Saturday, January 24, 2015

Want To Do Something REALLY Useful For The Next Election?

Support progressives in deep-red states like Nebraska.  Send money.  Send yourself, to organize, and get out the vote.  Get in touch with progressives on the ground, and ask for ways to help.  But, above all, don't forget them.  They need us, and we need them.  And the country needs all of us.

Poetic Justice For Those Who Believe In Forced Religious Observance

A zombie Nativity scene in Ohio.

The Future Really Is Now, When It Comes To Prosthetics

Just ask this man, who can move prosthetic arms with just his thoughts.

Austerity Doesn't Work

And, to prove it, sometimes all you need to do is add water.  Just ask the Irish.

And, In Other ACA News ...

... it's reducing the number of uninsured, just like it was supposed to.  Sorry, Republicans.

So Stop Pushing It, Already

And, in the meantime, if even The Wall Street Journal can recognize that suing Obamacare out of existence is a bad idea, maybe the rest of us can, too.

In Praise of Mario Cuomo, For Taking The Long View

The recent passing of former New York Governor Mario Cuomo produced a number of media tributes to his legacy.  Here, from The New York Times, is one of my personal favorites, given my addictions to theater and historical preservation.

Most of us are familiar with what I would call the "legend" of Times Square's renewal:  the one in which Rudy Giuliani walked down 42nd Street, stared at all the bad guys and made them run away, so that he could single-handedly invite the Fortune 500 in to turn the street into a miniature version of the Bergen Mall.  That's the version of events that regularly shows up in the legacy media, with nary a hint of the truth.  And even the Times article only discusses a portion of that truth:  Cuomo's willingness to negotiate an end to an attempt to revive the district with office buildings, in exchange for a modest facelifting on 42nd Street that made it more pedestrian-friendly.

The truth, however, is that the Times Square success story is one that stretched over nearly a decade, and involved the acquisition of most of the buildings on a single block of midtown Manhattan, the expiration of leases, the seeking of new tenants, and the determination of how the overall effort was to be financed.  The office-building project, to which Cuomo negotiated a successful end, was one of those efforts, which was undone as the economy went into recession in the early 1990's.  Many plans were made, and remade, as the political and economic structure of New York changed over the years.  And many people scoffed at the overall goal of "cleaning up" Times Square, either because they thought the goal was unrealistic, or because they were concerned about the harm that might come about as small, non-pornographic businesses were displaced by the mega-clout of mega-corporations seeking mega-profits for their contribution to urban renewal.

Sadly, that latter concern was justified.  Today, on 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues, the smut shops are gone, but so are a lot of other smaller businesses that were legitimate in every sense.  A friend of mine describes the block as a corporate theme park and, given the proliferation of chain businesses that have sprung up on it, it's easy to see how that label is justified.  Worst of all is the state of nine historic theaters on the block--or, rather, what's left of them. Saving these theaters was supposed to be the salve that made the destruction of five Broadway theaters for the Marriott Marquis Hotel palatable.  Of the nine, five--the Harris, Liberty, Empire, Apollo and Lyric--were largely destroyed, sacrificed to alternative corporate interests (or, in historic preservation parlance, "adaptively reused").

And yet, the block is clearly safer than it was.  And some of the theaters--the New Amsterdam, the Victory (now the New Victory), and the Selwyn (now the American Airlines)--are legitimate theatres again.  Even bits and pieces of some of the other theaters have some degree of theatrical/performance life:  the Apollo and Lyric (as parts of what is now called the Lyric Theater), the Liberty (as a nightclub/diner), and the Empire (as the gateway to a multiplex).  And, in the middle of it all sits the ninth theater--the appropriately-named Times Square Theater, intact, and awaiting a tenant who can find a way to make the building work.

None of this would have happened without a leader like Cuomo, someone committed to a fair and open process, someone who worked in the interests of everyone, and, perhaps above all, someone with a vision for New York rooted in the city's idealistic best, and not its cynical worst.  Thankfully, he lived long enough to see all of that effort pay off.  As a nation, we would all be better off with consistent leadership of that caliber, rather than the self-seeking and short-term-thinking that characterizes much of what passes for "leadership" in contemporary society.

Cuomo's legacy as a politician and a person, in these respects, is certainly not limited to Times Square.  But you would be hard-pressed to find a part of the City where that legacy is more vibrantly visible.  Thanks, Governor, and rest in peace.

Congress, Not Just Boehner, Is Guilty Of Treason

By now, everyone is aware of John Boehner's invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress.  Given the current efforts by the Obama Administration to negotiate a nuclear treaty with Iran, as well as the long-standing desire of American and Israeli conservatives to turn Iran into a nuclear pancake, political leaders and media commentators have both raised the question of whether Boehner's invitation is at least in part a hands-across-the-water attempt to sabotage the negotiations, thereby increasing the likelihood of an American-Israel war against Iran.

And, given the fact that Article II of the U.S. Constitution puts the foreign policy powers of the nation squarely in the hands of the President, some commentators have gone further to delve into a highly provocative question:  does this invitation constitute treason?

Sometimes lost in the discussion of treason as a patriotic and moral issue is the fact that it is a legal one as well.  The Constitution spells out the legal boundaries of that issue in Article III, declaring that treason can consist of an overt act having the effect of giving aid and comfort to one or more enemies of the United States.   Boehner's invitation certainly meets the requirement of an overt act.  But does it also meet the requirement of aid and comfort?

For an answer to that question, I invite you to take a look at this article, which squarely raises the question of whether Boehner's action amounts to treason.  The author raises three important facts in connection with the invitation:  prior attempts by Republican Congresses to use Netanyahu as a political foil against Democratic Presidents (Clinton and Obama), Netanyahu's currently tough re-election effort, and the complete lack of notice given to the White House regarding the invitation.  In some ways, that last one is the one that compels me to see actionable treason here.  It makes the invitation impossible to view as anything except an attempt to blindside the President (especially given the timing, almost immediately after the State of the Union address).  How could that not be seen as something that Iran would view as a sign of weak American resolve?  If a Democratic Congress attempted to do something similar to a Republican President, you can bet that the GOP would criticize Congress on exactly that basis.

But the author goes beyond that, to raise the possibility that Boehner may have overstepped his legal authority to negotiate with a foreign leader, or even to receive campaign contributions from him or his allies.  Those are relevant questions, given Netanyahu's re-election prospects and the invitations given to him by past GOP Congresses.  And what we know already demands some sort of independent investigation that would provide answers to those questions.  Take, for example, Netanyahu's view, expressed here, that "America is a thing you can move very easily."

On the other hand, we may already have something that is tantamount to a confession:  rookie GOP Senator Tom Cotton, who seems to have made a rookie mistake by stating publicly that the purpose of the invitation is to sabotage the President's negotiations with Iran.  Don't believe anyone could do something so stupid and corrupt at the same time?  Well, just take a look.

From an objective standpoint, there is already enough evidence to justify an investigation.  But, as far as I'm personally concerned, there's enough evidence to bring in a verdict.  Not only Boehner, but the entire Republican caucus in both houses of Congress, is guilty of treason in this affair.  And it isn't limited to this affair:  take a look at how the Senate is handling debate over the Keystone pipeline bill, claiming the pipeline will create U.S. jobs while defeating amendments designed to guarantee the fulfillment of that goal.  On top of that, they're doing it without debate. Government is supposed to work in the open; only spies or saboteurs get to work in the darkness. Which of those latter two categories does Mitch McConnell fit into?

If Obama does nothing more than stand in opposition to the den of vipers at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, he will be doing us more than just a favor.  He may very well be saving the Republic.  To borrow a phrase, stay tuned.  And pray that someone will investigate this Congress--even if it is only to try it in the courts of public opinion and the ballot box.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

One Very Good Reason Why Jeb Bush Should NEVER Be President

Of course, I'm being just a bit coy here; there are in fact oh-so-MANY reasons.  Let's start with the fact that he's a Bush, and that clearly worked out so well the first two times we went in that direction.  Then, of course, we go on from there to realize that there's no reason to think the third time would be the charm.  Actually, those are the only two reason you need; lather, rinse, repeat, and you'll never even THINK about putting another Bush in the White House.

But, just in case you really do need something specific to hang the hat of that decision on, I invite you to consider this.  A governor willing to meddle in a family squabble for political gain is not someone I want making middle-of-the-night decisions about my fate, or anyone else's.

If They Can't Agree On Anything Else ...

... at least Democrats and Republicans can still agree on something that may, in the context of our current situation, seem like an extravagance, but could provide the key to our long-term survival as a species:  space flight.

If You Can't Raise The Minimum Wage ...

... the least you can do is ensure that everyone knows how much CEOs are being paid.  Then workers and shareholders can have a say in whether they think current levels of executive compensation are really a good idea.  And, of course, CEOs are so confident of their value as reflected in their pay that they won't mind having the opportunity to brag about it.

Or will they?  Stay tuned.

And Here's An Example Of Why I Think Warren Should Stay In The Senate

Her focus on economic fairness gives her the opportunity, and the long-term potential, to unite people and political leaders in both parties.  Here's an example.

Nice Try, David

David Brooks seems unusually encouraging here with regard to Elizabeth Warren's presidential prospects.  I suspect that Brooks wants Warren to be the Democratic nominee in 2016, because she'll be easier to target for defeat than Hillary, as the "leftier" of the two.

I tend to doubt that Warren really wants to be President and, for my part, I'd rather keep her in the Senate rather than see her political career come to a term-limited conclusion.  I think that she has the potential to follow in the footsteps of her predecessor, Edward Kennedy, and be the Senate's liberal lion for a long time.  (No, in using the word "predecessor," I did not forget the eminently forgettable Scott Brown.  It's just that I remembered he was forgettable, and forgot him.)

In the meantime, David, be careful what you wish for.

A Four-Party Congress?

This gives you some idea of what it would look like.  I'm not entirely sure that it would be a bad idea; the combination of diluted party power and deal-making might actually accelerate the process, and led to some progress, which would be better than the current stalemate.  But, on the whole, I still think it's better for Democrats to just be Democrats, and trust in the common sense of the voters (so long as they're allowed to vote).

He Thinks It's A Damn Fight--And I'm Glad He Does

Watching President Obama's State of the Union address last night, and sifting through the media reaction to it afterwards, I was reminded of a moment from Sylvester Stallone's first "Rocky" movie (or, as I sometimes like to call it, "the good one").  The moment comes early in the film's climatic fight between Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed, the world heavyweight champion.  Creed has staged the bout as an exhibition commemorating the nation's Bicentennial but, for Rocky, it's a last chance to show what he's got as a boxer by "going the distance" with Creed.  When Creed complains to his trainer about the punishment he's taking, reminding him that this is supposed to be an exhibition, his trainer snaps back at him.  "Well, someone forgot to tell him that!  He thinks it's a damn fight!"

Clearly, that's what the President thinks, judging from his speech.  And I for one couldn't be happier.

The Republican Party has never liked Obama.  And neither has the legacy media.  He won two elections (more about that later;-)) not only without their help, but in the face of massive, unprincipled, nearly insane opposition that, despite its mendacity and sheer lack of patriotism, would have crushed a much lesser politician.  That would have been especially true of a politician like Bill Clinton, who put himself into a position to be blackmailed, and lived to regret it, as did the rest of us.  But Barack Obama is not a lesser politician.  Barack Obama is not anybody's puppet, or tool.  Barack Obama rocks.  Hard.

And the Republicans and the legacy media have never forgiven him for it.  The former, because he's black (sorry, I'm just the messenger here), and the latter, because he's won without--in fact, in spite of--the lack of blessing they chose to confer on him.  All this has done is accelerate, for both of them, the lack of relevancy that history and the forces shaping it have decreed for both of them.

For the past two years, since the President did the "unexpected" (except to his supporters) and get re-elected, the GOP and the LM (legacy or lamestream; either one works) have teamed up to create their own, overpowering anti-Obama narrative.  They squashed an immigration bill supported by the American people and more than two-thirds of the Senate.  They allowed the Republican-controlled House to get away with passing virtually nothing to help the American people, on the theory that they should wait until after the 2014 elections and their expected electoral gains.  And they received those gains through the worst combination of dark money and voter suppression in modern history.  On top of all of that, they have spent the past two months joining hands in demanding that President Obama kneel to this craven, corrupt Congress--a Congress elected by the lowest voter turnout in 70 years.

What leader in what is still supposed to be a democracy would, or should, bow down to such bullying?  Did the Republicans or the LM bow down to the Democrats when they won across the board in 2008?  Did either of them bow down to Obama or Senate Democrats in 2012?  Was their any serious effort in either instance of the GOP "reaching across the aisle"?  Did the minority Congressional leadership do anything in response to those defeats except come up with new and more exciting ways to obstruct the people's business?  And was that leadership ever called out by what passes for the traditional press?   Then or now?

This is a damn fight.  And Obama's SOTU address shows that he recognizes it and is willing to engage the Republicans in it.  He's the leader of a co-equal branch of government, and has no obligation to bow down and worship John Boehner and Mitch McConnell for their election "victories."  After all, as he gently reminded them, he has two of those as well.  And that reminder was neither rude nor arrogant; it was far nicer than this.

Obama is very much feeling comfortable in the Presidential saddle, and all of us should be grateful for it.  I am.  The Republicans and LM need to find a way to get over themselves, and get on with the business of serving the people, instead of serving themselves.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

It's Not Just A Matter Of Sloppy Sentiment, Mr. Cuozzo

As a ex-New Yorker in residence, and an eternal New Yorker in soul, I read Steve Cuozzo's real estate columns (and those of his colleague, Lois Weiss) in the New York Post on a regular basis.  The Post, of course, is Rupert Murdock's flagship domestic print publication so, like the rest of the paper, the real estate columns reflect the relentlessly pro-business perspective of the publisher.  Both Cuozzo and Weiss, accordingly, are pro-developer and anti-preservationist.  Cuozzo, in particular, has written endless columns about the need to change city regulations to get rid of buildings he deems (his boss deems?) as "outmoded," lacking such essential amenities as "column-free space" (didn't that help the WTC collapse?) and "floor-to-ceiling windows."  To be fair, he seems to approve of green construction, so that's a point in his favor.  But preservation?  Heaven forfend.

But, as it turns out, our hero does have a sloppy sentimental side when it comes to Big Apple landmarks.  As he relates here, in a former life, he got his start in the City working as an administrative aide in an arts center housed in a deconsecrated church on West 36th Street.  Like many other buildings created with the style and care common in a now-vanished world, it is to be sacrificed in the name of "progress" for a new hotel, much as my beloved Morosco and Helen Hayes Theaters were sacrificed decades ago for a similar purpose.  There seems to be no reason to think that this new hotel will be any better than the Marriott Marquis that replaced the theaters--or the stately former church that Cuozzo mourns.

And mourn it he does.  Frankly, I enjoyed reading his mini-memoir about his experiences in the building.  His account has the level of detail, and affection for that detail, required to make me believe in its complete sincerity.  In fact, I'm willing to pay it what I think is the ultimate compliment for any memoir, mini- or otherwise--it actually gives you the feeling of what it was like to be there with him, as he took in his first proverbial bite of the Big Apple.  It reminded me of my own experiences working as a college senior in two art galleries for two pillars of the New York gallery scene, Marian Goodman and Carlton Willers (and Mr. Willers' housemate, Howard Hussey).

However, this is still the Post, and still Steve Cuozzo.  Though he comes to mourn the building, he otherwise comes to use its impending loss in an effort to bury preservation, not to praise it.  He begins the column by talking about his head and his heart being at war but, by the end of the column, his head wins by a landslide.  "The city belongs to us all, not to any one of us," he intones.  "To insist that [the church] stand forever would be to deny others their own future memories to cherish."

Really, Mr. Cuozzo?  It would actually do that?  Why could it not just as easily become the home of another non-profit arts group, as the old Astor Library did for the Public Theater?  For that matter, why is total demolition of the city that once was the only alternative?  Why not transfer the air space over the church to a nearby vacant lot, and let a developer put a mega-development on that?

And, perhaps above all, why must all of New York City look like Sixth Avenue in the mid-50's?  Why must it be a metropolis only Fritz Lang would put into a movie, instead of Martin Scorsese?  Why must it be filled Battery-to-Hells-Gate with oppressive towers that are unaffordable and unattractive to anyone but a member of the 1%?  Why, that is, if the City truly belongs to all of us, and not just those who can afford to sacrifice every value but the one that folds inside a billfold or a bank account (offshore, of course)?

These are real issues, ones that go beyond the sort of "weepy" nostalgia Mr. Cuozzo exults prior to shooting it down.  We would all be better served if, instead of twisting them to promote a warped, misanthropic agenda of avarice, we looked at them honestly, and resolved them in ways that worked for "all of us."

Friday, January 16, 2015

A Capsule To Take Us To Mars?

It may already be here.

Back To The Future In International Flight?

That's what may be happening, thanks to a new British supersonic plane.

Who Would Have Ever Thought That Socialism Would Bail Out Supply-Side Economics?

That's what may happen in Kansas, thanks to Obamacare.

Shame On You, Tom Coburn!

A doctor in the Senate who thinks that we can afford any sum to go to war, but not any sum to help pay for those who bear its greatest cost?  Sorry, Mr. Coburn, but you're one thing from Oklahoma that is NOT OK.

An Alternative Approach To Climate Change In International Law

One that substitutes peer pressure for dictates.  Let's hope it works.

Yet Another Example Of Why Your Vote Matters

Especially if you're a believer in unions, and the right of workers to organize.  Thanks, President Obama!

Do We Need The International Criminal Court?

The New York Times recently presented a debate attempting to answer this question.  I'll sum up the winning argument for "Yes" in four words:  Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld.

Especially Cheney.  When you all but offer a confession of your criminal intent on "Meet the Press," you have to be called to account.  Otherwise, there is no international law.  And no international civilization.

A Compelling Case For The Arts As A City's Salvation

It can be summed up in one word:  Pittsburgh.  (Full disclosure:  John Tierney, the author of the article, is a family friend.  But read it anyway.)

Issues Divide Us, When In Fact They Should Connect Us

Here is a powerful argument for relating excessive policing with the environment.

Why Are Gas Prices Falling?

Because we have a president who has pushed alternative sources of energy, not because of the "magic of the marketplace."  Somebody should tell that to the Manchester Union Leader.  Not that they'd listen, of course.

Shame On You, Janet Suzman!

You've been criticized for suggesting that theater is, in your words, a "white invention."  To borrow a phrase, bollocks.  Theater is universal, and in fact has a rich tradition in Africa.  It exists everywhere people want to tell stories to other people.  Or, in other words, everywhere.

I'd like to think you're better than this horrible suggestion on your part.  I look forward to admiring you again one day.  But you're going to have to clean this up, first.

Abolish The Grand Jury Process?

In modern times, as recent events have shown, it can all too often be little more than a tool for a manipulative prosecutor to use and abuse in order to get a desired result.  It's an anachronism of our common law British heritage--except that the British abandoned it a long time ago, to good effect. Maybe it's time to follow in their footsteps.

A Tale Of Two Poverties

I saw this op-ed in The New York Times, and it gave me a great deal of food for thought, especially as it relates to the whole question of income inequality, and its victims.  It made me appreciate the fact that there are, in fact, two different kinds of poverty, both of them bred by income inequality, and both of them threats to our future unless something is done about it, and soon.

I know what you're thinking.  How in the world am I supposed to feel sorry for a 30-year old Ivy League graduate who shot his hedge-fund-running father to death over a dispute about his allowance?  For that matter, how in the world does someone with an Ivy League degree end up in a position where his parents need to support him well past his college years?

That latter question might, in some ways, be the more interesting one.  In any case, I can easily understand the justification for both questions.  But bear with me a little bit.

Admittedly, it's easy to find economic poverty.  It's grown geometrically over the past 35 years, to the point at which it takes a series of part-time jobs just to be what used to be lower-middle-class.  In fact, at this point, the lower-middle-class is the only middle class left, if by "middle class," your talking about a world in which a house, a car, college educations, summer vacations, paid holidays and pensions can be taken for granted by the majority of Americans--along with the ability to have all of these things and the ability to save for the occasional, but not inevitable, financial rainy day.

That world, roughly defined in time as post-World War II America, began to fall apart in the 1970s as the oil shocks heralded the emergence of a truly global economy, one that leveled the financial playing field worldwide, and made economic dominance difficult for anyone.  The results--inflation, high interest rates, and budget deficits--gave what was then the 10% the opening they needed politically to tell us how all-important it was to bow down to them in fiscal matters.  Thirty-five years later, the 10% has become the 1%, and the middle class as we knew it has vanished.  The "losers" have grown in enormous numbers, and the shrinking pool of "winners" feel justified in not caring.

Except that they should.  If it's now accepted conventional wisdom that absolute economic equality is neither possible nor desirable, it should be no less accepted that an economic "pyramid" is no stronger than its base.  And that base now extends far beyond the borders of the United States. Contrary to what you may have learned in Ayn Rand 101, elites don't create wealth.  Societies create wealth.  Some members of society simply have more leverage than others.  And that is why the twenty-first century looks and feels so much like the nineteenth.

Or, for that matter, the sixteenth.  Mark Twain, an author who witnessed the injustices of his time, reached back into history to illustrate them with "The Prince and the Pauper."  The prince is the only son of Henry VIII, who later succeeds him to the throne of England as Edward VI.  In Twain's novel, the prince exchanges places for a time with a poor commoner who by chance looks almost exactly like him.  Outside of the palace, the prince is moved by the injustice he sees and resolves to be a just ruler, while, at the palace, his counterpart uses his common sense to actually practice justice, thereby helping to deceive those around him about his true identity.

In the process, Twain illustrates an important point:  that the economic and political circumstances of our lives do not define us so much as does our basic ability to distinguish right from wrong. Sometimes, however, as in the case of the prince, we need an opportunity to sharpen that ability. Sometimes, as in the case of the pauper, we need to show that we can use that ability to good effect. Either way, each side of the economic coin (pun intended) are ultimately inseparable, and have something to offer each other.

If only Thomas Gilbert, Jr. had had the opportunity that the Prince had to see the injustice on which his father's fortune was built.  If only even a fraction of the people whose lives have been dislocated by the machinations of hedge-fund managers like Gilbert's father had received some of the federal financial assistance given to all of Wall Street, so that they could have even a chance of making something of lasting value with their lives.

Our enslavement to a morally and intellectually bankrupt set of economic principles has produced, to paraphrase another nineteenth century title, a tale of two poverties--the financial poverty of the many, and the emotional poverty of the few.  And all of us suffer as a result.  Only when that enslavement ends will the suffering end as well.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Why We Should All Be Charlie--And Not Rupert, Or Bill (Either Of Them)

Like most of you, I suspect, I had never heard of Charlie Hebdo until last week's tragedy in Paris.  I had no knowledge of the newspaper's views on Islam.  I had never seen any of the cartoons that allegedly motivated the murderers of the cartoonists, or the others in their attack.  Which means that any offense taken by those cartoons is minuscule compared to the choice to take the lives of others.

And, because of that latter choice, those cartoons now have a level of exposure they never would have experienced otherwise.  So, if those cartoons were indeed "dangerous," guess what, murderous thugs?  You've guaranteed whatever "danger" you thought you were stopping when you pulled the triggers.  So, morally and legally, you've committed crimes against humanity for an exercise in political and religious futility.

Why then, are their voices rising in their defense?

Because those voices have a vested interest in promoting conflict, conflict that has the capacity to consume an entire planet and all of its people, just so they can line their well-lined pocket a little bit more.

The worst examples of this are Rupert Murdock and Bill Maher.  Both of them invite you to sit in judgment on an entire religion and its adherents, as if that were ever the answer to any tragedy like this.  As if that wasn't an invitation to genocide.  And as if their weren't any number of examples illustrating the falsity of their premise. A falsity that can be found in the Arab media itself.  And in the lives of Muslims living here in this country.  And in the thousand-year-plus reality that Christianity has its own track record of violent persecution of those it deems "unbelievers"--a track record that runs into the present.

One would hope that their self-serving interests--Murdock's in selling papers and attracting views, Maher's in trashing religion generally--would be transparent to everyone. Perhaps a little less transparent are the motives of the Catholic League president, the "other Bill," Bill Donohue, who goes so far as to sympathize with the murderers.  A right-wing Catholic on board with jihad?  Are you really all that surprised?  Well, take a close look at his statements in the linked article.  It's not as if he's renouncing the idea of violence against Islam.  Far from it.  He's endorsing the idea of using violence against those who hold opposing views, based on alleged "provocation."  He knows that the acceptance of that perspective can be used against any opposing views and those who hold them.

And the opposition need not be religious in nature.  It can be political.  Or racial.  And there are examples of both right under our noses.  Take a look.  Then take a look again.  Don't doubt for a second that Donohue is on board with people like this.  He has a notorious history not only of intolerance, but belligerent intolerance.  And he's far from alone among American conservatives.

If we listen to the voices of the Murdocks, Mahers and Donohues of the world, we will simply be feeding the violence that gives them short-term profits, and the long-term destruction of our democracy.  We will become little more than a collection of tribes using any means necessary to destroy each other, because our differences threaten us.  We will end up betraying not only the best of our history, but of our ideals.  Especially the one embodied in our long-forgotten motto, E pluribus unum, the one that reflects the idea that our differences are not more powerful than our similarities.

And that is why all of us have to stand with Charlie Hebdo, and its right to exist on its own terms.  Not because we agree with its views, but because we agree with its right to exist.  No one should have the power to destroy another life, simply because of differing ideas.  Not anywhere, and certainly not in a democracy.  We may disagree on whether or not God created life, but we can all agree that we did not create it, and we have no right to take it for so trivial a reason as the way a person thinks.  All of us are potential sources of offense.  None of us would be here if we had to die for that reason.

So, take a little advice commonly misattributed to a well-known Frenchman named Voltaire.  And practice it daily, in your personal life and in whatever public and political life you have, knowing that offense is a part of the fabric of living, and sometimes gives birth to better thoughts and ideas that might not have been created otherwise.  Giving offense should never be a death sentence.  All of us should be free to think and to speak.  All of us benefit from that freedom.  And all of us die, at least a little bit, when someone is killed exercising it.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Non-Union Shows and Ticket Prices

And, speaking of wages and prices (as I was indirectly in my last post), allow me the luxury of grinding my own professional ax in this space.

Through a great deal of hard work, and not a little bit of luck, I have been able to join Actors' Equity and SAG-AFTRA, the two major unions that support the economic and professional interests of actors on stage, in films, and on television.  As a consequence, I am able to get work as an actor for better wages and working conditions than is often the case in non-union productions.  I should add that, on the subject of wages, that the difference between union and non-union productions is not just a question of getting better wages, but any wages at all.  That's the voice of experience (namely, mine).

But you don't have to take my word for it, or that of any other actor, for that matter.  All you have to do is go to any Web publication or other site that offers audition information.  You will find that the vast majority of productions are not only non-union, but non paying.  In part, of course, this reflects the fact that, at any point in history, there is always a buyer's market for actors.   But it also reflects a new level of muscle-flexing by producers.  Emboldened by a business and political environment that increasing favors the moneyed at the expense of everyone else, producers have increasingly competed with each other to see what are the worst working conditions actors will put up with, for the sake of being able to act.

This competition, sadly, has worked its way into the very upper echelons of the theater industry.  National tours of Broadway shows, which formerly employed all of their performers under Equity contracts, now frequently are produced and performed around the country with non-union performers.  That means that the productions you now see of those great new hits (and old ones) from New York that you've heard about so much now frequently star performers with less experience and, on occasion, less talent than the ones you can see on the Great White Way.

What isn't less?  I'll tell you, for the sake of creating a new class of educated consumers.

Ticket prices.

That's right.  The same ticket prices that formerly supported the wages and benefits of union actors are being paid by you.  The difference between those prices and the reduced wages and benefits (if any) are being pocketed by the producers as "profit."  As if their profits weren't generous enough.

This is something you should certainly remember the next time you hear grumbling in the entertainment industry about union demands.  Union contracts in film, TV and theater are in fact quite flexible about giving producers the opportunity to work affordably with union actors under a variety of financial levels.  Producers, on the other hand, are somewhat less flexible.  Once they have learned that they can "get away" with a certain level of pricing, they will treat that level of pricing as an entitlement.

Are you going to let them get away with it?  Or are you going to insist, even to the point of staying away from non-union touring productions, that they either employ union actors, or let their ticket prices reflect the fact that they are employing less expensive talent?

Ultimately, that depends on how seriously you take your power as a consumer.  But, if you take it as seriously as producers take their prerogatives, you have real power, power that can be used to affect other issues.  But, if you enjoy being powerless, if you love being played for a sucker, if you absolutely believe that the people at the top of the economic pyramid always have your best interests at heart, well, you go right ahead and do nothing.

I mean, it's your money, right?  Until you surrender it to them.  And, once you do, good luck getting it back.

In the meantime, see you at the movies (and proudly under a union contract).

Boomers and Reaganomics

That might seem like a strange title for a start-off-the-year post.  But I thought it just as well to start it off with a little historical perspective.

In 1980, we had a presidential election that, by common consensus, changed the political landscape in ways that continue to define--I would argue "haunt"--our national policies and priorities.  The election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency and the reduction of Democratic power in Congress to one house was the beginning of a mindset that has emerged in full bloom during the Obama years.  That mindset, of course, is that anything that shifts the distribution of wealth to the investing cast is good.

What is especially pernicious about this shift is that, at first, it was justified on the grounds of economic necessity--this shift, it was argued, was the only way to bring the economy back from the post-World War II heights it enjoyed for over three decades.  It was, of course, during this decade that the Baby Boom occurred, and that "boomers" started to come of age in the late-60s--and started to change the post-Depression complexion of our national politics by voting Republican.  As much as the Democrats made gains by expanding the franchise to the 18-to-21-year-old population, so did Republicans.  As much as the "Southern Strategy" began to tip national elections in favor of the GOP, the ascent of the "boomers" into the ranks of the voting public contributed to that trend.

Why?  For the obvious, historical reason that the Republicans, whatever else they might claim to be at any given point in time, are the party of money.  Of people who've got it.  Who want to keep it, above all else.  And who will go to any lengths to not only keep that money, but get more of it--preferably, without lifting a finger.  And boomers (myself among them) came of age having had the most financially comfortable childhoods not simply in American history, but in world history.  They had no reason to doubt that the good times would last indefinitely--until the oil shocks of the 1970s, and the beginning of today's multipolar economy, made it clear that the cost of "keeping up" would grow as increased competition bid up the demand for resources.

It was therefore, in spite of Watergate, that the early flow of boomer voters toward the GOP increased from a trickle to a flood.  And it is that flood that has provided the political undergurding for the Republican successes from 1980 on up to the election of Obama in 2008.

But then, along came 2008 and the ultimate, unavoidable reckoning that occurred when the financial house of cards built by the investing class--and their voters--on debt collapsed.  At that point, history, which had been declared "over" after the collapse of the Soviet bloc with a "victory" for capitalism, decided to write one more final chapter--this one about the death of capitalism.  For, after the financial bailouts that were supported by both parties, it was clear that capitalism in the United States now existed in name only.  Republican pro-investor policies could no longer be justified by their alleged economic success.

And now we come to the truly pernicious part of the boomer-fed shift in our voting trends.  Republicans, knowing that they could no longer depend on Reagan-era arguments, reached further back into our history the likes of Ayn Rand and Calvin Coolidge.  Money should flow up to the top, it was now said, because the top was were jobs were "created," as if by magic.  Never mind the lessons of history, from the last century or this one.  And never mind the fact that consumerism, with a little help from both the private and public sectors, is the real job-creation engine.  Wealth should flow up, according to Republicans, because they said so.

Is it any wonder, in such a world, that wages are a fraction of their value in the 1960s?  Is it any wonder that boomers, who have fed their material appetites with debt as a result, are all tapped out, and dependent on their parents' eventual estates for retirement?  And, far worse, is it any wonder that the generations who come behind the boomers may never retire?  That they may never even be able to afford a house, thanks to wage stagnation and post-bubble housing values?

What can boomers do to atone?  Very simple.  They should get behind public policies that end the tilting of the playing field toward the investing class.  They should support programs that increase the minimum wage, bring home capital and jobs from overseas, give stability to pensions and other retirement programs (especially Social Security) on which they will depend, and build new industries based on the renewal of resources rather than their consumption.

In other words, they should do what their parents did decades ago.  Demand a New Deal.  And get it at the polls.