Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Letter to the Washington Post, #16

Israeli Aggression

Not unlike the American invasion of Iraq, Israel’s massive strike on Gaza is a disproportionate and inappropriate response to terrorism. And just as critics blasted the rationalizations for the devastating Russian assault against Georgian troops and Ossetian infrastructure in South Ossetia, so should we all repudiate Israeli explanations for its attacks on not only Hamas targets, but the infrastructure of Gaza, as well.

The main features of Israel’s assault, including overwhelming technological superiority, disproportionately high enemy non-combatant casualty rates and low risk to its own soldiers, also bear strong similarities to the wars initiated by Russia and the United States, both of which were strongly condemned internationally.

Over the years, the frequency with which Palestinian civilians have died in Israeli assaults, the widespread expropriation of Palestinian land for Israeli expansionism, and the systematic violation of Palestinian human rights have contributed significantly to the dramatic growth of fundamentalist Islamic groups committed to violence against Israeli and Jewish targets.

Though there is, indeed, an individual and national right to self-defense, Israel should not be allowed to claim such a right as the basis for acts of war.

Jeff Epton
807 Taylor St., NE
Washington, DC 20017

202 506-7470

Friday, December 19, 2008

A Family Correspondence on Israel & Palestine

My nephew Abraham and I recently exchanged a few e-mails about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The subject has gotten very difficult for me to write about during the last few years, but I much enjoyed exchanging thoughts with Abe and have decided that when it comes to writing about Israel and Palestine, the perfect is definitely the enemy of what might be only barely adequate. What follows here is, at least, heartfelt.

Hi guys,

As you know, I'm going to Israel in a little under a week. I'm going to have a ton of time on the plane, and probably on buses and etc., to read; and I'd like to get a better understanding of the place and its history. So I'm asking for suggestions.

I have relatively little knowledge of Israel/Palestine's history, so I don't want anything too specialist/arcane. And it would help if it's well-written and engaging (though I can work around that).

But what I really want is a quality product, an essential book. If one (or both!) of you regard the book and/or author highly, I'll feel pretty confident that I can trust it. I worry, given the subject matter, about being propagandized to (especially since I kind of expect the trip itself to be a 10-day propaganda festival).

So. What would you recommend?


Hey, Abe,

Wish you were here. I've got so many books, but you’re going to have to go out on your own, I guess.

First off, for years anything put out by the American Friends Service Committee was about the best resource one could get. "A Compassionate Peace," which is probably out of print, was a great one-stop for the 20th century history of the region. But it wouldn't be enough, anyway.

Anything by Edward Said is a great critical resource, though sometimes a difficult read. A collection of essays by him would be an easy way to go.

Noam Chomsky, who is a friend of Said's, has written extensively about the region. "The Fateful Triangle" is a pretty comprehensive backgrounder. Not incidentally, don't carry a book by either author on your trip. That would invite debates that you can't win and that you will quickly tire of. When it comes to Israel/Palestine, everybody you meet will act like they know better than you, regardless of the facts.

A safer alternative to Chomsky and Said might be David Hirst's "The Gun and the Olive Branch: The Roots of Violence in the Middle East." It first came out in '70s, but it has been released twice in new editions since then. All of these books are, of course, strong dissents from orthodox pro-Israel history.

I know you don't want arcana, but Baruch Kimmerling's "Politicide: Ariel Sharon's War Against the Palestinians" has a lot of good recent history. I think it's a pretty easy read, too, but I don't know how much my off and on immersion in the subject may have prepared me to read it.

Norman Finkelstein is the son of Holocaust survivors. He's got a book called the "The Holocaust Industry" that you might want to read after you get back. Or maybe not.

Jerome Levin of the Jewish Peace Lobby always seemed relevant to me, but it has been a few years since I looked at his stuff. But you might want to check out JPL's website.

Detail matters and, in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, oversimplification is especially dangerous, but I'm gonna oversimplify a little bit here. Remember, at all times while you're thinking about this, that two wrongs don't make a right—meaning that the Nazi war against the Jews cannot justify the expropriation of Palestinians.

A 60-year Arab propaganda war (much diminished, of late) against Israel is reprehensible, certainly. But it does not justify the Occupation. The propaganda campaign the Arab states waged against Israel matters, of course, but citing that as though it is the whole story and defines the Palesintian attitude toward Israel and Jews is wrong. There are plenty of Palestinians of enormous goodwill who believe the whole question of peace is not a moral one, but a political one. In other words, they believe that Israelis and Palestinians are peoples with a common fate who can and must settle their differences with compassion and a willingness to share the loaf.

That said, there are plenty of smart, well-meaning people who think that a two-state compromise can never be a permanent or stable solution. This is chiefly because an Israel that exists as a Jewish state will always be an anachronism, however compelling the arguments for a homeland for the Jews may be. The fact is that a Jewish state is a theocratic state and a fundamentalist one. Democracies cannot thrive, let alone endure, as theocratic states.

Jews won't thrive in a garrison state, either. And there is no argument that can justify forcing Palestinan citizens of Israel to live with fewer rights in what Desmond Tutu and others call an apartheid state.

Despite phrases like "a land without a people for a people without a land," the Palestinians have always existed in Palestine. Any account of the history of the place that does not acknowledge the enduring and productive presence of Palestinians is a colonialist account, as was the description of North America as wilderness when Europeans arrived on the continent.

It is obvious that few who live in or lead this country would suggest that we should return the continent to the descendants of the Native Americans who were here first, but we should never deny their existence in favor of a fairytale that pretends they weren't here (or were savages, or lost their rights to it because they didn't develop it the way Westerners believe[d] was appropriate). Jewish immigrants to Palestine in the 20th century were frequently good neighbors for Palestinians, but the development of the land was very capital intensive, even though the myth is that it was accomplished almost entirely by Jewish labor in the Kibbutzim.

Finally, a one-state solution is not a continuation of the "war against the Jews" by other means. Jews could live as well and probably more sustainably in a Palestine with an Arab majority. By the 22nd century, such a place could develop as a model of peace and tranquility for a world badly in need of such examples.


P.S: You're probably sorry you asked about all this, but the damage is done. I would appreciate your feedback--I would like to edit this and put some version on my blog. You will not be included in any version without your review prior to full blogification.

Hi Jeff,

I wish I was there, too :) But this is the next-best thing.

Sometime later today, I'm going to take this email and head over to Moe's, which is an amazing 4-story palace of used books on Telegraph, just a few blocks south of Bancroft, so I might in fact find some of the items you list as being hard to locate.

That said, a few thoughts:

First, thanks for looking out for me re: Said and Chomsky. I can only imagine the shitstorm I would endure if I spent hours on the bus in Israel, surrounded by fellow pilgrims, reading the latter. Said, I think I'd have an easier time defending (and probably wouldn't raise as many eyebrows in the first place, though who knows.) But he seems a bit too academic for my current purposes.

Second, I've thought for a long time that a two-state solution was the way to go. My argument usually makes its way down, at some point, to the "demographic timebomb" and the underlying assumption that Israel can't exist the way it's "supposed to" under an Arab majority. I suppose it's also premised on the idea that a theocracy based on a by-definition racist policy of exclusion of some kind is acceptable, though I'd never condone such a thing for my own country. Characterizing it that way makes it seem too anachronistic to persist for much longer, but after all, even pirates are making a comeback these days...

Anyway, I hereby condone any and all parts of this exchange for blogification. Do with it what you will!

Thanks and love and see you soon,

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Always Jewish, Lately Palestinian

I am Jewish because the love of others made me so.
I am Jewish because I grew up on the south side of Chicago; there even my public school was Jewish.
I am Jewish because my grandfather was oh, so Jewish, and I felt it then and feel it now.
I am Jewish because angry Irish boys felt my Jewish nose at the end of their Catholic fist.
I am Jewish because we are commanded to remember when we were slaves in Egypt and I do.
I am Jewish because we are commanded to seek justice and because I believed my teachers who said we must do so.
I am Jewish because I have never felt any other way.
I am Jewish because dissent is my faith and my chosen fate.
I am Jewish because I learned Hebrew and then forgot nearly every word of it.
I am Jewish because in my grandmother's kitchen nothing would rise, but of everything there was plenty.
I am Jewish because the South Shore Country Club was founded by people who would not let us in.
I am Jewish because my Dad once slugged a guy at Comiskey Park who cussed a Jewish pitcher for the White Sox.
I am Jewish because the Jewish god is not diminished by my disbelief.
I am Jewish because Dad was thrilled that Grandpa lived to my Bar Mitzvah and a little beyond.
I am Jewish because I wouldn't have it any other way.
I am Jewish because Emma Goldman was Jewish, and so was Karl Marx and so was Groucho Marx and Jesus, too, for that matter.
I am Jewish because of the Maccabees and Masada and crusader violence and Spanish inquisitors and Cossack pogroms and the ghetto and the death camps and because I also planted trees in Israel.
I am Jewish because Jewish workers fight in labor struggles and because Jewish people resist racism and because, like all the world’s poor, poor Jews endure.
I am Jewish because being Jewish means never using violence against another except when life, itself, is directly threatened, and that principle must never be compromised.

I am Jewish because with that claim I also claim my humanity and in my humanity I find this:
I am Palestinian because I, too, have been homeless.
I am Palestinian because Palestinian yearning is so like Jewish yearning.
I am Palestinian because I have been uplifted by the love of Palestinians.
I am Palestinian because peace in Arabic and in Hebrew bestows the same gift.
I am Palestinian because we are all children of Abraham.
I am Palestinian because, although Sarah and Hagar are our separate birth mothers, we all live in the embrace of one mother, and will return to her.

I am Jewish because if you come for the Jews, why not me also?
I am Palestinian because if you come for the Palestinians, why not me also?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Hey, Dude, You’ve Got Something Stuck In Your Teeth

“Before language, we were critically limited in our ability to represent what wasn’t there,” writes Daniel Levitan in “The World in Six Songs.”

When I reflect on the meaning of this statement, I wonder how exactly it applies in very specific cases. Having no knowledge of linguistics, at all—or perhaps it is my equally limited grasp of anthropology that fails me—I have no idea if language first developed to distinguish you from me; or to help us all to understand that fire is not merely hot, but dangerous; or to share vocally the good feelings generated by touching and rubbing each other.

Regardless, once we had a word for rabbit and one for fire, we certainly needed more words to communicate our delight in the taste of cooked rabbit. I assume that it is at that point that things must have begun to get really complicated.

How do you say to a hungry person holding a dead rabbit and possessing a vocabulary of, say, 40 words, that we should cook the thing before we eat it? And cook it with the skin off because, after all, you want to wear the furry part on your head?

What if “skin,” meaning remove the hide, was the 50th word you learned? That means the dude holding the rabbit is 10 words behind you, not interested in a language lesson, and staring at you as though you, the educated one, are some sort of crazy caveperson.

You, meanwhile, are thinking this guy is an idiot, but he’s also the one holding dinner. Armed with only the rudiments of language, you are probably going to shrug and eat your portion raw, pausing occasionally to pick rabbit hair out of your teeth.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Poem for Language Experts

Poem for Language Experts

You say, ding-dong.
I say, pooh-pooh.
Ta-ta, you shout.
Yo-he-ho, I sing.

Arf, arf, you bark.
And then, bow-wow.
Grrr, I growl.
Cuckoo, you tease.

Stones, I throw.
Down, you fall.
Hop, I dance. Hop hop away.
Sneak and slither, you creep behind.

Then bam and down I fall.
Ouch, I yell.
Ha-ha, you laugh.
Boohoo, I cry.

Blood, I show.
Sorry, you shrug.
Me, too, I mug.
Happy, we hug.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Letter to the Washington Post, #15

Actually, I never noted on this blog that the Post did publish letter #12. Obviously, I found that apparent success somewhat demoralizing. The evidence for that lies in the fact that I waited so long to write #s 13 & 14. Maybe they'll publish this one. It is, after all, somewhat sycophantic.

What Journalism Should Be


Colbert King’s relentless pursuit of the facts in the jailhouse death of Jonathan Magbie (“For Jonathan Magbie, a Catalogue of Injustice," Dec. 6) deserves much praise. In the column, King thanks his editors for allowing him to return to the story 14 times since October 2004. In the process, King and the editors have provided us all with an example of what journalism should be.

This matters as surely as do First Amendment protections. Without such dogged pursuit and publication of stories that illuminate recurring issues in our society newspapers would be unworthy of their constitutional protections.

In Magbie’s case, Judge Judith Retchin so badly failed any reasonable humanitarian standard it is a wonder she remains in office. Likewise, in the Magbie instance and others, the D.C. jail has failed repeatedly to balance its duties to community safety with fairness in its treatment of prisoners. Based on King’s repeated accounts, it seems equally fair to say the hospital, now know as United Medical Center, failed miserably at keeping Magbie alive, clearly UMC’s first responsibility.

And of what was Magbie, a 27-year old, ventilator-dependent, quadriplegic, guilty? A first-time offense against marijuana possession laws.

There is no question in my mind that what happened to Jonathan Magbie shames us all. But as long as journalists and their editors give such stories the attention they deserve, we will have opportunities to fix the institutions and policies that permit such tragedies. And the country will have a journalism that serves our needs.

Jeff Epton
807 Taylor St., NE
Washington, DC 20017

202 506-7470

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Dean Baker and the Economic Right Stuff

If there is a more delightfully rational and straightforward economist around than Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, somebody needs to tell me. I don’t write much--I wish I could make myself do it more. But reading Baker’s stuff makes me want to package his ideas and analysis and get it out to a wider audience. My reliance on Dean for economic and political truth is so complete, I would be roadkill without him.

“Paulson and Bernanke spread the wealth around” is a recent and useful example of Dean’s thinking. He observes that when Barack told Joe the Plumber that he favored tax increases on incomes over $250,000 in order to spread wealth, the loudest responses were critical and adverse.

But, Dean writes, “fortunes will be made or lost depending on how this bailout money is used. For example, Secretary Paulson just agreed to lend another $20 billion of the Treasury's bailout money to Citigroup.

“In addition, the Federal Reserve Board agreed to guarantee up to $300 billion of presumably bad assets. This is an enormously valuable guarantee. If Citigroup had to arrange a comparable guarantee in the private market, it would almost certainly pay more than $30 billion a year.

“This decision sent Citigroup's stock soaring. In the week since the bailout was announced, Citigroup's stock more than doubled, adding more than $25 billion to the company's capitalization. (The government could have bought the bank outright with the money it lent to Citi.) This is great news for Citigroup's shareholders, who would be holding almost worthless stock if Mr. Paulson had not been so generous.

“Paulson's decision was also good news for Robert Rubin and other top executives at Citigroup. If the government had not stepped in, Citigroup would almost certainly be in bankruptcy and most of its highly paid executives would likely be out on the street.

“Creditors of Citigroup also benefited. If Citigroup went into bankruptcy, their loans would be frozen for a period of time while the court determined what percentage of Citi's debts could be paid. At the end of this process, many creditors would only receive back a fraction of what they are owed.

“The fact that money is being redistributed doesn't make it wrong to bail out Citigroup or any of the other companies now being aided by the various Fed and Treasury funds. We need to keep the financial system functioning. However, there is every reason in the world to be concerned about the extent to which these policies may be enriching the wealthy and well-connected at the expense of the rest of us.

“In the case of the Citi rescue, there was no obvious reason why the shareholders should not be wiped out. They understood (or should have) that when they bought shares of the company that they could lose their whole investment if the company was poorly managed and went bankrupt. Similarly, there is no obvious reason that the management that wrecked Citi should not be thrown out and replaced with a more competent and lower paid team.”

There is more of Dean, lots more at Be sure also to check out “Paper wealth and the economic crisis.”

Dean may not have a prime place in the rolodexes of power, but journalists and commentators need to rely on him more often. Ordinary folks already can and do.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Auto execs take the train (and love it)

So, it's been a bad week (month? year? decade? two decades?) for GM, Ford and Chrysler. Depending on the time span in question, they are failing financially and politically, not to mention competitively. Should we add environmentally, morally and millenially? As it turns out, with health care, pensions, housing and employment growing ever more problematic for millions of us, there is still some truth to the notion that as GM goes, so go we all.

This past week, the CEOs of the Shrinking Three got spanked in Washington, but still couldn't get paid. Rebuked for flying their separate corporate jets to town at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars, the sound of slamming doors had barely stopped ringing in their ears when the door opened one more time so that the House Democratic majority could kick Rep. John Dingell (D-GM) to the curb. The Dear John message was obvious as the Dems replaced Dingell with Henry Waxman (D-CA) as chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

In a separate press conference, congressional leaders suggested that the auto companies shouldn't bother to return to Washington without a plan we could believe in. A commentator on CNN suggested that the CEOs might have gotten a better response if they'd rode a bus to D.C.

But it's time for a compromise here. How about if they'd taken the train together from Detroit? Would that be better? Imagine all that time together--the ability to both relax and focus, to plan, even.

Cynicism aside, the execs (Richard Wagoner of GM, Alan Mulally of Ford and Robert Nardelli of Chrysler) are smart and experienced people who lead huge organizations with lots of resources and, even, creativity. Surely, they saw major parts of this crisis coming. And they have groupings within their organizations who have developed and promoted programs and projects that could be part of a creative plan to save the core of the domestic auto industry.

Sixteen hours on a train together discussing the obstacles and challenges might have resulted in the three arriving at Washington's Union Station as something other than puppies due for a whipping. There might have been more "you know, we've been talking," more "we can fix some of this," more "here's an idea I love," more "this is going to be painful, but here's the beginning of a plan for a greener transportation system in the United States and for Detroit manufacturing's role in that system."

Imagine Wagoner, Mulally and Nardelli running off the train yelling excitedly at each other. "You call, Pelosi. Tell her we'll be late, but we'll be there. We gotta find a Kinko's, make 500 copies of this proposal."

"I'll do it," shouts Wagoner. "But make it 1,000 copies. The press will want their own copy."

But the opportunity has passed them by. They came. They saw. They failed. And, anyway, you can't relax on Amtrak. It almost never runs on time or on decent track. Is there even rail service from Detroit to D.C.?

Still, there's always hope. And if they do come up with a plan that Washington can believe in, maybe they'll think to put a better rail system in it.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Blaming the sub-prime mortgagees for the sins of bankers

I keep trying to explain the current financial crisis to myself for two reasons. One, I believe there must be simpler explanations than the ones that seem to prevail in media reports and on op-ed pages. And two, I'm discovering that far too many people believe that one of the major causes of our current problems lays with homeowners who took mortgages that they couldn't afford.

There is of course, still a class of pundits who believe that too much regulation is a significant cause of the collapse of the financial markets, the freezing of credit, and the abysmal performance of American auto companies. We are going to have to agree to leave such people out of the conversation--they are market fundamentalists whose cultish practices are no doubt constitutionally protected however much they might frighten children and the simple-minded.

But to apply, at least minimally, the notion that it is markets that decide (rationally or otherwise) who gets what, when, where and why, it seems both wrong-headed and unkind to blame individual homeowners who have fallen behind or defaulted on their mortgages for our current financial difficulties. These homeowners must live with the decisions of markets. They are not the deciders, as our soon to be ex-president might say.

After all, a good many people who received sub-prime mortgages actually qualified for conventional mortgages at more favorable rates. They were channelled into the sub-prime market, which created huge difficulties for them when affordable adjustable rate mortgages suddenly climbed to much higher rates after the housing bubble popped. It is shoeing the wrong horse to ask such people to predict the end of the bubble when bankers themselves believed (or pretended to believe) that we were all going to profit from an endlessly inflating housing market.

Mortgage applicants are consumers, not financial experts. They rely, mistakenly as it happens, on the expertise of others.

It is arguable, of course, that it is the buyer who ought to beware. But historically, it is banks and mortgage companies who have decided who is eligible for their services and who is not. If we are to take reasonable steps toward resurrecting the housing market, it makes far more sense to examine the practices of bankers, mortgage brokers and the buyers and sellers of bundled mortgages than it does to swing away at people who are losing their homes.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Bailout and regulate

Not that Charles Krauthammer needs to acknowledge my existence, but I feel like he's here to nullify mine. I only wish I could swing enough weight to nullify him back. I would regard the fact of his nullification, second only to the existence of my children, as my greatest contribution to life and culture to come.

In "A Lemon of A Bailout," Washington Post, Nov. 14, Krauthammer claims that some sort of rescue of the banking industry makes sense because " is a utility," like "...the electric companies." This observation comes on the way to his larger point that extending the federal bailout to include the auto companies is arbitrary and inefficient. After all, Krauthammer might claim, capitalism can't exist without a financial sector, but we could all muddle through with a shrunken and bankrupt auto industry.

If that were actually true, then exactly what would be the point of having a capitalist system? I mean, if capitalism offers nothing to the many, if jobs and products aren't the principal parts of that commitment, then 90 percent of us (at least) have no use for it, at all. Who agreed to this deal?

And, if Krauthammer's assertion that finance is integral to capitalism, but auto as a dominant industrial presence (at this point in time) is not necessary to capitalism, is not true, then it follows that not only should we rescue, but we should regulate with an eye to maximizing employment and making autos and jobs as people-friendly and earth-friendly as possible.


Monday, November 3, 2008

All I'm Saying Is


Brendan said
There’s too much bread
in the butt
And I was like
Too much bread in the butt
And I was like
And Marrianne said something
But I was feeling the hurt
And didn’t hear
So I was like
And she was like
The crusts are very thick
The crusts are very thick
And then I was like
That’s why Brendan’s trading
the heel of the bread loaf
to me
for a slice from the center
And I was like
I like a lotta bread
in the butt

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Letters to the Washington Post, #13 & 14

Two more letters to the Post that never had a fleeting moment of celebrity.

It shouldn't come as a surprise to me that, if I wait a while to actually post the letters myself, I have difficulty remembering why I thought what I was writing about mattered. But it does surprise me.

#13, The Nukes of India, 10/04/08

On balance, Senate approval of the Bush administration's nuclear trade agreement with India is probably a good deal. The Post's story("Senate Backs Far-Reaching Nuclear Trade Deal With India," Oct. 2) provides a decent summary of the details, but fails to follow the big financial interests presumably involved in getting to yes.

As the story notes, India will spend $14 billion next year to buy reactors, equipment and fuel. Total Indian purchases could total hundreds of billions over the next 20 years. Large business interests such as General Electric and Westinghouse, which stand to capture a portion of the sales to India, undoubtedly played a role in passing the bill.

No attentive reader could reach a final conclusion about the agreement without also knowing what such private interests did and how much they spent to secure approval of the trade agreement.

Jeff Epton
Brookland, WDC
202 506-7470

#14, Time-tested Surge?, 10/24/08

The assumption of the success of the surge in Iraq, celebrated everywhere, including the pages of the Post (e.g. Michael Gerson, “Casualty of the Surge” and Charles Krauthammer, “McCain for President,” both Oct. 24), may not stand the test of time. The increased stability of the Iraqi state, if it actually exists, may turn out to be a fleeting thing.

Former Fed chair Alan Greenspan thought he was on a roll, too. But his celebrity bubble burst with the collapse of home values, banks and Wall Street firms.

In Iraq, we are making regular multi-million dollar payments to tribal leaders and their militias to get them on our side, or, at least, to cease fire. When those payments stop, as they will, the surge likely fails. Of course, we could stay in Iraq for 100 years or so, but that’s another story.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Working on a poem

I originally posted this poem under the title, Fleeing Before Me. I liked the poem alot, but it needed more work. I took it down and reposted it under the title, Survivor. That title probably isn't permanent, either. And it still needs work. The version below is a rewrite, still known to me as Survivor.

The poem is all metaphor. I love its mood, but I know how difficult it is to hunt for its basic meaning. I am not going to let it go until it is much better than it is now. Still, I'm posting this third version because it provokes me, like a weird but completely lovable child. For me, coping with this poem, raising it up, will be like having multiple embarassing moments in the supermarket with a toddler.


Here am I,
both minimal and me,
in this unbounded place,
a point in passing;
a bridge between times,
through darkness, across voids,
around the great signal fires.

It takes an effort of will
to see what I’d missed;
to see god in that space
was god,
was god beside me,
beside our own fire,
inside the intimate infernal dark.

Later, hearing small birds with
perfect pitch and
immaculate messages.
A bumblebee so close god's eyes
cross with wonder and
neglect for appearances.

Separation came at dawn.
The bee has gone this way,
into the future,
precisely the path I follow now
with music by birdsong and
lit by brilliant flowers.

I stop at this old firepit.
Step carefully around the scattered
bones. Toeing, then picking at them,
the old bones nearby. What beasts were these?
Something immense, I’m sure.
Something fierce, I wonder.
How did this place become
so empty?

What has been driven before me?
Who also wanders here?
Midst birdsong and flowers,
Who will find whom?
This wondering almost consumes me.

I gather a bouquet of thoughts,
consider fragrance, balance of color,
count petals, sing at the silence.
In a fresh effort,
I again hear the small birds
possessing perfect pitch,
singing immaculate messages.

Leaving reason behind,
god, last seen, seemed adrift, remote,
flickered out in the distance,
just before the horizon line.

The bee has gone this way,
into the future and
I have followed.
backed with music by birdsong,
night lit by the scattered
combustible bushes.

Tiring, I stop at the next firepit.
Step carefully around the scattered
bones. Toeing, then picking at them—
the old bones nearby. What beasts were these?
Something immense, I’m sure.
And very old, I imagine.
Hungry, I go.
How will this place become
full of life again?

I pick through the gathering thoughts.
What has fled before me?
Who wanders just ahead?
With what purpose?
With eyes failing like mine?
With strain in the effort
of looking?

Who will find whom
around birdsong and flowers
and scattered bones of long-gone beasts?
What happens then?
This hunt defines me now.
The next thought consumes me.

Saturday, August 2, 2008


up down staircase like tiny boxer
boy bursts daytime like sunrise
gifts spill skyward like soaring balloons

come on the day
come on glory
come on

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Saving the World, One Writer’s Workshop At A Time

I wish I was prettier, a little younger, a tad smarter,
a bit more charming, the old dude said. But it’s not to be.
So, absent the fairy who gives such gifts,
I’ll earn my weekly bread
with a bit of advice.

Not much is expected of a writer, he said, very little is required.
But if as a writer it comes to writing, you may need a plan.
And, in the passage of time, you might execute your plan.
That’s it. Leave your spare change at the door on your
way out. But there were objections and muttering,

which didn’t seem to bother the old dude much. I paid
for this, grumbled some. I don’t get paid enough,
he said, to listen to you whine. But it pays
the bills, so here’s more. Write to
exercise your demons.

They need the work. Write to recycle your trash.
Write to stir a few inches of soil. Write to
aerate the ground in which you propose
growing roots. Write to flower
for the honeybees around.

Writing is not driving, is not clear-cutting forests, is not beating
dogs or neglecting children. Writing is not gorging on fiberless
snacks. Writing is not salinating the land, is not acidifying
mountain lakes. As a rule, writing is not rudeness.
Writing is not sleeping through armaggedon.

When one writes, one does not go to war, does not arrest potheads,
does not commit hate crimes, does not tap phone lines. Writing is
celebration, is mining deep, is throwing one’s voice, is wandering
far, is back to Africa, is apologies to tribes, is bottomless pools.
While they write, while accepting gifts, writers do not borrow

money. Writing is now. Like all habits, it takes a few months to acquire.
It is almost entirely non-polluting and potentially harmless to all
but the most powerful. That’s it. No questions, please. And, as
I mentioned earlier, leave your change at the door as you

Friday, July 11, 2008

Kill, Kill, Kill the Boeing Tanker Project

Letter to the Washington Post, #12

My first letter to the Post in almost three months. Do you think it’ll see print?

Your story, “Pentagon Reopens Tanker Bidding (July 10)” was incomplete. It should have referred to the re-reopening of the bidding for aerial refueling tankers. After all, the first $100 billion award--to Boeing--was cancelled when collusion between a Pentagon purchasing officer and Boeing was exposed. People went to prison for corrupt practices committed during that first bidding process.

The second contract, awarded to a Northrop Grumman/Airbus consortium, was cancelled after a political uproar during which the consortium and Boeing spent millions on dueling ad campaigns, and various elected officials and the General Accounting Office entered the fray.

Now, after hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on engineering, planning, advertising, bidding, administering, collaborating, corrupting, investigating, prosecuting and incarcerating, we’re going to do it all again. And do it for a Pentagon project that is a relic of a Cold War strategy.

We no longer need a whole fleet of aerial refueling tankers because, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, we no longer need to keep bombers and fighters airborne 24/7 in order to assure a counter-strike capacity against a massive nuclear first strike.

It therefore seems obvious that ordinary Americans should not be reassured by the notion that the Pentagon will get it right this time. Getting it right would mean not issuing the contract in the first place. $100 billion and change could then be spent on health care, education and mass transit. How much more reassuring would that be?

Jeff Epton
807 Taylor St., NE
Washington, DC 20017

202 506-7470

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Note to Myself: Postless and Bereft

My gosh, it's been more than a month since I posted last and I miss it. I've been traveling, mostly, and managing Brendan's multiple schedule changes, including his traveling, as the school year ended. I was in Dayton, Detroit, Ann Arbor, Chicago, San Juan and, I think, somewhere else that slips my mind. Marrianne has been in even more places. This is fun, I guess, but it also provokes anxieties and a desire to avoid confrontations with oneself, making it more comfortable to displace such confrontations onto others.

I also had a week with actual real live vertigo. Talk about feeling elderly and disabled, I was there. But that, too, has passed.
And I've written some and thought some--no kidding--and should be ready to write, or try, with greater frequency after our family trips (which will include Julie, however briefly, and Nate, unfortunately, not at all) are over and Brendan starts back to school in early, early August.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Obama Beats McCain

As the media has helpfully told us, ‘Hillary won West Virginia!’ (The exclamation mark is mine.) And as Clinton herself has helpfully told us “America is worth fighting for!” (The exclamation mark is hers.)

Both these points are worth making, though they barely qualify as news—more as reminders that the media must report many things, newsworthy or otherwise, every day and Hillary must end her speeches on a loud, if not entirely salient, point. Here’s a prediction I will make, complete with another largely irrelevant exclamation point: ‘Obama beats McCain!’

I read somewhere that a really good writer uses one, maybe two, exclamation points in a lifetime. I don’t remember who said that, perhaps George Will or William Safire making the argument that emphasis ought to derive from the use of language, logic and rhetoric in proper context. It is the reader, one or the other might argue, who should suddenly say to her or himself, “My god, George (or Bill) is right!”

In any case, in less than 200 words, I’ve managed to insert four exclamation points. It wouldn’t surprise me if at this stage a George Will or Bill Safire (or, even, crucial portions of my already vanishingly small audience) might say to themselves,
“Four exclamation points! I have had my fill of this writer! I’m done with him!”

So be it, writing is that odd human activity that both requires an audience and can hardly be engaged in public. So I’ll go the rest of this way myself.

Jeff (I tell myself), Barack Obama will beat John McCain in November because Barack will be the Democratic candidate for president, and this year a Democrat is going to beat McCain. It won’t even take a good Democratic candidate, although Obama will be one.

Let me list a few of the reasons why McCain will go down regardless of who the Democratic candidate is.

1. Even if McCain comes up with something better than staying in Iraq for 100 years, it’s too late for him to be a peace candidate in regard to a war that is the most unpopular in American history.
2. Whatever McCain might say in regard to the economy—he will face voters in November saddled with the “Bush economy,” which will almost certainly be worse than it is now.
3. McCain has already proposed measures that will virtually eliminate employer-provided health care. It would give insurance companies an even larger role and freer hand in providing health care and charging for it. The Democratic campaign against him, and the media, will savage McCain and his proposal. After that he will be lucky to get the vote of even a quarter of the elderly and the chronically ill.
4. McCain, i.e., “The Straight Talk Express,” will be exposed again in the fall, when a larger audience is paying attention, for pandering. He will have to defend tax cuts he voted against, nuance his position against torture, and fruitlessly explain how cutting gas taxes will solve energy and transportation problems in the United States.
5. So far this year, Republicans have lost three special Congressional elections filling vacant House seats in districts that have voted Republican for decades. One of the seats belonged to former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert. The other two were in Louisiana and Mississippi. McCain has bigger problems than worrying about winning Ohio. With an under funded campaign, he will have to worry about winning states like Virginia, Indiana and New Hampshire.
6. McCain is the presidential candidate Republicans never wanted for a presidential campaign they know they cannot win.

That’s six. I leave it to “Tonstant Weader” (as Gertrude Stein might say), if there is one out there, to add to the list. And notice not one of the six even mentions Barack Obama. Or Hillary Clinton, for that matter. Either one should defeat McCain handily.

But it is Barack who will make the better Democratic candidate in the fall, notwithstanding Hillary’s imitation of the Black Knight from Monty Python’s Holy Grail. Obama, after all, has opposed the Iraq War, with minimal waffling, from the start. He also gave no support to Bush’s saber rattling toward Iran. And he also articulated a no-conditions approach to diplomatic contacts with any and all significant international figures and movements, including the likes of Hamas, North Korea and Iran.

It has been decades since an American president has refrained from demonizing enemies. In response, Clinton has been forced to modify her own pose of toughness, increasing the possibility that diplomacy might once again precede threat and intervention in U.S. international conduct.

Similarly, Obama’s stance on trade agreements suggests that labor conditions and protection for the environment will become more important features of future treaties. In this instance, as well, Barack’s leadership has forced Hillary to reframe her own positions. McCain has almost nothing to offer voters that would inspire confidence in his ability to recast international relations in pursuit of peace, or for the protection of labor rights and the environment.

In the general election campaign that will begin shortly after the Democratic nominating process finally concludes, these issues will become pivotal. At that point, Democrats will be reminded that political unity has the potential to bring enormous benefits, including a possible filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. (Imagine the impact the next president’s appointments might have on the judicial branch and on regulatory agencies.) And it is very likely the awareness of those dramatic opportunities to make change that has motivated Clinton to adopt her never-say-die approach to the primary.

The person who gets to be president in 2009 will have eight years to change how the government of the United States functions. Arguably, Ronald Reagan was the last president to take advantage of that opportunity. But Reagan, counter to his ideology, presided over a vast expansion of government. And that expansion came at the direct expense of working families in the United States. Obama can be the first president since FDR to remake government in a manner consistent with his political values.

By November, many more voters will see the transformative possibilities. In November, Obama beats McCain. Big!

Friday, May 9, 2008

Ol’ Satch Sez

Satchel Paige said
“Don’t look back. Something
may be gaining on you.”
You could look it up.

You should.
But whatever was gaining
on me, caught me,
decades ago.

It’s in me. It’s in questions
I can’t answer. It’s in friends
casually betrayed,
in lovers never loved.

But absorbed, guilty, pleasantly
obsessed belongs to me,
and none to them. And unknown to them
My selfish dread

like cancer clanging in my bones,
like frozen joints
impatiently damning my name,
like anvils I’ve been toting.

Aging, I hallucinate.
Fine, I can imagine
better than I can see.
Grateful, I choose this vision

anvils dropped or left behind,
single moms catch a break,
wars easily averted, and reclaiming us,
making vibrant wishes of ourselves.

Sunday, May 4, 2008


We were possibility.
We were drifting motes
taking shape,
taking new shape,
made whispers and shouts,
made flesh.

We were repetitions of common dreams,
repetitions of common dreams.
First breath following
generations of fruitful labor,
tiring labor and plenty of pain.

No one born to certainties,
but smiled on. And though it now
may feel otherwise,
the smiles never diminish, are
never unsmiled, never frowned away
or cried away. Yes, the laughter of smiles
fades; the imprint endures.

Some plod onward,
some skip lightly,
but we are always loved.
Out of that,
or ought to be.
Begin, then,
writing our stories today.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Letter to the Washington Post, #3

This one was sent to the Post in February of this year:

So, property owners in New York City are selling land to developers who are demolishing existing supermarkets and building condos (Feb. 19, “Groceries Grow Elusive…”). The losers in such deals are neighborhood residents and users of public transportation who must go further and ride longer to shop for dietary essentials and may not even be able to obtain fresh fruits and vegetables.

This is not only a New York City story, but a story of 21st century urban gentrification everywhere. And omitted in the telling is the way the story fits in the context of the widening wealth gap in this country.

The upper-income residents of the new condos will need groceries, too. But upscale and internet grocers will deliver, and the smaller families of the new residents will shop for food less and eat out more, enjoying the variety of restaurant opportunities that will develop in the new storefronts adjacent.

Jeff Epton
807 Taylor St., NE
Washington, DC 20017
202 506-7470

Letter to the Washington Post, #2

This one was sent to the Post on 12/24/07


Your article, “Jury Convicts Black Man in Shooting Death of White Teen (12/24),” raises numerous difficult questions about race and the role it plays in our culture and history. Reading it, I couldn’t help wondering how differently the story of the incident and trial would have played out if the shooter had been white and the victim had been an aggressive black youth.

The prosecutor’s quoted comments diminished the significance that race played in the incident and minimized the importance of a Ku Klux Klan attack on the shooter’s grandfather that occurred 85 years ago. The last word in the article went to the slain teen’s father, who claimed that the conviction clears his “son’s name [of all accusations of] racism.”

But the story (and the trial’s conclusion) does not settle such questions, only adds to the backlog that we, as a society, have long buried or brushed aside. Race and racism are perhaps the longest running unresolved issue facing the United States. The real, threatened and imagined violence (and sexuality and class questions) that have been entangled with race and racism since the first Europeans arrived on this continent manifest themselves differently in each of our lives and are rarely honestly confronted.

Of course a Klan attack 85 years ago matters today, as do slavery and Jim Crow, just as surely as do the American Revolution and the genocide of Native Americans and the U.S. Constitution and the WWII-era internment of the Japanese and the first Thanksgiving matter. History does not end, but is relived in our individual and social conclusions about its meaning.

Jeff Epton
807 Taylor St., NE
Washington, DC 20017
202 506-7470

Letter to the Washington Post, #1

This one was sent to the Post on 10/29/07:

I read Sebastian Mallaby’s story, “Foreign Policy Grown-Up,” Oct. 29, with interest. Mallaby’s position that sanctions are preferable to war is inarguable, I believe. But everything else Malaby says seems eminently debatable.

Hilary Clinton is an apparent grown-up because she supports sanctions against Iran, says Mallaby. “Bush hatred,” has driven John Edwards to the point that he sees sanctions as a first-stage war tactic rather than a peaceful alternative. Barack Obama’s critiques of Clinton’s support for sanctions are similarly driven by Bush hatred, Mallaby writes. Further, Clinton was correct in supporting military action against Saddam Hussein because sanctions weren’t working, Saddam was out of “his box” and “it was worth taking the risk of unseating him by force.”

Had Mallaby based his support for Clinton and criticism of Obama and Edwards on a set of uncontested historical facts, perhaps I could agree. But there is ample evidence (including from Iraq) that sanctions can be murderous and affect the innocent most severely, substantial debate about whether Saddam was out of his box or otherwise, and skepticism about virtually all the claims of the Bush administration about the danger presented by pre-war Iraq.

As an Obama supporter, I am disappointed with Barack, too. I want to hear more substantial policy positions. In particular, I want to hear Barack say that no nation, including the United States, can be trusted to unilaterally decide what actions will be in the best interests of all countries. I want to hear that the Iraq War and its consequences are a perfect example of the failures of unilateral policy making and action and that an Obama foreign policy would proceed on the principle that action with global consequences will be based on decision-making that occurs in the most democratic and global forums available. And I want to hear Barack say that his administration will do everything possible to create and strengthen such forums.

Jeff Epton
807 Taylor St., NE
WDC 20017

Wednesday, April 30, 2008


(The more I revisit this poem, the more I realize that it still needs substantial revision. I am trying to capture a sense of a post-apocylaptic place here, but I don't feel entirely succesfual at that. Worse the poem doesn't flow very well. Still, I'm not going to take it down--just work on it again. 9/13/08)

Here am I
in this unbounded place,
a point in passing;
a bridge between times,
through darkness, across voids,
around the great signal fires.

It takes an effort of will
to see what I’d missed,
to see god in that space
was god,
to hear small birds with
perfect pitch and
immaculate messages
a bumblebee so close god's eyes
cross with wonder and
neglect for appearances.

This path goes far beyond the end,
beyond the end of here and now,
beyond the end of innocence
dividing in the next space.
The bee has gone this way,
into the future,
precisely the path I follow now
with music by birdsong and
lit by brilliant flowers.

I stop at the old firepit.
Step carefully around the scattered
bones. Toeing, then picking at them,
the old bones nearby. What beasts were these?
Something immense, I’m sure.
Something fierce, I wonder.
How did this place become
so empty?

What has been driven before me?
A sudden thought;
what lurks behind?
Who also wanders here?
Midst birdsong and flowers,
Who will find whom?
This wondering almost consumes me.

I gather a bouquet of thoughts,
consider fragrance, balance of color,
count petals, sing at the silence.
In a fresh effort,
I again hear the small birds
possessing perfect pitch,
singing immaculate messages.

Leaving reason behind,
god, last seen, seemed adrift, remote,
flickered out in the distance,
just before the horizon line.

The bee has gone this way,
into the future and
I have followed.
backed with music by birdsong,
night lit by the scattered
combustible bushes.

Tiring, I stop at the next firepit.
Step carefully around the scattered
bones. Toeing, then picking at them—
the old bones nearby. What beasts were these?
Something immense, I’m sure.
And very old, I imagine.
Hungry, I go.
How will this place become
full of life again?

I pick through the gathering thoughts.
What has fled before me?
Who wanders just ahead?
With what purpose?
With eyes failing like mine?
With strain in the effort
of looking?

Who will find whom
around birdsong and flowers
and scattered bones of long-gone beasts?
What happens then?
This hunt defines me now.
The next thought consumes me.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Wild Once and Captured

(Please go here to read a revised version of this poem)

A prairie full of flowers,
a concert full of rhythms,
a mirror full of faces,
each one a rarity
she picked from public, secret places.

She calls many messages.
Marks many paths
where dancing is a language
and touching is an art
and longing is a rhythm
and searching leads us one by one
to stories all our own,
and stories told in common.

Here the gathering of spells in handfuls,
flowering rich and ripe with scents and fruit
and peace. There the drums yammering in
clearings and jamming with justice
wild once and captured
and broken out again.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Coming Change We Can Believe In?

The most exciting thing about the '60s, to me, is that it was a time when people could believe, regardless of the immediate reality, that at any moment the world could morph into something different. And when it did, what it became might turn out to be what you had willed it to be.

People who felt such a thing to be true weren't alone. They had friends who felt the same thing; who felt that sudden, almost spontaneous, morphing was possible. And those friends would never dispute the notion that it might be your vision that ignited the process of change. Every friend stood ready to be one of those who would be required to set their vision aside so that another's vision might become reality. Such solidarity. Such shared energy.

Between then and now there has been a counter-revolution of astonishing proportions and agonizing durability. The Nixon-era reaction, became the Reagan-era reaction and continued through the disappointing '90s to the Bush assault on government, democracy and decency. Since that time, we have been agents only of small changes, hardly believing that more--more justice, more peace, more freedom, more unassisted flight--was, or is, possible.

Can Barack Obama make a difference now after so many years of counterattack? Is it Barack who will bring us "Change we can believe in?" After all these years will it turn out that we were just waiting for a savior, kind of like Nicholas Cage's Cameron Poe character in Con Air?

Or will the feeling of change that almost daily seemed so imminent during the late '60s return because we have found new heart? Found that once again we can imagine big change? If so, we need first of all what we can do for ourselves, and second, perhaps, what a president, in a midwife's role, can do to help us. Barack as midwife we might believe in. I can go there. But Hillary as midwife? John McCain as nanny? Beyond my meager powers of imagination.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Just Say Yes

out there,
Campaigns to make us think
varieties of mind are bad for us.

But what I think,
you want to know?
I mean,
about varieties of mind?

Are good for us.
Anything that can lengthen
a life lengthened like mine
with waking dreams,

with crescendos of sudden and large
with the sweet kiss of lips and love,
with a longing, lingering note

or, music
with the wild moment dancing
I just recently survived

be good for

As was the sudden and large
and fleeting moment I realized
I’m going to live


A Mix of Dreams

And what if art is life, but far from risk?
And what if art is less than jealous and
a step beyond the pain of history?
And what if art is in us all?

Then deal me a hand. I have sat out
far too long and I wish, finally, to play.
I’ll not bluff—I’ve still the old,
unseemly caution to shed or scrape away.

Neither will I long and lunge, nor hurry to conclude.
I do not wish to win, only linger and sit with those
who have all along mixed dreams with dignity,
and shouldered their burden with grace.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Letter to the Washington Post, #11

Sebastian Mallaby’s April 21st column, “Housing Sense in Congress?” seems to be implying that it is homeowners who are to blame for the subprime meltdown. “Homeowners,” he writes, “have no moral claim to government assistance.”

Instead, Mallaby says that Congress ought to find ways to provide partial protection to the lenders who issued millions of sub-prime mortgages, then bundled and sold them to investors. In order to stabilize housing prices, the Federal Housing Administration ought to protect lenders from further losses, “if they agree to forgive part of a loan rather than kicking a family onto the street,” he writes.

In such a case, Mallaby notes, “homeowners would get a break, which is unfortunate.”

Such a break. The homeowners in question, who may have applied for and received one loan in their lives, will lose all their equity anyway. In most cases, these homeowners had little insight into what might go wrong and no idea that they were the recipients of unusual “subprime” loans.

But the lenders knew. And the lenders knew that such profitable loans were also risky. Now, Mallaby apparently believes that the lenders who profited greatly during the rise in housing prices are the ones with a “moral claim” on government action.

If Congress wishes to slow the freefall in market prices, a better option would be Own-to-Rent (OTR), a proposal first advanced by Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR).

OTR would require lenders to offer homeowners the opportunity to rent their home at fair market prices before beginning foreclosure proceedings. This would allow people to stay in their homes, stabilizing neighborhoods and forcing lenders and investors, who profited from the increase in housing prices, to bear the market consequences of the collapse in prices.

Jeff Epton
807 Taylor St., NE
Washington, DC 20017

202 506-7470

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Geology of Life

Such forces at work
In these spaces, our
Nearly continental drift
The lingering memory
of our birth moment
Longer in retrospect
Longer in reflection
Longer in neglect
Longer in denial
Longer in flight
Longer still
Triggers the forces
Driving our accidental growth.

In a moment of comprehension
In a moment of understanding
In a moment of insight
In an ecstatic moment
I am a cloud of rare
Particles dancing
In vast places
Toward the end of longing
Where I will be
Dust in the wind.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Letter to the Washington Post, #10

So, it's just barely possible that the Post could still publish letter #9, but if it doesn't, and if it doesn't publish this one, I will have a string of 10 straight letters to the Post that they decided they couldn't use. Obviously, initiating a communication is easy, completing one is much trickier. Letter #10 is below.

In “The Holocaust Declaration (April 11)” Charles Krauthammer says the next president, as a warning to Iran, should declare, “The United States will not permit a second Holocaust to be perpetrated upon the Jewish people.”

Is Krauthammer’s implication that other Holocausts will be permitted? How about a second Nakhba (Arabic for catastrophe), as Palestinians call their dispossession by Israel and the decades of Israeli occupation that followed?

Iran may be a threat to regional peace, but the inability of the United States to even imagine the injustices perpetrated by a Jewish theocratic state and to force Israel to end occupation is a more enduring threat to Middle East peace. Krauthammer’s proposed declaration would do little to deter Iran and nothing to redeem the West’s original sin of establishing imperial outposts in other people’s lands.

Jeff Epton
807 Taylor St., NE
Washington, DC 20017

202 506-7470

Friday, April 11, 2008

Long March

On a long march homeward,
ambling, pacing, striding,
stirring memory.
Past the old Hilton, in 1968, a fortress.

We lined the avenue, and police,
one moment calm as sea at sunset,
next storming in defense of old orders—
disturbing peace and the peaceful,
betraying care and the careless,
invading dreams and the dreamers,
waking night and the nightmares.

As incongruous as that,
ignoring the almost palpable,
insensible to hovering wraiths and phantoms,
with the stunted decorum of her inherited order,
she walked by with her fuzzy dog,
smiled with the strain of strangers
greeting in the dark.

Embarrassed by her fear,
I am, 40 years later, an unknown,
but somehow detectable phantasm.
I first hallowed her, and then
hallowed others, all too careful of me,

Then silently railed at those
I had just blessed.
Full of ownership and pride, rich with fables,
entering this space, brushing aside
lingering past like cobwebs.
I insist; to wish to be here
requires that you learn the slope and diameter
of here the way memory left it.

Your way, edge and shuffle,
strut like fearless,
walking your dog, curbing our dreams,
shrinking from the crazy people.

My way the ghosts manifest,
restored to vitality—
sensual, different, here before us,
here after, here with joy, here with pathos,
here with loss, here bright and precious—
handed off to you, Could you be more free to act?
And I a wisp, drifting by.

Wouldn’t that be better?
A place, all places, rich with
something like ownership, but grand,
sexy, communal and to be determined?
This way surrendering to
the thrust and leap of movements and moments,
bounding toward a shout:
Presente (finally)!

The borders between then and now and next
falling; our blood, leaking and spotting this moment,
consecrating it with our essence, abiding,
awaiting fresh runners,
inevitably passing by.
Amen, I say, and continue on my way.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Letter to the Washington Post, #9

Here's another letter to the Post. They won't publish this one, either.

Kissinger Is Back

Henry Kissinger’s recent appearance in the Post (“The Three Revolutions, Apr. 7”) put me in mind of the cult film “Night of the Living Dead,” in which one character says to another, “kill the brain and kill the ghoul.”

You, see, it’s a question whether or not we as a nation will ever be able to hold a discussion of any foreign policy without the nightmare possibility that Kissinger will show up to be included. His disastrous policy decisions when in power should make his every future contribution entirely suspect.

One example from “Three Revolutions:” Islam, Kissinger says, has “little room for Western notions of negotiation,” this may be true, but is vulnerable to a difference over definitions. If by “negotiation,” Kissinger means invading Iraq rather than letting UN nuclear weapons inspectors hunt for WMD’s with Saddam’s permission, then Islam’s alleged reluctance to embrace Western-style negotiation makes sense.

Kissinger also criticizes the willingness of European countries to consider public opinion in limiting “the number of troops provided and to constrict the [NATO] missions for which lives could be risked.” Only the policy genius who conceived of the secret bombing of Cambodia could see the downside in the reluctance of democracies to readily engage in war.

Kissinger advocates a “national debate on national security policy.” I can go there, but can we do this without the old ghoul?

Jeff Epton
807 Taylor St., NE
Washington, DC 20017

202 506-7470

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Jesus Saves: An Unlikely Story

Incoherence rescues triviality, I say
Too bad it does not work both ways
Incoherence rescues triviality, I say

Sadly, all rescues are incomplete
This way, none among us are saved
Still seeking salvation?
Persist, maybe, in some other poem

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Going Postal

Going Postal

I bought stamps the other day. Walked up to the bulletproof barrier and said, “I want 100 first class stamps, please.”

The postal worker held up strips of Liberty Bell stamps.

“No liberty bells, please,” I said and she asked if I wanted American Flag stamps.

“No flags please,” I said. “And no liberty bells.”

Her eyelids drooped and she nodded toward a sheet of Disney stamps lying on the counter.

“Disney?” I might have sounded a little irritated. “Don’t you have any people stamps?”

She shook her head and then, apparently reconsidering, she asked if I wanted Charles Chesnutt stamps. Widely regarded as the first true African-American novelist, Chesnutt would look good on my mail, I thought. I was enthusiastic.

“A person? You bet!”

My postal worker nodded and walked away. The worker at the counter next to her looked over at me and smiled. While I stood there waiting, another post office employee looked around the corner, almost peeking at me, it seemed. We made eye contact and he nodded. I nodded back, constituting at least the fourth nod between two people in that office on that morning that I was aware of.

Then my postal worker came back with 100 41-cent stamps. I had other stamp denominations I wanted to buy and I wished I’d mentioned them before she walked away the first time. I was afraid she would lose patience with me.

“Oh, yeah. I also wanted 20 post card stamps and 20 next-ounce stamps.”

She looked at me.

“Sorry,” I said and she said it was okay and walked away again. When she came back, I had more stamps, 20 26-cent stamps and 20 17-cent stamps, or 20 cougars and 20 mountain goats (a big-horned, big-headed fellow) to go with my 100 Charles Chesnutts.

I paid my bill and thanked her.

“That was fun,” I said. “I should write more letters.”

“Thank you,” she said with a big smile on her face, but I swear I thought she was going to go postal on me. Maybe leap through that bulletproof shield and grab me and throw all kinds of hugs and sloppy kisses my way.

That would have been okay with me. In fact, I’m planning to write more letters.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Answer This

Watched “Swing Kids” last night.
Germany, 1930s, nervy kids with their
“Swing, heil!”
And loving the Count,
Count Basie, swinging, free, black—
not goose-stepping, angry, compliant and Adolph.

Brendan asked so many questions.
Why did Arvin kill himself?
Why did Peter let himself be taken?
Why did Thomas stop choking Peter?
Why did Thomas shout “swing, heil,”
When the Nazis took Peter away?
Why? Why? Why?

And Peter’s little brother, Brendan’s age,
Why did he shout, “swing, heil,” also,
When the truck disappeared with Peter?
So many questions.
What does resistance mean? Was Peter’s father a Jew?
Why? Why? Why?
We answered, we soothed, we slept.

This morning there are more answers to
How to deal with fateful choices,
With the moment when choices unfold.
How many moments for each one of us?
How many wrong answers? How many answer wrong?
Rest easy about this:

Right or wrong the moment returns. Always returns.
Always returns. Each of us gets to answer twice,
three times, an infinity of challenges in a lifetime.
No matter that we pretend that we did not hear the question,
that the moment has not come, that there is no choice, no
option, that we have not the power to do right.

We have only to ask if we have stood
with the least exalted aming us.
Do they know us for a friend?
Answer me that.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Letter to the Washington Post, #8

I can guarantee with near-absolute certainty that the Post will not publish this letter. So, at the same time I send it in to the paper, I'm going to put it up here.

The Post’s carefully worded editorial, “Home Truths (March 28),” managed to balance every nuanced point with its opposite. The result is fairly routine for the Post—an editorial worth less than the paper it’s printed on.

Here’s the question for the editorial board: Do you support targeted assistance for homeowners with mortgage problems, or not? If not, please say so more clearly.

If you do, consider supporting a strategy that includes the ingenious, and ingeniously named, “Own-to-Rent” proposal advanced by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR).

Own-to-Rent would require mortgage-holders to offer to rent a property to its occupants at fair market rates before foreclosing. What would this accomplish?

First, it would force banks and other mortgage-holders who don’t want to become landlords to consider renegotiating loans to monthly payment levels that would be closer to market rents and more affordable to homeowners facing foreclosure.

Second, legislation could be written that would force mortgage-holders to absorb most or all of the loss connected to the deflated value of the home. Banks would not be forced by law to renegotiate, but they would be permitted to do so under the terms outlined in the law.

In successful renegotiations between mortgagees and lenders, occupants would have a chance to remain in their homes, lenders that profited greatly during bubble times would take the lead in stabilizing market values, and there would be no government-sponsored bailout.

Check out Own-to-Rent at the website for CEPR:

Jeff Epton
807 Taylor St., NE
Washington, DC 20017

202 506-7470

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Gettysburg and Iraq: The Lesson We Need to Learn

Our little nuclear family just spent a couple of days touring the battlefield at Gettysburg. The reminders are incessant there that the three-day battle was a turning point of the Civil War.

Even more relentless are the detailed stories of the experiences of individual soldiers. Told in pamphlets, in books, on CDs, and on plaques and signs, the stories make clear that the experience of battle during Gettysburg (July 1 to 3, 1863) was predominantly personal and intimate. Perhaps a tiny percentage of the participants had a global perspective on the battle, the war and implications for the future, but the sheer number of intensely personal stories bury the more analytical and detached accounts.

Of course, this is not news. We can, if we want, listen to harrowing stories from Iraq War veterans or, if we dare, from Iraqi civilians who’ve lived through blockades, hi-tech bombings, foreign occupation and their own civil war. But even this would be redundant. I mean no disrespect, but we have heard all of it before.

I cannot say exactly how I came to my beliefs, but I am anti-war to my very core. And when I consume these personal accounts of heroism and devastation, I struggle to find a way to relate to those stories that both honors the sacrifice of individuals and insists that we ought not go that way ever again.

In wrestling with that ambiguity, I can’t help coming to this conclusion: The experience of battle may have very little to do with resorting to war as policy, which is political, quantifiable and subject (or ought to be) to moral appraisal.

Of course, this position demands elaboration, and fierce advocacy, but I’ll put that obligation off for another time and focus, instead, on this further thought: If the experience of battle is not good preparation for the discussion of war as policy, than it might very well be bad preparation, leaving those who have had that experience unprepared for the challenges of making war policy.

This is an inflammatory statement, I know. I apologize. And I certainly don’t mean to privilege the participation of “chickenhawks” in war policy-making, either. But the experience of warriors who live to tell us about war must be that battle is survivable. That is a problem.

After all, if battle is survivable, then wars, regarded as a series of battles, are survivable, too. Even, winnable.

But wars are winnable only when they are considered in narrow contexts. They are winnable in the same way, perhaps, that some particularly dirty industrial processes and commercial products are viable.

By excluding the liabilities, the collateral damage, the ruined lives, the maimed and tortured survivors, the civilian casualties, the poisoned workers, the toxic byproducts, the costs of treatment and reconstruction, the lost opportunities, one might make a positive case for war and dirty industry. But these exclusions remain costs that must be covered. And they are. As socialized, exported, externalized costs they are borne, these costs of war and industry, by the rest of us.

Touring the Gettysburg battlefield exposes one over and over again to stories about soldiers fighting their way in and out of trouble, fighting heroically, fighting selflessly, dying or suffering and surviving without even a fragmentary idea about what was happening one hundred yards away, or to a dear comrade, or would happen even a few hours later. Such an experience means that a participant absorbs the lessons of terror, of fear, of pain, of deprivation, of sudden hope, of vast relief, of comradeship, of loss, of triumph, of exhilaration and of despair in much the same way that people, momentarily overwhelmed, absorb other experiences in life.

They survive them or fall victim to them. They transcend them or they descend into them. They understand or fail to, but at the end of it all they have had an experience of battle that is intimate, human scale and, perhaps, familiar.

What I fear is that those who survive battle, who return with a variety of reflections, always bring with them at least one common message, perhaps implicit; battle is survivable. And though we want the survivors to survive, it may not be socially useful if that is the message their living presence conveys.

What we on this planet should have learned long ago is that war is unthinkable. But we haven’t. We should have learned that war is not an option. But we haven’t. We should have learned that war is an unequivocal assault on our collective humanity. But we haven’t.

I can’t help thinking that part of the reason we have not learned those things is because some of us appear to survive war. And the rest of us are reassured and attach inappropriate meaning to their survival. If that is true, it follows naturally that we sometimes think that war can be just; and think that we have tried everything and that war is the only remaining option.

But after a few millennia worth of war stories, and after acquiring so recently the capacity to assess the true cost of war in lives and treasure and missed opportunity, we ought to rethink. We have that chance now.
The chance to not flinch at the thought, say, that the loss of 4,000 American lives in Iraq may not have a deeper meaning.

We can resist the impulse to attach large meaning to such loss and sacrifice. We can resist the message that these lives were spent to secure our freedoms, or to purchase democracy for others. It is a scandalous message, really, and drains meaning from those deaths.

Instead, we can agree that there has been enough war. We can agree that the meaning of military sacrifice, courage, and lost lives can best be dignified at this moment in history by the determination that we will war no more.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A Prayer

I saw a boy on the metro
platform. About ten,
he joked around
with an older, bigger boy.

He edged to the edge of
the platform, which was to him
the edge of somewhere else.
He played at daring. He played at scared.

The older boy played, too.
At pushing him from the platform.
At pushing him to the rails.
At pushing me to falling, too.

And there we were.
Little outlaw acts and
me with bloody visions
and choked with unvoiced prayer.

The Internet and the Rush of Life

Alan Neff responded to the post about Arthur C. Clarke. "The rush of fully determined life in the Universe created the Internet," Alan wrote.

Arguable, to be sure, and it gets us a very safe distance away from Bill Gates, but I don't agree, which in itself may be unwise. Still, agreement or not, I wish I had written that.

Letter to the Washington Post, #7

So many people wanting to be heard. So little opportunity. Daily newspapers need to get energy from anywhere they can. I'm doing my part. Every week or so, I send them a little note. If they don't publish it, I get to work on my consecutive streak of unpublished letters. If they do publish one, I'll wait another week and start another streak.

Pearlstein's Anti-union Whine

Wow! Did Steven Pearlstein just take a job with some union-busting consulting firm? In “A Sacred Cow in the Cockpit (March 21),” Pearlstein takes a dispute over seniority between some airlines and their pilots and turns it into a principal reason why the airline industry can’t maintain stability and manage a profit.

Unionized pilots “haven’t fully accepted the reality of a deregulated marketplace where the interests of consumers come before those of employees,” Pearlstein says. This means, I guess, that as a consumer who feels overcharged for crowded, late (or cancelled), no-frills flights, I ought to be blaming pilots.

Sorry, I’m not buying it. The airlines begged for deregulation because they thought it meant less competition and more profit. Consumers and unionized employees alike got shafted in the process.

Jeff Epton
807 Taylor St., NE
Washington, DC 20017

202 506-7470

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Love to Babies

Nathan Night Rain,
you were an infant with
apple cheeks and patience.

Julie Anna,
you were a witch baby,
wise with foreknowledge.

And Brendan Isaac,
you were king baby
with windmill arms and bicycle legs,
wailing your loud strong music.

As Isaac brought joy
to Abraham and Sarah,
with a handful of weight,
with the heat of new beginning,
with the scent of everything to come,
so have you brought
gift after gift after gift

of Nate asleep on my heart,
warm weight waxing,
innocent of his fierce protector;

of Julie at midnight recalled,
fresh weight needing nothing
but that which was freely given;

of yourself,
urgent and new;

all of you, gift after gift after gift
to a father stirred and grateful
that the elements combined as you.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Thanks to Arthur C. Clarke for Virtual Joy

In an obituary earlier this month, I read that one of Arthur C. Clarke’s stories, “Dial F for Frankenstein,” inspired a British scientist “to invent the World Wide Web in 1989.” This struck me as an unlikely story.

I have no doubt that a Clarke story may have inspired scientist Tim Berners-Lee (hyphenization courtesy of the obit’s author). I just question whether he, or anyone else, can be said to have “invented” the web.

Over the last couple of years, my son Brendan and I have had several conversations about such things. Brendan, now nine years old, has initiated these discussions with the regular claim that Bill Gates invented the internet.

His nearly habitual assertion would launch what became, in repetition, a conversation both tedious and infuriating. It is with some relief that I can say that it has been some time, six weeks or more, since he last made his emphatic Bill Gates claim.

He stopped, I think, because we found a book at the DC public library that helped to ground our discussion. The book, called Cyberspace and written by David Jefferis, is aimed at kids. Jefferis manages to write about the development of the internet without a single reference to Bill Gates.

The internet, it turns out, “developed because of the ‘cold war,’ a power struggle between communist and non-communist countries that lasted from 1945 to 1989.” Defense planners were looking for a way to maintain communications in the event of nuclear attack. They explored a network of connected sites that did not depend on a single hub.

“This first Internet, named the ARAPnet, was set up in the 1960s.” Apparently, it solved the planners’ problem. “From then on, there was no stopping the growth of the Net,” Jefferis wrote.

(It may seem to readers as though I'm not following a strict system for capitalizing words here. But this is the rule I’m following: If I’m quoting someone who capitalizes “internet” or “web,” the capitalization stands. But if I’m using those words to make a point—entirely my own or paraphrased—I’m not capitalizing. I don’t capitalize the word “god,” either. On this point, my Bill Gates/Microsoft-developed Word program disagrees. Word underlines, in red, every instance of my use of “internet” that I don’t capitalize.)

In any case, I used passages from “Cyberspace” to help make the point to Brendan that the development of the internet was a collective achievement. Gates, after all, hadn’t even been born when the cold war began.

Though he’d never been persuaded by me before, the notion that the “military,” another legendary entity in Brendan’s mind, might have a hand in inventing the internet, relieved him greatly and he was able to set aside his faith in the omnipresence of Bill Gates in the history of Everything. (In this paragraph, for reasons unknown to me, Word has begun underlining in green each use of “internet” that I fail to capitalize.)

So, when I read that Berners-Lee had been moved by Clarke’s story to invent the web, I persuaded Brendan to take another trip to the library with me (the Lamond-Riggs branch of DC public.)

Now, as Brendan settles in with a baseball book—“Rookie of the Year”—I have retrieved “Cyberspace” and am consulting it for a bit of info about Tim Berners-Lee. As it turns out, Clarke’s obit writer has not stretched the fabric of truth quite as far as Brendan did in his story of the internet.

There’s a small photo of this guy, Berners-Lee on page 10 of “Cyberspace.” The caption, which has done away with all hyphens, says Lee, “of Switzerland’s CERN laboratory, is thought of as the brains behind the World Wide Web.”

Of course, that achievement has broader roots than Lee’s brain, also. “Cyberspace” says that in 1945 American scientist Vannever Bush “proposed using a ‘memex,’ a machine that [could store] information. [And] lay a trail of related words and pictures.”

Vannever Bush, says the book, “is often called the father of the information age.” Further, writes Jefferis, “the memex was never built, but in 1960, programmer Ted Nelson was inspired by the idea to write the hypertext computer language. This used hyperlinks to take a user on a trail of linked information sources.”

All of this actually suggests that the web and the internet were “born,” ultimately from the fertile partnership of Metaphor and Hyperbole (caps mine), which themselves originated in once both ritualized and spontaneous social, cultural and collective activities like storytelling or, perhaps, originated in the domestications of grains and the brewing of malt beverages some 10,000 years ago.

Personally, I find that my own use of the internet (and my laptop and other related items) is a mixed benefit to me. Just two days ago—ironically or not, the same day I read the Clarke obituary—I composed several clever e-mails to my landlord and to other correspondents. And, even more cleverly, but mistakenly, copied those messages to two of Brendan’s teachers; people who had no interest whatsoever in the content or style of my e-mails about sewers and lunch.

In the process, I discovered that in the wake of the internet and the web, it is possible for me to sit at home, entirely by myself, and use these developments to embarrass myself publicly.

In a final connotative leap, I’d like to volunteer another tidbit from “Cyberspace.” A picture of a young man, posing near two large, now archaic, computers and staring bravely (visionarily?) off into space is captioned this way:

“Ray Tomlinson devised the electronic mail system in the US in 1972. He used the now-universal ‘at’ symbol to show an e-mail address: this person @ that computer.”

It is therefore thanks to Ray, Arthur, Tim, Vannever and countless other less well-known brains, "fathers of," and inventors—me, you, Al Gore, Emma Goldman, and millions of servants, serfs and slaves throughout history—that I can anticipate yet another time in the future when I might sit home by myself and somehow commit one more public faux pas.

It makes me want to both blush and jump for virtual joy.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Letter to the Washington Post, #6

I sent this one on March 17. I don't think it will be published, either.

I'm thinking I might be going about this wrong. Maybe I should see how many letters-to-the-editor I can write without being published by the Post. Here's the letter:

Thanks to Fareed Zakaria for at least half-truths about Iraq (In Iraq, Still Stuck in a Loop, Mar. 17). Though the reality is that we started the Iraq War already stuck, if not worse, it is nice to see a media go-to guy suggesting that well, yes, maybe, the surge ain’t working.

It would be nicer still if analysts would get off the notion that the surge is meant “to buy time for the Iraqis to make political progress,” which has always been as credible as the idea that we ought to invade Iraq because Saddam has WMDs. Arguably, the surge was really intended to buy time for the Bush administration to get off the stage before it became clear that the whole war was, and remains, a really bad idea.

That surge, by the way, isn’t working, either.

Jeff Epton
807 Taylor St., NE
Washington, DC 20017

202 506-7470

Letter to the Washington Post, #5

This is the fifth letter I've written to the Post since early February

Jim Hoagland’s March 2 column, “Long Winter for the Media,” was a very satisfying read. Given major media’s general inclination to deny a significant role in the shaping of public opinion, Hoagland’s frankness and honesty was refreshing.

He could have gone further, but the admission that print media, in competition with broadcast and cable, sometimes presents “complex events and trends…at the expense of understanding and fairness” is an important one.

It was all the more surprising, then, to encounter Hoagland’s extreme overstatement of the Bush administration’s “accomplishments” in his column of March 9 (“How to Make an Exit”).

Official silence and covert cooperation with “Turkey’s successfully managed military campaign into northern Iraq that ended Feb. 29” is success for the Bush administration? In what universe? As one foreseeable effect of the dishonestly represented, costly and ill-advised invasion of Iraq, a Turkish foray into Iraq supported by American intelligence is simply one more moment of mayhem closely connected with the war that will smear Bush’s name forever.

I reread the whole column, trying to discern why Hoagland might want to advise George W. Bush on ways to achieve some sort of graceful exit. “[Bush has] touched off changes in the international system that will take years or decades to absorb, repair or appreciate,” writes Hoagland.

Except for the people and countries that have already absorbed all the damage they can.

Jeff Epton
807 Taylor St., NE
Washington, DC 20017

202 506-7470

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Jack Nicholson and Me

And now we come to the great
Jack Nicholson

The moment of discovery
of dread. All his words are
empty of meaning and his life
of genius.

From here on,
we'll have to keep our eye on him.
He may be a danger
to himself.

Jay Leno and Me

I may be sixty, but I'll tell you,
my shoulders are a lot older than
my penis.

"What," asks Jay, "does that mean:
My shoulders are a lot older than
my penis?"

"It means," I reply, "whatever we,
you and I, decide it means,
but I'll tell you, you get a lot of points
for saying penis
on network."

"Amen," says Jay, shaking my

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

No Bailouts

The National Lawyers’ Guild used to have a T-shirt that quoted Shakespeare: “The first thing we do is kill all the lawyers.” It was a pointed tongue-in-cheek comment about the way some lawyers use the law to block social justice and change. Unfortunately, what was first a social observation, and later a leftist insight into the way entrenched interests use the law, has become a club with which to bash all lawyers.

Regardless, the recent moves by the Fed to protect banks against their own bad investment decisions put me in mind of the Shakespeare quote. As the current recession gathers momentum, what we need is a priority list for government action. Maybe lead the list off with, “the first thing we do is, we don’t bailout business.”

One of the Fed’s moves involves loaning investment banks up to $200 billion and allows banks to secure the loans by pledging securities they hold. Supposedly, the banks’ pledged collateral will be their most highly rated, mortgage-backed securities. AAA-rated, we are told.

On the news of the Fed’s move, the Dow-Jones average of industrial stocks achieved its largest single-day increase in five years. Despite appearances, the Washington Post’s Steven Pearlstein says this isn’t just a “bailout for Wall Street (A Bailout. For Everyone, Post, March 12).” Pearlstein says the move will help us all.

"…it is also a bailout…meant to prevent a financial and economic meltdown that drags everyone down with it,” Pearlstein writes, though he leaves out the specific ways in which working families will benefit.

For a different perspective on bailouts check Dean Baker’s book, “The Conservative Nanny State.” Baker, who is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), argues that the government, contrary to popular belief, repeatedly uses its power to help banks and other businesses avoid the consequences of risk.

“…in a market economy lenders take risks when they make a loan [or buy mortgage-backed securities]. They should, in principle, understand this fact. Certainly, the highly compensated corporate executives that manage large banks and other financial institutions should understand that they take risks when they make their loans [or investments],” Baker writes.

That it is necessary for Baker to make the point at all, in a chapter about bankruptcy, suggests that corporations operating in our “free market” economy understand perfectly well that a government bailout is always a good possibility. The message cloaking the substantial benefits of these corporate bailout policies has been consistent since the phrase “what’s good for General Motors is good for America,” entered the vernacular. Pearlstein’s comments are merely the latest refinement.

But it seems more than possible that AAA-rated securities might not be that good, at all. That’s been the experience recently as even security-rating services have come under fire for their practices. That means the Fed’s decision has put the government in the position of guaranteeing $200 billion in investments that might be liquidated for less sometime in the future.

If jobs are at stake here, then for $200 billion the government could extend unemployment benefits, expand food stamp programs and begin investing in different jobs, like new and rebuilt mass transit, bridge repair and renewable energy. But the first thing we do is, we don’t bailout business.

Friday, March 7, 2008

An Economy and Federal Budget That Works-Part Three, Military Spending Works Worst

The recession we are in now is going to get worse. The housing bubble may be popped, but it is not yet fully deflated. Some economists estimate that by the time the housing market has bottomed out, the loss of asset value to individuals and companies will be upwards of $8 trillion—that’s $8 thousand billion, or $8 million million or about $50,000 each for every adult in the country, legal or otherwise. And, to date, we may have only absorbed about half of that eventual loss.

Consumers are already poorer and feeling it; that reality and those feelings, which helped trigger this recession, will continue to fuel it. Built out of a solid foundation of consumer pessimism, rising inequality and poverty, job and benefit losses, mortgage foreclosures, stalled construction, rising commodity prices and other creepy certainties and uncertainties, the recession of 2008 and beyond is going to feel more like the Great Depression of the 1930s than any downturn between then and now.

And because this experience will revive the combination of inflation and economic stagnation, the “stagflation” that dogged the country in the late ‘70s, we will hear a whole lot about how the Fed’s hands are tied—lowering interest rates will fuel inflation, raising rates will increase the severity of the recession, ergo, a powerless Fed.

We will also hear that the Bush-inflated deficit will prevent the federal government from using budget measures (spending on public works, unemployment benefits, etc.) to stimulate the economy. So, no interest rate cuts, no effective federal domestic spending, and no investment-fueled recovery (corporations will invest their money—and ours—overseas where investing will seem more profitable).

But ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and slashing the regular military budget will reduce inflationary pressure and provide billions to invest domestically. Imagine, a whole generation of weapons and war budgets pounded into new public schools, expanded public transportation, health care, rebuilt bridges and more.

A story, almost a parable

Liberal economists say that Henry Ford’s decision to pay autoworkers a higher wage—a wage high enough to allow them to purchase Ford products—created a new market for manufacturing. Paying decent wages a century ago, the story goes, dramatically increased the buying power of working people, and helped create a market for the products that Ford workers made.

Of course, the story is oversimplified, but it helps to illustrate a point. In this case how workers who get poverty wages can’t afford to be consumers of the products they make or of the services they provide. So, if a simple story of an employer and wage workers can help us understand how fair wages can fit into “free” market transactions, can another simple story help us see a way to fight inflation?

I have in mind a story about the military-industrial complex producing items—a cruise missile, say, or a rocket launcher—that no worker in their right mind would be willing to buy. Or, regardless of their state of mind, would be legally permitted to buy or could afford to buy. In that story, decently paid workers with jobs at military contractors produce missiles and tanks that are not available on the open market.

In that story, weapons manufacturers produce nothing for the domestic common market. But their employees, those workers, earning relatively high wages, go out and compete in that market with the rest of us to purchase the goods and services we all require. With more buyers and fixed or even slowly expanding supplies of goods, the cost of food, housing, clothing, autos and other consumer goods is driven up. (Yes, in the idealized market place—which, we are told, is the one we live in—the producers of marketable goods produce more and the price holds. Yeah, maybe, but that would be a much longer story.) Into the bargain, the employees of military contractors create powerful voting blocks in regions of the country that have economies dependent on federal military spending.

The point of this story is that there are budgetary ways to control inflation. Want an expanded constituency supporting peacetime budgeting (and peace) and reduced inflationary pressure? Find a productive way to convert military spending into expanding and maintaining domestic infrastructure and green jobs and get such a constituency and many other swell benefits.

Spending for War and Weapons
Iraq and Afghanistan

Further economic benefits develop from ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The costs of these wars is not included in the regular budget, but are separate appropriations costing $100 billion per year or more. In 2007, the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) commissioned Global Insight to do an analysis of the long-term effects of increased military spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That study, “The Economic Impact of the Iraq War and Higher Military Spending (referred to in Part I of this series),” showed that an early stimulus provided by war spending would begin to turn negative after five years and worsen in succeeding years.

In other words, the result of spending approximately $135 billion for war in 2003 provided a small stimulus at the time, but will have begun to result in job losses in specific sectors of the economy (almost 45,000 lost in manufacturing) by this year. Continuing war spending worsens the effect—the study projects that by 2013 more than 450,000 jobs will be lost across most sectors of the economy.
[Find out more at the CEPR website:]

The U.S. Military Budget

The United States currently spends more on the military ($623 billion projected for 2008, excluding the military’s share of interest on the national debt) than the combined spending of the rest of the world ($577 billion projected; source, both figures, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute).

New defense priorities that depended more on diplomacy and internationalism and less on the policy preferences of weapons manufacturers would result in immediate and sustained cuts in military spending. And would free substantially more than one trillion dollars over the next decade for housing, public transportation and other infrastructure spending.

Outside of paying people to be soldiers and paying veterans’ benefits, every aspect of the military budget should be examined with at least the same unsympathetic rigor with which the Clinton administration approached welfare reform. As things now stand, the U.S. military budget is a significant source of inflationary pressure. (I leave the actual calculation of how much pressure to a real live economist.)

This tax-workers-buy-weapons (TWBW) policy is probably among the most effective mechanisms ever developed for the transfer of wealth from taxpayers and working families to the executives and shareholders of multi-national corporations. TWBW supports the purchase of weapons systems that we don’t need and that sometimes don’t even work. The fact that we are frequently purchasing weapons that don’t work ought to be a continuing scandal, but it isn’t, which suggests that TWBW is also a foundation for cover-ups, bribes, revolving door transitions from military to civilian careers and lobbyist opportunities, in short, corruption. And, to reemphasize the earlier point, TWBW is inflationary.

So cut the military budget immediately. Disengage militarily as soon as possible from Iraq and Afghanistan, focusing instead on civilian relief and reconstruction in those countries in the hope, probably futile, that a constructive aid program will help to make the transition from war as peaceful as possible. End weapons programs and weapons development that are basically offensive in nature. Eliminate military spending on programs and projects that fulfill the corporate goals of contractors and their investors, but do nothing to enhance the well-being of the country or of working families.

Invest the bulk of the savings from military cuts in domestic social programs. Restore the public school system. Invest in teachers and teacher education. Make college education affordable. Rebuild and expand mass transit and intercity and cross-country railroads. Establish a universal health care system that delivers health and operates efficiently. Invest in conservation, green jobs and managing climate change.

In the process, get these additional benefits: More peace and more peaceful opportunities worldwide; reduced inflationary pressure, a more productive workforce, stronger families, shorter commutes, less traffic congestion, cleaner air, and on and on.