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.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

I Am Your Journeyman

I am no poet of the interior voyage,
But I am a journeyman,
Giving good effort
For wages or food.

I know the paths through caves and forests.
I know the edible fruit along the way.
I'll show you the shallow fords
Across the river of tears.

Follow me, picking the way
Through the woods on black days.
Heed this moonlight, exalting the heart
Even through this night of fear.

Caution now,
There may be need for stealth.
Keep close. Keep pace. Keep faith.
We'll arrive safely soon enough,

Resting on Thursday,
Moving on, refreshed, on Friday.
Along the way, we'll learn more trust
Celebrating dews and frosts and thunder.

Monday, March 3, 2008

The Ohio Primary - Getting Down in Dayton and Vandalia

Arrived in Dayton on Sunday and went right to the Plumber's Hall on the eastside where I picked up voter lists and Obama lit for the Grafton Hill neighborhood. Knocked on doors (37 of them) for two hours, asking voters who answered to vote for Barack on Tuesday. Fourteen of the 17 I talked to were already intending to vote for Obama.

In that sense, all of Dayton's Westside was like gold; votes to be mined--the vast majority Barack voters--but, unfortunately, not in quantities sufficient to overcome the advantage Clinton had in the wrecked industrial landscape of eastern and northern Ohio. The Obama campaign seemed to be everywhere, but we know that the Clinton campaign was pretty mobilized, too.

The next day I walked a neighborhood in Vandalia that was far from Obama territory and likely not much in the way of Clinton territory, either. The neighborhood, a sprawling collection of 1950s-era ranch homes and split-levels on wide lots, lies just west of I-75 and south of US-40 (the National Road).

It was a puzzling place. When I arrived there late morning, there was virtually no activity on the street--pretty much me and the mail carrier. I walked quite a few streets before I saw my first campaign sign and most of the vehicles parked in driveways, or curbside, had no bumper stickers, either.

After awhile, putting a little bit more effort into observation, I did begin to notice American flags planted on houses. Three or four lawns with campaign signs were supporting Hillary. I didn't see a single McCain sign and, ultimately, near the end of my door-to-door sweep, one Obama sign. But I ran across a Huckabee sign before I saw the Obama sign.

It was a definite thought-bubble moment. I'm striding up the street, thinking, "Huckabee?"

When I hit the house with the Obama sign in the yard, I felt a certain solidarity with the occupants, who weren't actually there and who were likely at work or school. Wondering how many allies they might have on the street, I slid an Obama vote-reminder under the welcome mat. I'm sure they needed no such reminder, but the act felt more like a "you-have-friends-here" note.

I don't mean to suggest that anybody in Vandalia was hostile. More like indifferent or just not present. By mid-afternoon there were teenagers on the street, walking home from a nearby high school. One group of teens came out of a house and got into a late model sedan with a "Newt in 08" bumper sticker.

Another guy in fatigues, washing a modest pick-up truck, told me he was a Republican, but that he might vote for Clinton "just to keep you guys going." He laughed as he said it, so we would both know he wouldn't really do something like that, but I told him that would be fine.

"I think we can handle a long primary and still take care of business in November," I told him.

"I think you can, too," he said.

Though Vandalia seemed a strange land, it's likely that Vandalia residents--skewing quite white, hanging on to middle-class life, facing foreclosures and bankruptcy, leaning Republican and sending their children to Iraq, are facing much of the same social distress the rest of the country is facing.

But they've swallowed more of the Kool-Aid than some of the rest of us. They think big government is bad government and social programs are debilitating.

Well, we will have to be patient. Some of the change we wish for won't happen unless some of them start wishing for it, too.

It would have been nice if Barack could have won in Ohio and Texas on Tuesday and effectively ended the Democratic primary. Unfortunately, that's not what happened. Still, I would have made the journey even if I had known Barack would lose. I wasn't pretending to myself that knocking on a few doors or talking to a few voters would make much difference. I just wanted to see some of the campaigning up close.

And, of course, it also represented an opportunity to come back to Dayton, where Marrianne and I spent the '90s working on the Dayton Voice/Impact Weekly, and where Brendan spent most of 1998 in utero, working on being born. It is the people we worked with at the Voice and the people we knew here that make coming back worthwhile.

I stayed two nights at Kristen's house. Since working as a reporter at the Voice, Kristen has been working in journalism and communications. She's also put in time in the public relations department at the University of Dayton and taught writing at Stivers High School.

Stivers is probably the jewel of Dayton Public Schools, but Dayton and the public schools being what they are, Kristen's job as head of the creative writing department got axed shortly after she took it. Tough, out-spoken and a skilled journalist with a secret life working on more personal writings, Kristen would be a great teacher.

Lost job or no, she will get another shot at teaching writing; this time in a storefront in the Oregon District from which she and a friend will be offering writing classes for adults.

Dayton's not an easy place for entrepreneurial efforts like Kristen's. It wasn't an easy place for the Voice, either. And it hasn't been kind to working people for many years.

The area was once the location, after Detroit and Flint, of the third largest concentration of GM factories in the country. There were a lot of good jobs at National Cash Register, McCall's printing facility and other mid-century industrial giants, as well.

But all those jobs are gone now and Dayton is a depopulated center-city surrounded by much wealthier suburbs, which are themselves experiencing real decline. There are probably a wide variety of statistical measures that would demonstrate just how desperate things in Dayton are, but it should suffice to say that in Dayton-area dialect there are about 32 words or phrases for urban decline.

That makes it all the more important to note that for all the hard knocks life in Dayton delivers, it also seems to foster a streak of stubbornness and persistence that is evident in so many of the people I know there. Old Voice colleagues apparently never give up. They keep trying to do their art and their music and their writing, and raise their families, and fix up their houses, and start new businesses, and find another job that will get them a step closer to where they want to go.

I loved the two days I spent in Dayton for Obama, but my time there was not really for Barack. It was for me, and I spent a good part of it listening to Annie and Kristen and Kier and Dean and Michelle and Joe and Margaret and Jim McC and Robin and others. These are committed, creative and durable people.

Barack's formulation, we "are the ones we've been waiting for" is made manifest in Dayton. The changes that we insist must occur if America is to realize its promise of economic and social justice will come when more of us are like the heroes I know in Dayton.