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librarybabel

* * *

Do you remember the Library of Babel

And how we wandered through the stacks

To our great content until all the gibberish

Just became too much and we began to shake

The shelves like the branches of money trees

As books fell and carpeted the floor

In cheap, hardcover leaves?

* * *

We were too bored and greedy to fall down

And mingle with the signifying heap,

And so we stopped reading

Like we stopped loving

-not altogether, but thoroughly,

So that only a page or two

Would quench our expurgated desire.

–H. Scutt

scattershot

Shit Hits Fan, Phase 2: General Growth files largest U.S. real estate bankruptcy

From the article: “General Growth Properties, Inc., the second-largest U.S. mall owner, declared bankruptcy on Thursday in the biggest real estate failure in U.S. history.”

Remember, our woes so far have been attributed to the residential real estate market. But everything that was done with residential real estate, from securitization to credit default swaps and beyond, was also done with commercial real estate. In fact, it was done with all types of credit, including car loans and credit cards. To be fair, I have no specific information about the kind of credit balloon that was inflated around commercial real estate by investors. But even if it wasn’t as delicate and hollow as the residential bubble, commercial real estate would still be in trouble. Companies like General Growth Properties will be struggling as long as consumers are struggling to come up with the money to spend at the mall. Worse, these companies were buying on leverage during the boom just like everyone else, which means that they have a ton of debt staring them in the face: “About $814 billion of commercial mortgage debt is expected to mature over the next two years, according to real estate research firm Foresight Analytics,” the article states.

Just put a little mark on your calendar in commemoration of the day the second wave began to hit the fan.

Out of Ideas:Venture investments fall 61 percent in 1st quarter

In a nutshell, here’s my opinion: We’re in trouble because the whole world has been investing in things whose value has not been worth the investment. We have grown so accustomed to economic growth that we spent several years coasting on our last burst of improved productivity. We have taken economic progress for granted and forgotten that things don’t get better without getting better. We’ve bought productivity increases off the backs of foreign labor because our inventive capacity is inherently sporadic and cannot guarantee the improvements we have come to expect as consumers. As consumers, we have grown accustomed to a glut of products, the value of which has so little to do with necessity that nine out of ten dollars spent amount to so much speculation on our aggregate attention span.

Venture investment is investment in new ideas and productive measures. When that kind of investment falls 61 percent, it’s not a good sign for new ideas. Some percentage of that, surely, is fat that needed to be trimmed. But at a time when what we need is new ideas and better ways of doing the same old thing, a lack of venture capital is sign that our troubles are still far from over. Stimulus and bailouts aside, we’re looking at a world that kept investing for several years after it was out of ideas. And now that we’re getting picky about our portfolios, we’re starting to see that there still isn’t much that’s worth the investment.

Your Best Bet is to Fail Big: U.S. closed banks match total for all of 2008

Just in case you though the government was bailing everybody out, here’s a reminder that you have to be big and important to get the TARP treatment. So far in 2009, federal regulators have closed 25 banks, the same number that were closed during the whole of 2008. The banks that get rescued are those that are considered “too big to fail.” Unfortunately, I believe that there is some truth to the fear that, if we allowed our largest banks to fail, the economic consequences are all but unknowable, except for the fact that they would be almost universally miserable. While I don’t mind letting small and regional banks go under, per se, I chafe at the continued opacity surrounding the accounts of the big banks. Either we are being held hostage by a baseless fear or we are being held hostage by a sound fear. As a taxpayer, I want to know the deal. I have no sympathy for the executives, creditors, or investors of the banks where the only vestiges of private enterprise include their lack of accountability to the taxpayer and the jealousy with which their dirty books are guarded.

Piracy of the Real: NATO frees hostages from pirates, new ship seized

It’s hard not to respect the Somali pirates. With every major navy in the world vying to do “live ammo” practice on their unbowed heads, the last thing you can call these guys is wimps. I also appreciate their criminal style. So far it’s been about business and minimum casualties, an approach we might want to appreciate before we’re forced to think about the kind of damage suicide bombers could be doing to our shipping lines.

In terms of the bigger picture, Somalia is evidence of the tear in the fabric of the world community. It represents one of only a few unassimilated territories in the global patchwork of nation-states. Somalia is essential an anti-nation, a space left over where the borders didn’t meet after all the lines were drawn. That space is filled by remnants of the old world of warriors and family, a world that the soldiers and citizens of the twenty-first century international community have done all they can to overlay with the matrix of nationality. We’ve done a remarkably thorough job of it, even considering the multitude of nations that still struggle with the imposition of such foreign concepts. Somalia, however, is a reminder of not just what remains to be assimilated. It is a reminder that every line we’ve drawn across the world is imaginary, and only the skill and strength of our commandos can force people to pretend that they are real.

Obama Does His Job: A Smile and a Shake for Chavez

I used the heading I found on the Drudge Report, rather than the heading of the article itself, which is “Obama, Chavez shake hands at Americas Summit.” I guess I wouldn’t be too far off the mark to infer that Drudge, or at least many of his readers, disapproves of the president’s gestures of civility toward the near-dictator of Venezuela. I’m not going to ridicule this minute attention to passing details, because I, like many readers, believe that virtually everything the president does sends a potentially nuclear message.

For my part, I laud Obama’s civility, be it directed toward Chavez or Europeans or the Shah of Iran. It’s one of the reasons I voted for him. Unlike many, I have never believed that a man with the big stick also needs a big mouth. A strong man that cannot be a gentleman is by definition a bully. The right wing critique of Obama’s foreign policy revolves around their imputation that kindness to foreigners is equivalent to weakness. To me, to impute such weakness to the president from home before it is implied from abroad smacks of petite treason. It will be a cold day in purgatory before Drudge readers and the rest of the country’s treason-snoops own up to their inner Benedict Arnolds, but I guess I’m not above pointing it out in the mean time.

enoughmoney

Taking income from the rich reduces the incentive to get rich, which in turn reduces overall wealth.

Phil Birnbaum

I didn’t put it in those words, but I certainly used to believe the larger argument that this claim is supposed to support. The larger argument is part of a tax-reduction or flat-tax scheme based on the notion that higher taxes stifle economic growth, especially higher taxes on the wealthy. The above quote about reducing the “incentive to get rich” is just one of the many ways in which people have tried to support the tax-reduction argument. I used to put my own version this way: “Rich people didn’t get rich by being stupid about their money.” Another example would be the small business owners who explained how they were trying to keep their income under $250,000 in order to avoid Obama’s tax hikes. Unfortunately, small business owners who say things like that contradict my own claim that rich people are not stupid about their money.

If I understand anything about the American Dream, I understand that getting rich is its own incentive. It is clearly the denouement of every rags-to-riches story, but, more to the point, it is clearly the case that no one wants to get richer more than those who are already rich. If you wonder, for instance, why there was such a booming market for what have now become toxic assets, it’s largely because people who already had a lot of money could not bear the thought of letting their riches sit without generating even more wealth. To be fair, this impulse to generate profit is precisely what makes the rich chafe when faced with higher taxes. After all, nothing is less profitable than giving away your money, which is why the rich-not to mention everyone else-hate higher taxes.

But can a tax ever be so high that it “reduces the incentive to get rich”? How high would such a tax have to be? Of course, it depends upon how hard the work is, and no job is so easy that it’s worth paying 100% in income tax. That being said, if you gave away a dollar for every rich person who would trade their job with the garbage man in order to avoid a 39% tax rate, I bet you would still walk away with change from a sawbuck. Put another way, and irrespective of the tax burden, not being poor is always an excellent incentive to get rich. And just as getting rich is a universal incentive, paying taxes is an odious burden to rich and poor alike. But it is a mistake to equate a hatred of income taxes with a distaste for income itself.

It would be a mistake, but it is a mistake that some people are apparently willing to make. ABC News has reported on a lawyer whose business plan involves keeping her income below Obama’s $250,000 cut-off for a higher tax rate: “We are going to try to figure out how to make our income $249,999.00,” said this perspicuous businessperson. Apparently, there are indeed upper-middle class proprietors who lack a basic understanding of the term marginal in the phrase marginal tax rate. Such a misunderstanding discounts the argument I myself used to make, which is that rich people did not get rich by being stupid about money.

Fortunately for the pensive attorney and people like her, a term has been invented that dresses their ignorance of accounting in the garb of academic respectability. The term is “work disincentive,” and it purports to describe the negative effects of certain policies on  work ethic. One example of a work disincentive, it is claimed, would be welfare payouts, since they are benefits received without being earned as wages. Another disincentive, and the one of concern to the attorney and her ilk, is supposedly a higher marginal tax rate. If I’m going to be taxed more for earning more, the argument goes, what’s the point of going through all the trouble of earning more? Or, like Mr. Birnbaum said, “Taking income from the rich reduces the incentive to get rich.”

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, a Citi executive named Jonathan Clements gave his own first-person example of a disincentive after the House of Representatives threatened a 90% tax on bonuses paid by companies receiving taxpayer money. As Clements explains it:

A 90% tax is downright stupid, creating bizarre disincentives. Exhibit A? That would be me. Once my total income hits $250,000 for the current calendar year, I will have no incentive to work a single day more in 2009. After all, for every extra dollar of income I earn above $250,000, I will lose 90 cents of the bonus I received earlier this year.

His plan, should this eventuality come about, is to “ask Citi for an unpaid sabbatical. Forget earning more income. There’s no point.” While a 90% tax would, all things being equal, be a disincentive to earning more than $250,000, the case is both extreme and extremely unlikely. But even if the tax does go into effect, at this point in time, all things are not equal. While Clements’ math and basic logic may be sound, his grasp of the economic reality of our times is either woefully misinformed or-and this seems more likely-a willful bluff.

It doesn’t take long to find a couple of adequate rebuttals in the comments section to Clements’ article. Steve Alpher points out:

In case you don’t read the papers, the company you work for is essentially owned by the government. It would not exist anymore had the government not purchased a huge stake in it and guaranteed its debts. In other words you are a government worker. If you want to make a lot more money with the possibility of a bonus for exceptional performance, I suggest you try and find a job in the true private sector.

What Clements omits from his autumn-sabbatical fantasy is that, of all industries, the finance industry is currently stocked with a surfeit of talent that is more than willing to work all year long for a lousy quarter mill, as long as it means avoiding the kinds of jobs that make the whole conundrum moot. Regarding such jobs, another poster in the comments section suggests:

Take a real job – changing tires in a gas station maybe, cleaning the floors and stocking shelves in a hardware store, busing tables; for that matter, fill in as a teacher’s aide where the bathroom breaks are restricted and for $9.50 an hour – no benefits, no pension – you can wipe the drool off a four-year-old, distribute cookies at break time, or hand out battered textbooks because there’s no money in the budget to buy new ones; help a cop and stand in a busy intersection for an hour in the rain directing traffic; take a landscape job – leave your rental apartment at six in the morning and drive your old car to a rich guy’s football-field-sized lawn, follow the mower all day and then drive to the next rich guy’s lawn (you don’t know why the guy is rich or why he became rich, only that he’s taking advantage of tax codes you as a mower-pusher don’t have, will never have and which he is working very hard to be sure you don’t get.) Spend the next month buying day-old fruit and day-old bread in the supermarket; bag groceries for a week; talk to the people working two 30 hour-a-jobs (that way their employers can pay minimum wage and don’t have to pay for benefits; stop whining.

Everybody has an incentive to get rich. But in an economy like this, there’s an incentive to have any kind of work at all. The idea that rich or poor or middle class will increase its leisure time as a sort of tax rebellion at a time when everybody lucky enough to have a job is ready with a snappy “yes, suh!” in answer to the boss’s most outlandish demands, that idea is either mistaken or disingenuous or both.

But the truth of the matter is that people like the tax-wary attorney or the laid-back executive were not meant to be truly rich. With regards to small business, the attorney clearly lacks the sensibility it takes to become a big business. While she finagles to keep from having to pay a higher rate on money she makes over $250,000, some lawyer with common sense and drive is building a multimillion-dollar partnership. Sure, he begrudges every dollar the government takes, but he wasn’t foolish enough to quit the race for want of winning by a mile. Meanwhile, I dare Jonathan Clements to ask for a sabbatical from Citi in September. Though if they give it to him, in all honesty, I will only take it as further proof that the well-off get to play by different rules than the workaday.

It’s interesting that we rarely hear this disincentive argument applied to the lower-middle class, where the progressive income tax has similar effects. For instance, someone who makes less than $32,000 a year pays at a marginal rate of 15%. However, above that level, the rate increase to 25%. Where are the articles written by sheet-metal workers and beauticians explaining how they won’t work overtime because it will push them into a higher tax bracket? Where are the waitresses asking to take the fourth quarter off so that their marginal tax rate won’t go up on the money earned over 32 grand?

In the end, maybe I was right, and rich people don’t get rich by being stupid about their money. Instead, they pay other people to be stupid about money and to codify and inculcate that stupidity in the minds of the merely well-off and their loyalists among the poor. Rich people have every right to hate paying their taxes, but don’t believe for a second that they plan to stop getting rich. There is no disincentive to getting rich, just as there are no lengths to which the rich will not go to stay that way. Among those lengths are outright lies about their accounting and their intentions. This, however, is the time to call their bluff.

thedragon

What rules you is a dragon,

and a dragon is an animal

that does not know its own reflection.

*

Such a feat is the vanity

of advanced mammals

and higher primates.

*

But even a pervasive god

cannot look upon itself

with the measured eye of man,

which sees scale models in the mirror,

closed circuits, and butterflies on velvet.

*

What they call the woman’s perspective

may come into view: a portion

or a captured angle

composing all across a closed horizon.

*

But for a dragon such a vision is

too close for context, and it cannot tell

its own tail from the wind or sky or time.

*

This is the size and scope

of the serpent that rules your world,

and the serpent is neither more nor less.

–H. Scutt

newsworld

Fox New Channel has again destroyed its closest cable news competitors. It’s primetime line-up, which includes Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Glen Beck, regularly grosses more viewers than its next two competitors combined. CNN is the second runner up, but MSNBC is giving the cable news warhorse a run for its money. Whether or not MSNBC is able to surpass CNN in the near future, it will probably be a while before either of them gives Fox News any serious competition. For anyone familiar with the spiritual precursor of Fox News–talk radio–the current state of affairs craves the question: What has become of the liberal media?

Make no mistake about it, the vast majority of Fox News’ 2.3 million nightly viewers believes in the liberal media, and by “liberal media” they do not mean The Village Voice. They are also not referring to the likes of Alan Colmes, the liberal baggage Sean Hannity recently dropped from his show to the further benefit of his ratings. Rather, the liberal media refers to what others might call the mainstream media: NBC, ABC, and CBS network news, along with most major newspapers and news magazines. This media, many Fox News viewers believe, offers a persistent left-leaning bias on the news. What is even worse, the liberal media presents this bias without openly owning up to the fact. In the guise of objectivity, they believe, the liberal media has spent decades injecting lefty cant into popular journalism. Fox News, with its openly opinionated primetime hosts, is the self-conscious antidote to the perceived poison of the liberal media. And as such, it’s clearly doing quite well for itself.

Sean Hannity is an important link between Fox News and talk radio, and it’s no coincidence that he plays second-fiddle both on cable and on the air. On TV, it’s Bill O’Reilly who’s top dog, while on the radio, it’s the granddaddy of right-wing canines, Rush Limbaugh. It was Rush who invented the liberal media in its current form. He began as a true outsider and gadfly, churning his way through three hours of airtime a day for almost a decade before Fox News Channel existed.  Even now, it’s not unrealistic to think that Rush has as many listeners as Fox News has nightly viewers (Rush claims 20 million listeners a week, but even low-ballers don’t put it below 12 million). In any event, Sean Hannity, as both a radio and TV personality, provides the bridge between right-wing talk-radio  and the cable news renaissance.

The big difference between right-wing radio and cable news is that Rush Limbaugh bills himself as a conservative commentator, while Fox News bills itself as “Fair and Balanced.” In a very real sense, Fox’s tagline is a purposeful reclamation of journalistic objectivity from the clutches of the liberal media. It is tantamount to saying, “If the liberal media can call itself objective, so can we.” Never mind that your number 2 guy is so humorlessly conservative that he makes Rush look like a cuddly clown by comparison and your top guy touts his working-class Catholic roots as if they were enough to forbid comparisons with the wannabe WASP aspirations of the cigar-chomping Limbaugh. Despite these right-wing credentials, Fox News has no qualms about labeling itself as, well, news.

Nor, as it turns out, do other media outlets. Fox News Channel is ranked as the top cable news channel, in direct competition with CNN at number two and a fast growing MSNBC at number three. Of these three networks, only Fox is in the top ten of all basic cable stations, coming in at a healthy number two behind USA Network and running neck and neck with the Disney Channel. CNN, meanwhile, is on the decline, while MSNBC is moving up. These trends all make sense if you consider the relationship of each network to both the old mainstream–“liberal”–media and to the emerging partisan media marketplace.

CNN was founded 1980, well before the emergence of either conservative talk radio or “Fair and Balanced” cable news. At the time, it’s function was to provide a twenty-four hour source for news, a commodity previously served up only in half-hour slices several times a day by the broadcast networks. Other than having a longer day, however, CNN’s journalistic model was pretty much the same as that of broadcast news. Like the rest of the mainstream media, CNN presented itself as a nonpartisan, objective observer of current world events. This journalistic model is still the dominant form, despite its decline. Even in today’s market of slipping ratings, the least watched broadcast news show on CBS has three times the viewers of the Fox News Channel. Trends, however, are all towards partisanship, which is not something that works in CNN’s favor. As a member of the old guard, modeled on the network news of the late twentieth-century, CNN has long been a part of the unacknowledged liberal media that Rush Limbaugh built his career by defining and belaboring.

Fox News Channel, then, is the news channel for the non-liberal news seeker. It is, both explicitly and implicitly, the news source for people who want an alternative to the liberal media as they define it. That this market exists was proved almost two decades ago by talk radio, and the fact that it is the strongest market in cable news today should be neither surprising nor especially worrisome. The cable market is, by definition, specialized, and the success of a cable network has as much to do with precise targeting as it does with broad appeal. Fox News knows its audience better than CNN does, and it’s audience is real but not enormous. On any given night, far more cable viewers are watching something besides the news. Conversely, most people who watch any kind of news at all are still checking in with the liberal media mainstays of the big three, ABC, NBC, and CBS.

But hegemony is on its way out, and the hot product in the news is partisan. This is why the lowly number-three cables news channel, MSNBC, is nevertheless on the rise. Finally recognizing that part of the success of Fox News is based upon its embrace of partisanship, MSNBC is trying to do the same thing. For just as there is an audience who believes the mainstream media is too liberal, there is also a growing audience who thinks that it is too conservative. This is the other side of the coin that MSNBC is trying to exploit, despite the failure of less sophisticated imitations of right-wing success like AirAmerica radio. CNN, meanwhile, is stuck trying to play to the middle in the broad but shrinking field of moderate media.

Whatever news looks like in ten years, it will owe something to both Fox News and, ultimately, Rush Limbaugh. This is true whether or not Rush’s claims of “liberal media bias” were ever founded on anything other than paranoia. The fact of the matter is that hegemonic media, by virtue of its universality, will always rightfully inspire paranoia in any faction that does not feel served by its hegemony. The success of Fox News need not be the precursor of increasingly polarized media, wherein we are all strung out between left- and right-wing info-propaganda. Rather, the history and numbers at Fox News suggest that it is on the forefront of a media differentiation that will probably continue until the the great mass of uncritical news viewers is parcelled out into small, self-selecting groups. Conservative and liberal news outlets are just the start: We will all, eventually, be able to find some slant on the news that suits our own leaning.

chicagoelsmall

chicagoharoldssmall

gutterpuddlesmall

bigsignssmall

bottlewateroilsmall

basichustle1

The hustlers in Chicago have a whole different style than the hustlers in Brooklyn. In Brooklyn, they appear out of nowhere, crossing the street or coming around the corner, passing you on the way to somewhere else. “Hey, man, I’m trying to get something to eat.” If you’ve got a dollar or some quarters you hand them over. “Thanks, man. God bless.” Or you shrug and mutter that you’re sorry, and they’re on their way down the street. New York’s famously brusque approach to all minor transactions dictates the same etiquette to the panhandler as it does to everyone else. It’s not so much rude as it is efficient.

In Chicago, the hustlers have more time and more room to work. They take up stations from which they begin conversations with passers-by. At the end of the conversation comes a tug at the heart strings, an altruistic purpose for which the beggar is only a conduit. Through the hustler, the mark is given the opportunity to invest in charity and contribute to a worthy cause. As a college student, my first week in Chicago proved to me that I was an easy target: I bought two-dollar post-cards, paid bus fairs, and just plain handed over money at a rate that started to become embarrassing. It wasn’t the expense that cowed me, so much as it was the sense that a bumpkin is as a bumpkin does, and that there is indeed a fine line between being a youth of goodwill and being a sucker. I taught myself to say no, and even taught myself to believe my refusals were righteous.

My view began to change after a few years in New York with a job and an encroaching sense of manhood. For one thing, a grown man should consider what another grown man could do besides just ask for a couple of bucks. He might also want to appreciate the fact, if he is so lucky, that he has never had to rely on strangers for the donation of a little chump change. This new mindset suited the Brooklyn approach to begging, which is as businesslike as anything else in the city. Like any businessperson here, the biggest favor a hustler can do is to be direct and to the point. If the transaction is going to happen, it will happen quickly or not at all. That mutual understanding drives the trade as much as the particular plight or character of a given hustler.

Returning for a visit to Chicago, however, I was reminded of the Midwestern approach to scraping up a few extra bucks. Walking out of the hotel on Michigan Avenue, a man clocked me and called out:

“Hey, you look like Elvis.”

He left his perch by a large concrete planter on the sidewalk and began tagging along beside me.

“Whenever someone tells me that,” I said, “I know it’s time to trim my sideburns.”

“No, man,” he said. “I didn’t mean nothing by it. They look cool.”

“Well, thanks,” I said.

By now we had walked half a block and I knew that the hustle was on. Memories came flooding back, and I was almost enjoying the Chicago-style plea. The man kept up the patter until we had walked a couple of blocks, and he still had not asked for a cent. My Brooklyn-acquired abruptness prompted me to cut to the chase. I pulled out three bucks and handed them to him.

“No, man,” he said. “I don’t want your money. We’re just walking and talking.” He seemed almost offended, though he did take the money. It wasn’t my presumptuousness that bothered him; rather, it was my impatience. My gesture had been intended to tell him that he didn’t need to go through the whole story, that the money was already his. His response reminded me, however, that there was a craft involved in what he was doing, and that I had interrupted the execution of his trade.

Nevertheless, I was not so Brooklyn-bred as to be ruthless, and the man clearly detected the soft mark that I have always been and, hopefully, always will be.

“Man, four days,” he said. Then, he repeated himself. “Four days. I did fifteen calendars and I been back for four days.”

Fifteen calendars? I thought. “You just got out of prison?” I asked.

“Four days ago,” he said. “I been down in Grant Park. I used to live on the South Side. But everybody’s gone since I was away, all my family, the people I knew. The apartment I used to live in been torn down. I don’t know anybody anymore.”

Suddenly, it struck me that he could be telling the truth. Certainly, people who spend fifteen years in jail have to get out sometime, and why couldn’t this man have gotten out four days ago? Imagine returning to a city you hardly recognize with nothing but a criminal record. What might you end up doing? Hustling easy marks on Michigan Avenue was one option, I thought.

He saw the sympathy overwhelm me and pressed his advantage.

“Look, man,” he said. “I got this aunt, the only lady that wrote me when I was away. She lives in Milwaukee and I’m trying to get a ticket there. It’s thirteen dollars and forty-two cents.”

My sucker-sense started tingling again. “You know,” I said. “When I first moved to Chicago, some guy asked me for six dollars and seventy-three cents because his car had broke down and he needed a bus ride home. I know that guy was hustling me. I was with you up until I heard that.”

I gave the guy the rest of the money in my pocket, which, with the three I’d already given him, made thirteen or fourteen dollars.

It was starting to rain, and I used it as my excuse to end the conversation and head back towards the hotel. We had walked many blocks, almost to the Chicago River. I left him under the bright overhang of a massive theater awning, taking advantage of the fact that I could better afford to get wet than he could.

I had forgotten how long Chicago blocks are, forgotten how long Michigan Avenue is, having only memories of the days when time and distance meant almost nothing to me as long as I had enough for the bus fare back to Hyde Park. I was soaked to the skin in less than a block. The rain was falling so hard that intersections became flooded and the gutters flowed in torrents like the spring run-off in the mountains. I stopped worrying about trying to keep anything dry and focused only on finding the quickest route back to the hotel. I crossed over to Wabash to avoid waiting for the light on Michigan. Everything was off in my mind: The streets were wider than I remembered and I couldn’t time the lights like I’ve gotten used to in Brooklyn. Returning, I felt every inch of the distance that we had whiled away in the lull of the man’s hustle.

Finally, I clambered back to the hotel and trudged through the lobby like a castaway from a wreck on Lake Michigan. The lobby was busy, but try as I might I could not find anyone who had been soaked as thoroughly as I had. From the way they looked at me, neither could anyone else.


therack

Like any victor, evil wins by outlasting. We stand in awe of the shocking evil of overpowering invasion—the blitzkrieg assault, the decimation; but what do we know of the slow evil of the everyday, the evil that is there before you in the morning and that stays late to turn out the light? It’s the evil that says good luck and then promises to stick around until you all come crawling back. It’s the evil that has no higher aspirations than to be more of what it already is.

If you wonder why some things don’t ever seem to get better, look to see what’s stayed the same. It’s sure to be that slow and steady evil that has promised only problems and the ironclad assurance that it will never go away. Don’t forget that this evil is inspiration enough to those who seek a lasting place to lay their loyalty. Longevity is as attractive as it is reassuring.

So you’ve got to give that everyday evil this much: it is willing to stick around. While the bright and virtuous flee and the merely weak fall beneath the wheel, still, that long-lasting evil will stay the course of days. In the end, you may not be able to depend upon anything else: not time will be told true, not the day will be defined from night, not the bottom will come beneath the high, nothing but the bankable presence of an old accustomed evil will do as it was meant to do. So maybe it’s fair to admit that even evil is a better keeper than chaos.

And what’s so good about good, anyway? To paraphrase heaven, it’s been said that evil is the absence of good, but it seems more like the other way around. The good get thin and self-righteous on the exercise of self-restraint, while the vices thicken meat and sinew on the committed work of sin. Teetotalers of wrongdoing hold their virtue in an empty cup, proud to satisfaction of their sobriety. Evil may sometimes stomp your head, but this is not the good that accepts the beating: this is the good that conveniently stands asides, upright unto the letter.

And so what, anyway, if your good is macho and hard-hitting and ready with fire to win the fight? The bully’s bully better be the brightest pupil, too, because it takes more than brawn and good intentions to do the work that evil is already equip to do. The good must sup enough of corruption to learn the taste of the bitter pill that is the common swill of all the little people. Great good without great sympathy is only the next ascendant evil. And when good and evil clash and battle and let chaos close the fray?

It will be patient daily evil that waits to take the place, wearing all the good that’s left to muster like makeup upon its face.

happybomb

When Lehman Brothers went down, we stared for a moment into the trembling abyss, and then we leapt back from the brink. When Lehman flat-lined, we saw enough to know that the risk was too great, that we were lucky to have survived one such failure, and that the brothers of Lehman must be propped up at any cost. Then we came to know AIG, the great mother of the prodigal brood.  Her dependents scampered around without her as if they were grown men,  but they all came running home as soon as they felt the pangs of hunger. And when AIG herself tottered, casting an ecliptic shadow across the economy, Uncle Sam scrambled to save her, to save himself, to save us all. That was the day capitalism ended, when the government bought the nation’s private property at the price of a 79.9 percent stake in the company that insured the securities made from the mortgages that Americans took on the houses that they called their homes.

Maybe you thought you’d get a chance to stand on your porch with your rifle and fight them off when they finally came to take your land? You probably still haven’t considered that it’s over, it’s already done; it happened six months ago in a moment of passion and with the stroke of a pen. If you’re still waiting for it, that’s only because you missed the point all along: this is America, and in America the bad guys don’t take your land. In America, the good guys take your land. You were worried about commies or jihadis pouring like locusts across the Montana-red dawn, wrecking and wreaking and taking everything you have because they hate you and they hate the way you live. Instead, it was the good guys who did it to you, the guys that believe in working for a living and maybe just a little bit more, something extra that you can put to work for you. In the end, it worked so hard for you that you bought your own home twice. First, when they gave you the keys to your house, and then again after your debt had been siphoned into the whirlwind around Wall Street, where you invested in it a second time, buying stocks with prices elevated by the heaven-bound value of your three-bedroom, two-and-a-half baths. By the time AIG got involved, you could have bought your house three times if that was what you wanted, and you could laugh in the face of anybody who tried to tell you it was too much.

Even the government didn’t try to slow you down. Perhaps it was sensitive to how much you distrusted its intervention. You weren’t wrong to think the government would take over if it got the chance, but you were wrong to think that’s what the government wanted to do. The government is a red-blooded and blue-flagged dude just like you. The government doesn’t believe in pinko nonsense and European namby-pambula any more than you do. But the government did exactly what it had to do when it saw that nothing and no one else could save your property. So it bought up everything there was to buy, and promised to buy what couldn’t be sold, and it did it all so that you could lean back against that wall and say, “This wall is mine, and the floor beneath my feet.”

The government loves you so much: it loves your dreams and autonomous delusions, it loves you enough to keep pretending that the deed hasn’t already been done. It already did what you never wanted it to do, and so far it’s been gracious enough to let you act like you’re still your own man. But it’s not so sad–is it?– that the worst you could imagine has happened, and it turns out the government doesn’t want you to change at all. It wants nothing more than to help you go on living the way you’ve been living, believing what you’ve been believing, and hoping what you’ve always hoped. Even when it bought your land and backed up all the biggest enterprises around, even then it acted with honest reluctance. Even today, the government has done as much to avoid advertising its ownership as you have done to bemoan the mere possibility of it.

A freedom-loving American couldn’t ask for an easier apocalypse.