionally dead.  The national savings rate has spiked to 33% in April 2020 and the economic establishment states that we are hoarding cash.  Do you know what I say?

Good.

Why should we now spend for anything other than necessities?  Why should we spend when government and corporate policies make it clear that our families will receive no meaningful support?  Why should we upgrade and consume when the products, although ostensibly American, are built overseas and profits are disseminated only to shareholders and senior executives?

There is now a debate brewing in Washington as to whether the temporary additional weekly unemployment benefits of $600 should be extended past their July 31, 2020 expiration.  This is occurring because research finds that fully 68% of American workers now have UI benefits greater than their weekly wage.  Conservative legislators fear – understandably – that there is no longer an incentive to work and that such benefits constitute a moral hazard.  Yet they oppose an increase in the minimum wage.  They oppose any public sector financing for healthcare.  They oppose any increase in public funding for higher education and some even support decreasing funding for elementary and secondary education.  And they support a President whose 2020 budget proposal called for Medicare and Medicaid cuts to address a trillion dollar deficit.

And they do not answer the underlying question:  How have we come to this juncture that the wages are so disproportionate to what is required to survive in America today?

This is why the election year timing matters now.  There must be clear and progressive – even radical – policy choices made to help create a new model driving economic growth, one that is not piled upon the back of an American citizen again bereft of purchasing power and crippled by fear.

And yes, one that actively encompasses a real core of social justice.

Addict America

What we are witnessing are the visceral images of a nation in the throes of an addiction.  It is an addiction to a message of Constitutional narcissism.  It is an addiction that has been knowingly fed by its dealers – Limbaugh, Hannity and their ilk – within the self-proclaimed Conservative Media for more than three decades.

Our nation is the same as any other well-heeled addict from prosperous circumstances.  We think we convey a sense of normalcy as the addiction grows, unaware that to the outside world, our property has grown seedier and our household more disorganized.  Most importantly, our children and most vulnerable are neglected and left as prey to the hard mercies of others.  The addiction stresses our ability to cope until something happens which collapses the facade and exposes our reality in its awful ugliness.  It is an addiction whose propagation now willingly courts death, a literal siren song luring the body politic to a mass fatal encounter as senseless as the American Civil War.

This something is obviously the Pandemic.  As I write this, the national daily death toll is such that the entire population of my hometown would be dead within a week and the numbers continue to rise, at least outside New York.  Yet many localities are again re-opening despite metrics that don’t even come close to those laid down by the Trump Administration and armed protesters stand on the steps of state capitol buildings proclaiming opposition to measures which purportedly infringe their Constitutionally mandated civil rights.  This opposition, fomented by the Conservative Media and the President – the guy whose folks put out the re-opening metrics less than a few days before, remember? – is predicated upon a wholesale misleading characterization of the Constitution.

How?

There is an inherent tension within the construct of the Constitution and that is the tension between the Me and the We.  The Me is encased within the Bill of Rights and has been the focus of the Conservative Media since the arrival of Rush Limbaugh after the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987.  Who doesn’t love our Bill of Rights?  It was the first written attempt in human history to enumerate and guarantee what were considered the essential rights of the individual in a society.  It is the most identifiable aspect of the Constitution.  The great majority of Americans can’t define the 17th Amendment let alone even tell you how many Amendments even exist.  But you can be damned sure that people know about their First Amendment right to freedom of speech and their Second Amendment right to bear arms.

Except that the Bill of Rights is only one part of the Constitution.  The other part of the Constitution is about the We.  The obvious and accelerating failure of the original Articles of Confederation prompted the calling of the meeting that became the Constitutional Convention of 1787.  It was the We that concerned Madison, Hamilton and the rest of the attendees.  Multiple states with different personalities based upon unique founding charters and culture, let alone geographic and economic differences, were too diverse to ensure continued political coherence.  The national structure was collapsing and the success of the Revolution would be rendered meaningless.

The Convention’s intent was not the Me, the Bill of Rights.  The Me wasn’t the first, second or third thing in the mind of either Madison or Hamilton.  It wasn’t on any agenda, as little as there was of one.  The Bill of Rights was an outgrowth of the debates as the Anti-Federalists pushed back against Madison.  In their minds, what was the point of the Revolution if it allowed the creation of a new government which could trample the individual as badly as the recent English king?  The resulting compromise created this Bill of Rights to assure that an individual’s rights were protected.  This compromise created an astounding document of political duality that attempted to balance the We Yin and the Me Yang.  There is supposed to be a balance.

These were the questions that most concerned the Constitution’s framers:  How can We maintain a civil society that can peaceably abide together under the principle that all are created equal under the law?  How can We allow for a civil society to change and adapt to the world around it within the framework of the first question?  How can We control power and allow the peaceable transfer of power?  Most importantly, how can We as a civil society protect ourselves from falling prey to predators such as demagogues, despots and zealots?

When viewed from this aspect, much of our history has been made in the effort to expand the We in the face of resistance from individual groups fearful of a loss of their own powers and wealth.  Expanding it to who?  Securing the rights of blacks and other minorities , including that key right to vote, expands the We.  Securing the rights of women, including that key right to vote, expands the We.  Why?  Because it’s through the securing of their own individual rights and enfranchisement that these groups – one of which actually comprises more than half of the population – can find a voice that entitles them to a place at the economic table sharing in the common wealth of the nation.  Not only sharing in the common wealth, but expanding it by dint of their own talents and efforts.

Commonweal.  It’s an archaic word used by my wife in a recent conversation as we discussed the multiple acronymic lifelines already thrown to the business community and capital markets but not extended in any meaningful measure to the average person.  It forms the basis of the word commonwealth and in its simplest terms is the common good.  It is the idea that while the members of a community can expect their rights to be respected by the community, they have a like obligation to the well-being of that  community, politically and economically.  Is it important to distance ourselves for a period to not overwhelm our medical system as well as protect our most vulnerable?  Then it’s what we do for the community and in turn, we expect the community to support us through this period.  Commonweal.

Except that that hasn’t happened.  The community has responded with full support to the wealthiest and only one-time payments to the general citizenry with the understanding that they would still be responsible for the upkeep of their bills.  In the meantime, the unemployment rate has skyrocketed.  The public has been left to bear the losses from a communal disaster without certainty of income for an unknown period.  In a society that embraced the commonwealth philosophy, the community would be certain to provide sufficient support to support its members while they were asked to participate social distancing to protect the community.

Not only do we ignore the concept of the common good, we have a Chief Executive who ignores the Constitution, exemplifying the fatal flaws of the original Articles of Confederation by abdicating responsibility for a national crisis to the individual states.

There should be balance.  We haven’t had that for decades.

Why?

The cultural birth of the Me preexisted it’s maturation in the 1980s.  The Boomer Generation were a cultural phenomenon and their quirks led to their titling as the Me Generation by the writer Tom Wolfe in 1976.  That generation – mine – turned society on its head in search of self-fulfillment and it persisted as they aged and entered the economic and political mainstream.

Their entry into the mainstream set the stage for the economic and political rise of the Me in the 1980s.  Rush Limbaugh, the first of the Conservative Media, arose on the back of a resurgent conservative response to Ronald Reagan’s famous comment:  Government isn’t the solution, it’s the problem.  Limbaugh expanded upon that with the message that I earned that money and I should be allowed to keep it.  Soon, other commentators entered the field and proceeded to help fracture the We by separating the nation into Good Americans versus Liberals and Republicans versus Democrats in the search for listeners and market share.  Understand this:  Conservative Media is not only a message of anger but a business model of anger as well.  Anger and fear are profitable and this profitability has caused an even harder push.

Uncertain about this?  Consider Les Moonves’ – then CEO of Columbia Broadcasting – comment about Donald Trump in 2016:  “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS”.

It’s the same for the other side of the media spectrum as increased competition extends the boundaries and coarsens the dialogue to gain listeners.

But why do Conservative Commentators have the advantage in ratings?  Where do they find the materials to gin up rage, secure listeners and earn profits?  The materials are ensconced right there within the Bill of Rights.  Some of the ten amendments are outdated and not suited for the propagation of rage.  Quartering troops in houses?  Archaic.  Unreasonable search and seizure?  Right to a jury trial and reasonable bail?  Perhaps, but if you obey the law – like any of our salt of the earth listeners – then it isn’t pertinent, is it?  State’s rights?  Not since 186…never mind.  Just go to the first two amendments right up front:  religious freedoms in the First Amendment and gun rights in the Second Amendment.  The rancor of the past two decades has built within these two amendments but it has been stirred, spiced and served on a scalding hot plate in our laps by our Chef Executive.

We are near the culmination of the Conservative drive for power and money.  The Conservative Media has relentlessly pushed fear and anger and the President has mastered it, wielding it venomously in a strategy of Divide and Conquer.  To secure his election in 2016, he divided us from the world and in the aftermath of the inauguration, proceeded to remove or threaten to remove us from multiple international treaties.  When he viewed the push back demonstrated by the Women’s March after his inauguration, he narrowed the Divide and Conquer Strategy to focus on the nation itself and found his ammunition in the first two amendments of the Bill of Rights.  He has openly stoked his followers with fears of religious persecution and the threat of a repeal of the Second Amendment.  A call to “Liberate Michigan!” via Twitter led to his supporters bringing semi-automatic weapons to a rally at the state Capitol.

Civic insanity.

Our nation has had two other encounters with governance according to the Me.  The first was the original Articles of Confederation ratified at the end of the Revolution, which created a Federal government that was only a weak shell and ceded almost all power to thirteen states.  It went so well that six years later, the Articles were replaced by our Constitution.  The second was the Confederacy.  Nominally a nation of sovereign states that heavily espoused states rights.  By the latter half of the war, the Confederacy suffered crippling problems as different states opted to withhold money, supplies and men from the central government in order to support their own needs.

Some of our greatest national moments occurred during the Commonweal moments of the We.  We eliminated slavery through a Civil War which incurred more death and national destruction than any other war in our history.  We beat totalitarianism and did it twice in a quarter century, almost just to prove a point.  We expanded our educational structure during these conflicts through a series of Commonweal political acts – The Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862 and The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 during two of these conflicts.  We put a man on the moon and expanded the frontier of space because as a society, We willed it so.

We have now lost more than 90,000 of our citizens as I write this and an untold number of thousands of those deaths could have been prevented.  Our Chief Executive minimized the notice, hampered preparation and then abdicated all responsibility to the individual states, who have been left to fend on their own domestically and internationally.  Don’t like social distancing and lockdowns?  Look to Washington, DC and ask if things might have been different had 50 individual governors not had this dumped in their laps.

Once again, the Me has failed.  It’s time for the We.

 

 

So the Millennials Like Socialism…

It started as an online survey by victimsofcommunism.org and has wound its way through the media, news and social.  “It” is a survey result finding that approximately 70% of American Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) would vote for a socialist candidate instead of a non-socialist.  It’s fed a breadth of spin-off articles breathlessly reporting the results as well as a slew of memes – many troll-created – mocking millennials.  This particular little meme crossed my Facebook feed several weeks ago.

My response?

Why so surprised?

If folks are surprised that upwards of 70% of millennials would support a socialist, then consider this percentage:  80% of millennials don’t expect to receive Social Security when they reach what we consider as retirement age.  I’m surprised that so many of the X, Boomer and Silent generations are so obtuse as to consider this news.  What Millennials have witnessed from their earliest youth is the Great Reversion, a thorough dismantling of benefits and privileges that were earned by and afforded to their elder generations:  income, education, health insurance, job opportunities…all of it.  Millennials are the first generation to be raised and come of age in this period, while their generational elders had at least some benefits of the preceding society and economy.

Maybe we need to first determine if Millennials are talking about the same Socialism as their elders.  Just remember this at the outset:  most individuals don’t reach a meaningful state of political awareness until at least their teens and what they witness during that period will largely shape their long-term political outlook.  So…what is Socialism?

There’s a distinct difference between what is meant by the two generational groups.  That the original survey came from victimsofcommunism.org is telling;  it is a non-profit organization created as an “educational and human rights foundation” (per their website) by unanimous Congressional action after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  The two principal nations – the Soviet Union and Communist China – billed themselves as Socialist and those most affected by their atrocities – including the generations of Americans who engaged in a sometimes deadly Cold War against them – will identify Socialism with the death and damage wrought by them.

Millennials view Socialism as something different however.  In the earliest years of the Millennial period, the Soviet Union was in decline and a distinct political resistance had formed in Poland.  When Millennials reached elementary school, the Berlin Wall fell and was followed within two years by the collapse of the Soviet Union itself.  The existential threat of totalitarian Socialism ceased and Millennials came of age without noting it as a meaningful factor in their lives.  As the earliest Millennials aged and were joined by their younger peers, they found a new brand of Socialism in the countries of Europe, later the European Union.  In many countries, there was free or minimally priced healthcare for the citizenry.  There was also heavily subsidized and reasonably priced higher education as well a network of state supported social programs that assisted citizens.  That these nations had free and democratic elections put a stake in the notion that Socialism, as experienced by their elders, was evil and deadly.

What Millennials hadn’t experienced, which their elders had, was determining how these programs were funded.  There’s an aphorism of uncertain origin:  if a person isn’t a socialist at 25, then he has no heart.  If he isn’t a conservative at 50, then he has no head.  Generations disagree with one another.  I once argued with my parents about taxes and drove my mother to a near-stroke by arguing that we should be willing and ready to pay our fair share of taxes; my father reminded her that I would soon be paying my own taxes as an adult and my attitude would probably change.  He was right and my willingness to yield my earnings to the government declined  dramatically when I was responsible for putting a roof over my own head.  But that dinner conversation was decades ago and despite graduating from college in the midst of a serious recession, my wife and I were privileged to enjoy the benefits of that period before Things Economic went seriously south.

How far south?

Far enough south that the youngest Millennials are through college and recognizing that the economic odds are stacked against them.  Think about it:  your hope for a middle-class life is dependent upon having some form of higher education yet obtaining that degree will leave you with an average student loan balance of $35,359.  If you land a job with health insurance, it’s increasingly likely to have a high deductible plan since more employers are shifting in that direction to offset the rising cost of having insurance whatsoever.  Fully 66% of all personal bankruptcy filings are attributable to the impact of medical bills, even with the presence of health insurance.  Housing is going to be costlier as the student debt load impacts your ability to save for a down payment to buy a house, yet the median rental cost has increased by almost 50% since 2001 (through 2015) while median household income has been static over that same period.  You will be responsible for your own eventual retirement via personal savings and expect that the Social Security net will be exhausted and closed.  And honestly, if persistent mass shootings in public venues and schools elicit nothing more than thoughts and prayers from those in power, can you actually believe that any meaningful assistance will be forthcoming that same group?

Millennials are learning how deceptive the American economic system has become.  It has been based for decades upon the notion that we are consumers with a crucial role as an economic driver first for the domestic, and later, for the global economy.  What we are experiencing is that we have instead become the consumed, fodder for the corporate predators who have gained a disproportionate level of control in society.

Yeah, it’s daunting.  If I were a Millennial, I would find it daunting.  So they will  band together as a voting bloc to push for a public response that helps them, much as their great-great-grandparents did when they elected FDR in a landslide over Herbert Hoover.  As the American Middle Class continues to erode, the Millennials are living the deterioration and are willing to forego a larger percentage of their present earnings in the expectation that their futures aren’t those of poverty and hopelessness.

One final comment.  I like Sam Elliott and if there is such a thing as reincarnation, I want to come back as his gloriously badass mustache.  But let’s do it homage by not taking it in vain on what is a meme likely created by trolls to sow further discord.  Take a moment to try to walk in the shoes of a Millennial and you’re liable to find that they can’t afford the kind with good arch support.

 

 

 

The Re-boot

You should write a book.  

– PracticalDad’s  Better Half

It was a comment made years ago by my wife as the three kids were young and growing.  Eldest was then in middle school, Middle in the upper elementary grades and Youngest was only a preschooler.  I was then in the midst of managing a busy household and all that it entailed and the notion of being able to carve out hours each day to write seemed problematic.  But it was a good suggestion and a reasonable starting point appeared to be a website.  I could get into the swing of writing and the commitment tucked into the time constraints imposed by the household requirements of three kids and a working spouse.

And so in 2008, my alter-ego – PracticalDad – came into being.  Now please keep that year in mind.

Any relevant life-experience writing requires a thesis, an underlying premise that serves as a framework to tie together the wide variety of articles that could be written.  PracticalDad’s thesis was that fathers were capable of providing more for the than just the traditional paycheck; that despite the popular media, which often viewed fathers on the domestic scene as essentially idiots, men were capable of being highly competent and loving caregivers.  At the time, women faced glass-ceilings – and still do – but the incomes of women versus men were growing at a faster clip and the demographics showed that more women were by then entering college than men.  With this occurring, more time would be claimed and if family stability was to be maintained, then the father would have to pony up and shoulder a much greater load.  Most of the early PracticalDad articles were consequently based upon my own experiences as a stay-at-home father, from traveling with kids to what a father should understand about breast-feeding or communication.

But starting in late 2009 and into 2010, the thrust of the articles began to change as the effects of the 2008 financial crisis continued to ripple through the economy.  My response was to wonder this:  how does this affect my family and what I must do to help prepare them for the world?  The articles shifted from the prosaic family matters to questions of politics and economics and the tone became darker and in some instances, angrier.  It was an anger fueled by an early recognition that the adult world that my children would inhabit would be far more economically difficult than the world in which my generation – and the several preceding – lived.  This vein continued until early 2015 when the flow of articles slowed in response to the increasing demands of an elderly parent with Alzheimer’s, notably spliced with a strain of paranoid dementia.  Couple that with the onset of a new round of personal health issues in later 2016 and virtually all new writing ground to a halt.  PracticalDad, for all intents and purposes, slipped away.

The other situations were resolved, the parent dying in the late winter of 2017 amidst a series of my own surgeries to address issues.  The subsequent mental dust cleared with time and as I looked around, I considered the website.  It still existed and while there was almost nothing new written, I noted that the syndicated feed had continued to grow even in its dormancy.  The site platform was antiquated and creaky and the design, fresh in 2008, was tired and dated.  The technical questions were overwhelming to a non-technical guy like me.  How to move everything to a new platform and if the syndicated feed mattered, could that go along?  From a writing perspective, how did I start again after simply ceasing more than a year earlier?  Most importantly, was there even a thesis that would tie together to drive new writing?  The reality is that all of us are now a decade older and there are plenty of other information sources for young fathers.  The questions were significant enough that it was easier to just not consider it at all.

But serendipity exists and it was serendipitous that the original site designer and programmer contacted me to discuss shifting the site to a new platform so that he could close out the server on which the original site resided.  He kindly took the technical end in hand and in the past several months migrated the articles and feed to this new platform and set things up for me to move forward.  The kids, now older, have encouraged me to get back to it and it was Middle’s suggestion that if there are still people reading, then perhaps re-start by explaining the silence and moving on from there.

The final question still remained.  Was there a pertinent thesis that served to drive the writing moving forward?  I re-read everything that I’d written for the site as well as other notes and even draft chapters for an unsubmitted book proposal.  The final piece was to force myself to re-read the Journal that I kept during my mother’s three year sojourn through Alzheimer’s.  Were my – and my family’s – experiences, entirely novel or did they somehow fit into a larger narrative of what’s transpiring in our society?

The unfortunate answer is that there is a thesis and it is this:  the economic, social and political changes that have occurred since 2008 – there’s that year, again – are not cyclical but instead structural.  What we are witnessing is the real-time wrenching adaptation of a society that is reverting in fits and starts to a standard of living reminiscent not of our parents or even grandparents, but akin to at least three generations ago.  Along with the ongoing damage to the American Middle Class, we are watching several generations of growth in a national standard-of-living being washed away like so much dirt from a Mississippi River dike.  The pressure has built for decades but it was with the 2008 financial crisis and the policy responses that the erosion began in earnest.  It most certainly affects the American family and how child-rearing is managed, even whether or not children are born.  What will be different moving forward is a far-reaching shift in the family dynamic as the nuclear family concept is challenged by a return to the old multi-generational model with elders assisting, and being assisted by, their adult children.  The myriad changes that affect the family, and the potential responses to them, will be the thrust of writing as we move forward.

This is not an intellectual exercise for me.  It has been a periodic topic of conversation with the kids at one time or another over the past several years.  It is truly saddening to have these talks with the kids; to tell them that they are going to have fewer opportunities and choices than we and our parents did.  They will be far more constrained by greater financial demands of health care, higher education and retirement that have been shifted to the backs of individuals and families by corporations and the various levels of government.  What is heartening personally is that each of the three seems to get it and I see efforts by each to accommodate that new reality.

So let me take a moment and re-introduce the principal cast of characters from the 2008 version of PracticalDad.  First, there is my wife, BH; she is a physician with more professional certification letters after her name than I have in my entire given name (it’s true, I counted).  Then there are the kids.  At the website’s start, Eldest was just entering high school; she is now a college graduate and a married working mother.  Middle was in upper elementary school and he is now entering his senior year at a major urban university as a theatre major.  Finally, there is Youngest, who was in first grade at the outset.  He is now entering his junior year of high school, working part-time and deciding on higher education.  The family is now joined by in-laws Millie and Phil, who recently migrated north to be closer to their daughter and Hub, Eldest’s spouse.

I had two rules at the outset of this kitchen table project a decade ago.  The first is simple:  while I reference my family, I refuse to post anything that might be even remotely construed as embarrassing.  Multiple finished articles were ultimately deleted before posting because someone might have taken offense or been embarrassed.  The second is that there will be no daily posts because sometimes, there is just nothing worth saying and if you’re going to read, there should be something worth reading.

It’s nice to be back.  And thank you, John, for your kindness.  I hope that you can take something worthwhile from this for your own family.

 

 

 

 

A View From the Ridge, Part 9

As I’ve written before, raising a family is a “forest for the trees” experience.  Life moves frenetically in a whirl of appointments, practices, homework, projects and activities; it is such that you can run for lengthy periods without noting both where you are and how far you’ve come.  It’s as if you’re working through the trail’s underbrush and you don’t pause to survey the surroundings until you’ve reached a spot where the forest has thinned, such as a tree-line atop a ridge.  I’ve chronicled such personal moments back to 2008 and this past Labor Day was another such moment, where I found myself – and my Better Half – perched atop one of the highest ridges that we’ve encountered for many a mile.

Eldest married.

When I began writing this site, she was in middle school.  Only recently confirmed in our church and yet to drive, to date, to hold a job, to graduate, to leave for college and then, return.  And now, she is married.  If anything gives a man pause, it is giving his daughter’s hand in marriage at the altar.  Some might deride it as intensely old-fashioned and antiquated, but this signifies to any father not only the turning of a page but the end of an entire chapter.  After I took my seat, I watched this young woman and rolled through memories back to her infancy, back to the first one when she turned her head towards me in response to that sing-song name that I called out as she lay across the room in a maternity ward bassinet, the same name that I repeatedly sang to her while in utero.  It was the same as I watched my two sons, Middle – home from college and reading aloud a selected poem for the ceremony – and Youngest, only a freshly minted high school sophomore and yet towering above everyone else in the bridal party.  They grow and mature and we are left to wonder, when did this happen?

It was a high ridge upon which to perch.

When things wound down and we’d returned home, I took the opportunity to look back at the terrain that we had crossed during the previous year.  It was a vista of twisted trees and thick, thorn-riddled underbrush that tore at clothing and skin alike.  Managing a mother suffering from years of degenerative paranoid dementia, culminating in her early morning death only months ago after a series of moves through multiple care levels in different facilities.  Disagreeing with a facility that refused to honor her final wishes, duly codified in writing and signed by a physician, further confirmed by her in a moment of coherence.  Managing increased personal debility arising from a long-ago encounter with lymphoma, now sufficiently advanced to force a move to a new, less physically challenging house.  And culminating with a new medical episode that lasted for months.  How do you manage through all of this?  You jettison everything non-essential and spend your energies on the most immediate requirements of the circumstances.  You lean heavily upon family and friends; my blessing was a wonderful wife and stalwart friends, a helpful future son-in-law and a youngest son who shouldered the increased physical and emotional load with grace and maturity.  And writing?  It had already slowed as my mother degenerated and with the onset of the other issues, it stopped completely.  In the moment, what is there to say?

But the house is brought both figuratively and literally back into order and you regain breathing room.  I now realize that there’s still much more to say about family and how what’s occurring in today’s world impacts our roles as parents.  More comments about educating the kids and setting them on the path to responsible adulthood; about kids and both politics and money; and how we as parents have to adapt our communications with our nascent-adult children.  Most importantly, there is much to be said about the other end of the age spectrum as we begin to look out for our own parents, who are now going to face new challenges for which many are ill-prepared.  This is perhaps the greatest stress for middle-aged parents, bearing responsibility for the generations that both succeed and precede them.  It isn’t easy and the challenges will only grow in a time when the family resources are further stretched.

There will certainly be other aspects of parenthood and family to be addressed, because the kids grow and change.  As do the questions and challenges.

A View From The Ridge, Part 7

I’ve said before that being an engaged father is akin to hiking a heavily forested area.  The life with kids and their activities is a forest for the trees experience as the rush from one place to the next fills your vision and planner and you don’t always have the opportunity to take a moment to reflect.  But then your wooded trail comes to a ridgeline and you can suddenly see for miles, backwards to where you’ve been as well as forward to what lies ahead and you sit for a moment and take it all in.  Such was the case this weekend as Eldest – who was in middle school when I first thought of this site – graduated from college.

The benefit of arriving early to grab seats for elderly relatives was that I could look in different directions from the ridgeline.  When I looked in one direction, considering the event in terms of this website, Eldest had progressed from middle-schooler to college graduate.  Middle, the elementary school kid at the site’s inception, had arrived the previous day with his grandparents, who picked him up at a nearby train station where he’d caught a morning train from the city where he himself is now in college.  Youngest, at the outset just entering kindergarten, was now himself in middle school and en route to becoming a truly stalwart adult of honestly surprising capabilities of observation and common sense.  When the doors finally opened and I found seats that worked, my Better Half ushered in her parents and the sons followed with Boyfriend, who had come along unannounced to surprise Eldest.

In another direction from the ridge was to see things in terms of the college experience and while one was now graduating college, the youngest was still a good two years away from beginning the pathway to higher education; it will probably be a college degree given his growing skill set and inclination, but the reality is that the cost of a degree is such that it can no longer be the de facto choice, the road taken simply because it’s what everybody is expected to do when high school is finished.  My wife and I have now lived through two rounds of college solicitations – and folks, it’s fascinating to see how different the college mailings are from one kid to the next – and prospect visits, completion of the dreaded FAFSA and the excitement of the acceptances and first moves away from home.  What also crossed my mind was that the funding of college was now a family affair.  This was, for Eldest, a communal family effort as her debt-free degree was in due to multiple parts: a decent scholarship that made the difference between this particular university and a local state university; four years of hard work through summer jobs to help pay for her annual contribution to the cause; years of savings and then input into the pot by us; and a lovely piece of generosity from another elderly relative.

In another direction was the view of my own age and mortality.  It’s now more than two decades since Eldest’s birth and as she has aged, so have I.  Some years ago, a now-deceased elderly friend commented to me that in his head, he was the same guy who once served as a Marine and a firefighter and I have come to appreciate his statement.  All three of the kids have grown up knowing that their father has a physical debility and each has adapted to it through the years.  But it’s fallen most upon Youngest to help pick up the slack caused by the issue and his siblings’ college absence.  It’s a most curious coincidence that he is now the largest and strongest of any of us within the household, most capable of picking up and covering for said slack and I go to lengths to avoid abusing him because of it.  I have to admit that there was conflict between personal pride and common sense during the wait, as I considered a lengthy drive behind the wheel of a 16′ box truck with no cruise control and it was only after acknowledging to myself that I’m no longer a thirty-something young father, that I agreed to let someone else handle that aspect of the move.  I plan to be around for Youngest’s event in less than a decade but there’s a point at which you realize that it’s time to adjust the speed downwards and go for distance instead of speed.

But doors open, crowds enter and the view fades and you are once again in the forest amidst the trees, waiting for that next moment when you reach the ridge.  Maybe I should make it a point to try for the ridgeline more often.

So, Who Do You Like?

The question about the upcoming presidential primaries for the 2016 nominees has arisen on both end of the spectrums, from one of the kids as well as from my mother, who popped it during a lunch the other day.  So, who do you like?

While it would be a beautiful thing to be able to spit out a response in favor of a singular candidate – because it’s just time for a woman president, that’s why – I find that it’s difficult.  The reality is that the issue overshadowing all else is the control that the uber-wealthy and corporations now have over the legislative and electoral process.  And by uber-wealthy, I mean those who have .01% of the nation’s wealth…welcome back to the age of the Robber Barons. 

So the question arose again the other night where two of the three kids were gathered with us awaiting Middle’s event.  Both my wife and I looked at one another and the statements were identical and concise:  It doesn’t matter.  Taxes will go up regardless of who’s in office and Sanders is the only one with the guts to acknowledge that that’s going to happen.  But if Trump makes his way into office, don’t be surprised if they increase there either since it’s a mathematical certainty that the revenue will only flow if the taxes go up…because God knows we can’t control our spending.  We both elaborated further, knowing that the problems are wholly systemic and metastasized throughout the governmental body.  If you want to know the truth, the ideal candidate is already resigned to the notion that it will be a single term presidency and he/she will lose, if even willing to run for a second term.  Because the system will have to be shaken to the core and if successful, that President will be hated and derided and probably for a generation.  To call it a sobering commentary would be an understatement.

Here’s the thing behind the commentary.  Twain wrote that while history doesn’t repeat itself, it does rhyme and we’re now in a literal nursery rhyme with Andrew Jackson’s clash with Nicholas Biddle’s Second Bank of the United States.  In that instance, Biddle put the screws to the country by betraying its role as the ostensible central bank and withholding funds from smaller banks in order to pressure the Congress to renew their original charter.  This resulted in multiple small bank runs with the resultant ruin of thousands of depositors who lost all of their savings; but it also dramatized the threat that one or a few exceptionally wealthy and powerful individuals could pose to the body politic.  In that instance, Jackson’s response – combative and populist – was to withdraw the government’s deposits from Biddle’s bank, which served as the capital base for all that that bank was supposed to do.  In essence, Jackson allowed the financial system to collapse in order to save the promise of the still very young Constitution.  To do otherwise would have been to allow a single individual to use the power of the pre-eminent financial institution to gain control over the mechanism of government.  If Jackson folded and Biddle won, what else would have happened – or not happened – if it displeased the banker.

And with the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that effectively quashed any campaign finance reform, please feel free to explain to me how this is any different from 180 years ago?

Some years ago, I used to spend considerable time on a wonderful financial/economics site and in the course of an evening’s ongoing commentary with other members of that community, I commented this:  My hope is that when all of this is said and done, we come through everything with some semblance of an intact Constitution.  It sounds melodramatic, which I hate, but it’s not at all far-fetched.  The levers of power have been grabbed by the very wealthiest few and the corporations and they are actively solidifying their hold on said levers.  President Obama’s response in his first term should have been Jacksonian, moving to reform and re-institute meaningful regulation of the financial sector and he failed to do this.  That an Assistant Attorney General was canned and his then-Attorney General later acknowledged that the fear of financial damage to the economy affects decisions on prosecutions indicates the level of power of that sector and the fear that it engenders.  And now that the heads of JPM Chase and Goldman Sachs have both become certifiable billionaires under this arrangement, the financial sector is wholly part and parcel of the cabal.

The threat to the country is no longer economic but now, for all intents and purposes, both Constitutional and existential.  My thinking had been that the key factor to my choice of candidate would be what kind of person they’d likely nominate to the Supreme Court and how that individual would vote on such a decision as Citizens United.  That decision was reached by the narrowest margin of 5 – 4 and the dissenting opinion by Justice Stevens – eminently worthy of the read here – is a good distillation of the ultimate controversy:  with whom does the power reside?  I have become convinced that the trade and monetary policies of the past three decades have been purposefully passed with the understanding that they will ultimately benefit only a relative very few and that, at the cost of the great majority of Americans.  The hemorrhaging of the median family income isn’t a sudden event, but instead only the damage arising from the effects of three decades of cumulative muggings upon the American Middle Class.  Such is the effect of power moving to the control of a very self-interested few. 

My thinking about the candidate that I’d support went to the type of individual that would be nominated to the Supreme Court.  What would be the political persuasion and most importantly, their attitudes about the Constitution?  Strict constructionist?  Liberal?  It does matter because as much as I can appreciate the constructionist viewpoint, the reality is that we have issues today that would make our Founding Fathers’ eyes bleed.  Some things are the same, yet some are simply not.

At the end of the evening, we found out that Justice Antonin Scalia had passed away earlier that day and the narrow majority that ruled in favor of the Citizens United decision was now moot.  I was unaware of Scalia’s age and believed that the decision to nominate a new Supreme Court Justice would wait until the next president but that assumption is now moot.  It is the purview of any sitting President to nominate a person for the Supreme Court and for either side to cry for a delay is politics at its most venal.  But make no mistake, with the average age of the Supreme Court north of 70 years of age, it’s likely that the next President will also have the privilege of nominating a candidate.  If President Obama does nominate someone who would shift that 5 – 4 margin in the direction favorable to overturning the Citizens United decision, it would still be only a razor thin majority.  So that’s what I’m considering as both sides of the political spectrum continue to throw the middle finger at the political class.  Do I have a list of candidates for the Court should Trump, Sanders, Hillary or anybody else take office?  No.  But I’m not stupid either, and what they say – and how much money that they take – is a solid indication of where they’ll go.  And that’s likely to be where I’ll head, too.

Veterans Day

Scrolling through the feed on the Facebook timeline brings a litany of thank you for your service messages to all manner of Facebook friends and their family members.  It is a well-deserved custom that’s spawned from the disgust at how the Vietnam vets were treated when they returned home.  Yet we need to be careful that it doesn’t become a thoughtless, de rigeur statement that’s thrown off as easily as a meaningless compliment because many of us never served – a large percentage of the population hasn’t served – and we generally don’t have a solid grasp of history and the fights in which they’ve been involved.  It’s changed cinematically as many have now seen the early carnage of the seasonal replays of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan or Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, but there’s still a quantum leap between the family sofa and hunkering down behind a pile of rubble.  We say the right thing, but the great majority simply don’t get it.

While I think about my own father often, I always reflect more on Veteran’s Day and reading all of the thank yous made me even more thoughtful.  Dad’s been dead for almost 14 years.  We knew growing up only that he’d been in the service during the Korean War but it was something that he never – never – discussed.  I once asked him when I joined Boy Scouts if he’d come along camping with me and he demurred with a gruff I spent a year sleeping outside and I promised myself that I’d goddamned well never do it again so no, I won’t. But he’d say no more than that.  Since this was an old established troop with a strong tradition of outdoorsmanship, I caved in to my intimidation and quit.  When I later asked him – during middle school – about his experiences, he simple refused to discuss it and the matter was dropped.  It wasn’t until many years later, when he learned that my then-medical student wife was doing a rotation at the local VA, that he opened up one evening and began to talk and between that evening and the years afterwards, the stories flowed and so much that I couldn’t puzzle out in my youth became clear. 

Dad had been in Korea at the outset, a mere tech sergeant doing work near the 38th parallel when the North Koreans invaded; he and his squadmates were cut off and spent days – with the loss of several of his men – escaping before being found by American troops and receiving what he termed a battlefield transfer.  This receiving unit was the 27th Infantry Regiment, the Wolfhounds, and he spent almost the next year with them before finally rotating back stateside to finish his enlistment as a drill instructor.  He related incidents of leaving a makeshift bar in a shack in Pusan to literally cross the road to repel a massed North Korean attack in the blackest days of that conflict, of seeing his buddy so drained by the violence that he killed one of his own pilots in a barfight after warning him to stop badmouthing the infantry who were being pushed relentlessly backwards.  A few years before he died, I learned that whenever he was in the Midwest on business, he’d take an extra day and stop at Fort Leavenworth to visit this man.  Dad spoke of massed Chinese attacks after they entered the war and how the differential in sizes between the American bayonet and the outsized Chinese bayonet, aka the pigsticker, gave birth to decades of nightmares.  There were other stories but it was even later after his retirement in 1991, that more became evident.  Dad finally came to terms with his experience and contacted his congressman to help in obtaining the citations for which he knew that he’d been nominated but had opted to never touch before then; it required additional effort since the Veteran’s archive in which his records were kept was badly damaged in a fire decades before with the loss of an untold number of servicemen’s records.  When the congressman’s office finally finished helping him, we found that these included the Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for courage under fire.

I have no photos of my father in uniform, although I do recall seeing one photo of a young man wearing glasses and a helmet, kneeling in the dirt outside of Fort Bliss, Texas.  It wouldn’t surprise me if he handled them the way that he handled all of his camping and hunting equipment when he later returned home to the Laurel Highlands of Western Pennsylvania…he simply got rid of all of it and promised himself to never do them again.  His decorations and division and regimental insignia are safely put away although I do, on occasion, pull them out to look at them and think about the old man.  He certainly mellowed with age but the experience changed him forever.  I recall seeing him watch an Army recruitment commercial – Be all that you can be…– and just rolling his eyes while he shook his head.  When I discussed with him the idea of enrolling in ROTC during college, he argued against it and persuaded me to put the notion to rest and that there was no reason to feel guilt for not doing so. 

So would I tell my father thank you for your service, as insufficient as it might seem?  Now it would seem to be the least that I could do, although it absolutely isn’t enough and his response would be a typical if you feel that strongly about it, then get your head out of your ass and actually do something.  And that’s what we should do for these men and women who are serving.  Pay closer attention to the controversy occurring in the Veteran’s Administration and if you aren’t vocal, become moreso.  Learn about the service dogs that are increasingly taking an important role to provide an emotional anchor for returning vets and throw support to those who raise and train them; in a short attention span society, we forget that the effects of combat stress can last for decades and the canines won’t be a one-off effort.  Most important is this, however:  understand that we are now entering a time in which the promises made to all of the various constituencies in American society can no longer be supported by the resources available to us.  We can no longer run endless deficits without burning out the engine and at that time, we’re going to have to renegotiate the social contracts that have bound us together and it will be a truly ugly process.  It will be then that you’ll have to remember what many of the vets suffered through and advocate forcefully on their behalf and in that way, you can begin to repay the debt owed them and show that their service truly isn’t forgotten.