Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Why Are You Whispering?

“Say, did you happen to make it to that Veteran’s Day ceremony downtown?”  I asked my elderly neighbor, Mrs. Dichter.  

“What’s that?” she asked.  “You have to remember to face me when you’re talking, or your voice wanders off in another direction.”

“The Veteran’s Day ceremony downtown,” I said, facing her and yelling.  “Did you go?”

“No need to shout,” she said.  “I’m not deaf, you know.  But it’s no use my going to speeches.  Or plays or movies, for that matter.  They all mumble so much I can’t make out what they’re talking about.”

“The speaker said that freedom isn’t free.  It has a price, and we’re still paying the price because we’re still at war.”

She snorted.  “I wouldn’t have needed to go downtown to hear that.  There must have been thousands of speeches around the country that day with the exact same theme.  I heard people say it dozens of times myself when I was younger.  It’s quite a cliche now.  It’s been said so often by now that a lot of people believe it’s true.”

I looked at her, shocked.  “What are you saying?” I asked.  “You don’t think it’s true?  You don’t think freedom has a price?”

“Of course not,” she said.  “It just sounds so right because of this society’s assumption that everything has a price.  Freedom is free.  Anytime, anywhere, you can act and speak freely.  You could say anything you wanted, right now.  I wish more people felt free enough to do that in this country.”

“But there are consequences for saying some things.”

“Of course.  Everything has consequences.  Have you taken a look at the consequences of  ‘paying the price’ these speakers are urging on us?  They’re pretty ugly.  It also so happens that the same people telling you freedom isn’t free are the ones who will administer those consequences.  And they’re making the consequences more drastic all the time.”  

“But how can you just ignore that our soldiers are bleeding and dying right now to preserve our freedom.”

She looked sad.  “Ace,” she said, “I’m not ignoring it.  I’m appalled by it.  It enrages me that our young people are being duped into ‘paying the price’ by people who will reap the profits.  Our kids in uniform aren’t fighting for our freedom; they’re simply being used.  They may not be able to see it, but they’re fighting for empire, for oil profits, for market share.” 

I was shocked.  It’s surprising how little we know our neighbors sometimes.  “Mrs. Dichter, how did you get to be so cynical?”

“I’m not a cynic, Ace,” she said.  “I’m an idealist through and through.  The cynics are those who deliberately use the language of liberty and love of country to betray good-hearted, well-meaning people.”  

“I gather you don’t think people feel free to act and speak in this country?”

“People who don’t pose a challenge to the status quo probably feel free, because none of the weight of the state is brought to bear on them.  But it’s a different story for people who actually do something that the folks at the top don’t like.”

“Like who?”

“Like people actually fighting for human rights, civil rights, economic justice, or peace and environmental issues.  Look, you’re a journalist of sorts.  Did you read the results of the survey that PEN America did of 520 American writers, checking on the impact of NSA surveillance?”

I ignored the “of sorts.”  “Uh, no,” I said.  “I must have missed that.”

“I can understand how you would,” she said tartly.  “It wasn’t on the sports page.”

“Okay, you got me,” I said.  “What about the survey?”

“Well, 1 in 6 writers admitted they haven’t written or spoken about some topic because of concern about NSA surveillance, and another 1 in 6 admitted to seriously considering squelching their thoughts.”

“So a few writers got the jitters.  We’re a paranoid bunch.”

“Nice to see you defend your own profession so eloquently.   Tell me this, then.  Do you think the Occupy Movement, which was spreading like wildfire, just magically disappeared on its own, in a matter of weeks, in towns and cities across the country?”

“Uh, to tell the truth, I hadn’t thought about it much.”

“You might turn off your TV and take a look at how that came about.  It’s amazing how easily the Obama administration, working with banks and universities and local police, dismantled the Occupy Movement.”  

“I wouldn’t have thought someone your age would be so sympathetic to a bunch of young people camping on public property.”

“Ace,” she said,  exasperated.  “Just look around you!  Look at the harsh prosecutions and sentences being meted out to environmental protestors like that nice young man, Tim DeChristopher.  To animal abuse protesters who try to improve conditions at slaughterhouses and poultry processing plants.  And have you noticed that honorable whistleblowers who reveal fraud or waste or illegal government surveillance have the book thrown at them, but the frauds and crooks and incompetents they exposed go unscathed?”

By now she was making me really uncomfortable.  “You know, Mrs. Dichter,” I told her, “I don’t think we should be having this conversation.”

“Pardon me?  I didn’t hear what you said.  Why are you whispering?”  

© Tony Russell, 2013

Thursday, November 21, 2013

My Conscience Would Be Beating Me Like a Drum

Our kitchen sink was stopped up, so I headed out to our local big box store to buy a snake to run down the drain.  I was wandering around trying to find the plumbing section when I spotted the clerk I’d bought some paint from on my last visit.  “Hey, Don,” I said, “can you point me toward the snakes?”

He jerked a thumb toward the north.  “I expect you could find some along the river there,” he said.  “We don’t have any cottonmouths in this part of the state, but the copperheads like swampy places and rock outcrops.”

“I didn’t come in here looking for reptiles, Don,” I said.

“Well, one of the managers is a snake,” he said.  “And another is a weasel.  You can find them in the office back there.  Careful.  They both bite.”

Everybody is a comedian in hard times.  “I’ve got a drain stopped up,” I explained patiently, “and the plunger wouldn’t do the trick.  I need one of those coiled wire snakes. “

“Ah,” he said.  “In the trade we call those handheld augers.  Come on, I’ll show you where they’re at.”  

As we walked, I said, “You’re not in the paint section any more?”

“Nope,” he said.  “I’ve moved on.  I was temporary part time there.  I bid on a permanent part time job in the electrical section, and got it.”

“You’re retired and working part time to supplement your income?”

He snorted and gave me a look.  “I’m an engineer, and my company cut its work force twenty percent two years ago.  I’d been with them for twenty-four years, had great evaluations, but that didn’t mean jack.  I spent a year and a half trying to find an engineering job, with no luck, and now I’m working two part time jobs to try to hold on to our house.”

“Why don’t you work full time?”

“Did you see those jobs posted on the white board as you entered the store?”

“Yeah,” I said, “I didn’t pay too much attention to them, but there must have been five or six.  All part time.”

“That’s the way it works,” he explained.  “They hire you temporary part time.  You’re completely disposable, and you don’t get any benefits.  You can bid on jobs as they come available, which is how I moved up to permanent part time.”

I frowned.  “What about full time jobs?” I asked.  “Aren’t there any full time jobs?”

“A few,” he said.  “I don’t know what the percentage would be.  Most of the jobs here are part time.  We bid on the few full time jobs that come up, but everybody wants those.  Odds of getting one are pretty slim.  They like keeping people part time.  That way they don’t have to pay any benefits.  In fact I’ve got a second part time job at Walmart, so now I’m working sixty hours a week at two jobs with no benefits.”

“Ouch,” I said.  “That’s terrible.”

“Get used to it,” he said, glancing at me, “that’s the new American economy.  It’s the Walmart model, and it’s spreading everywhere.”

“I read that a Walmart store in Ohio organized a food drive, setting up plastic bins with a sign saying, ‘Please donate food items here so our Associates in Need can enjoy Thanksgiving Dinner’.”

“I saw that too.  Pretty thoughtful of them, wasn’t it?” he said.  “Of course another approach would be to pay people a living wage and allow them to work full time.  But that might cut into the Walton family’s living standard.”

“They could probably still manage to live comfortably,” I suggested.

“I don’t see how,” he said.  

“Why not?” I asked, puzzled.

“The Waltons have a net worth of over $144 billion dollars--more than the combined worth of 40 percent of the entire population of the U.S.  Think of that for a minute.  Could you live comfortably, knowing that your employees didn’t have money for health care, for Thanksgiving dinner, for a decent place to live, for school clothes for their kids, while you roll in a level of luxury an emperor would envy?  I couldn’t.  My conscience would be beating me like a drum.”

© Tony Russell, 2013

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

We’d Prefer You Not Use the Term ‘Lizard’

“Welcome to another broadcast of ‘Encounters With the Unspeakable.’  I’m your host, Chuck Anthony, and we have an exciting guest for you this evening.  Lloyd Blankluch is the CEO of one of our major multinational investment banking firms.  He has been involved in a pioneering effort to tap into the unrealized potential of men buried in our overburdened criminal justice system.  Lloyd, welcome to the program.  Can you give us an overview of Project Chameleon?”

“Glad to, Chuck.  And thanks for having me.  In a nutshell, Project Chameleon is a job training program created by a group of Wall Street’s leading investment firms.  We identify promising men who are currently part of the huge prison population in this country.  Then we take the cream of the crop and provide them with sophisticated training that prepares them to enter jobs in the financial sector once they are released.”

“Are you talking janitorial positions here, Lloyd?  Elevator operators?  Doormen?”

[Laughing]  “Hardly, Chuck.  These men move immediately into entry-level managerial  positions once they exit the graybar hotel.”

“So the significance of your project’s name is....?”

“These guys will trade their orange jumpsuits for half a dozen business suits in navy, black, pinstripes, and various shades of gray as soon as they walk out the prison gates.  With their suits and values, they’ll blend in perfectly in their new environment.”

“Knowing the way  the financial sector works, Lloyd, I suspect this isn’t an entirely altruistic venture on your part.”

“Lord no!  This is a win-win situation for everyone.  So many of these men are trapped in a revolving door that returns them again and again to prison.  They get a chance to escape the recidivism cycle, and the financial sector gets a highly motivated work force with the aptitudes and temperament to re-energize our entire industry.”

“What are those qualities you’re looking for, Lloyd?  Are they key in the screening process?”

“They’re the core not only of the screening process, Chuck, but of the whole program.  They’re that important.”

“So you’re looking for...?”

“We’ve identified five traits that characterize the upper management of Wall Street firms.  Greed.  Energy.  Decisiveness.  Numerical literacy.  Ruthlessness.  And Amorality.”

“Uh, I counted six items there, Lloyd.”

“We don’t require a high degree of numerical literacy, Chuck.  That’s what accountants are for.”

“Of course.  Pardon me.  I have to say though, Lloyd, some of those sound a little rough!”

“Investment banking and securities isn’t for the tender-hearted, Chuck.  It’s a big-boys game.  You have to be willing to destroy communities, ruin lives, devastate the landscape, impoverish millions, even turn the planet into a giant toaster oven in order to turn a short-term profit.”

“I would think that would be a ... difficult ... set of criteria to use when selling the program.”

“I was using the informal version, Chuck.  We generally rephrase them for public consumption.”

“So you recast ‘greed’ as ....?”



“Willingness to make the tough decisions.”





“And ‘impoverish millions’?”

“Job creation.”

“Ah, I see.  Gotcha.  I’m just thinking out loud here, but the idea of a chameleon is that only its outer appearance changes.  The inner lizard remains the same.”

“That’s correct, Chuck.  But we’d prefer you not use the term ‘lizard’.”

“No problem.  But if these same criminal qualities are at work in both the underworld and the corporate world, wouldn’t we expect to see some chameleons reverting to their old colors, trading their drab business suits for bright orange prison jumpsuits?”

“That’s the beauty of the financial sector, Chuck, and what makes our program so attractive to inmates.  We tell them, ‘Say farewell to prison.  Either we’ve legalized every crime we commit, or we’re too big to be held accountable.  A broker’s license is quite literally a license to steal.’” 

“I guess that isn’t a hard sell, to somebody doing time.”

“You’d be surprised!  These guys are skeptics to begin with.  It’s counterintuitive, you know, that the more you steal the lower the risk.”

“So what convinces them?”

“Data.  Hard facts.  ‘Don’t take our word for it,’ we tell them.  ‘Check things out on the Internet.’  Look up SAC Capital Advisors, for instance--maybe the most profitable hedge fund in history.  They bet on corporate securities with the advantage of insider secrets they obtained illegally.  Just this past week they pled guilty to security and wire fraud and are anteing up $1.2 billion as part of the settlement.  But here’s the sweet part. Nobody is going to jail.  Not a single soul!  And the company will still turn a profit!  And Steve Cohen, who owns and manages it, will still be worth more than $8 billion after he pays his fine!  I mean ‘Hello!  Have I got a deal for you!’  Financial crime pays really, really well nowadays, with near-zero risk of jail time.  If you’re somebody serving five to ten years for stealing a few hundred dollars, and then you’re offered an opportunity to steal billions without doing a day behind bars, wouldn’t you jump at the chance?”

© Tony Russell, 2013

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Is This Really the Way Democracy Is Supposed to Work?

“Hey, Ace, what’s up?  I notice you don’t have a sign on your lawn for the governor’s race.  That’s a first.”

“Yeah, well, I hate to say it, Ralph, but I think I’m gonna sit that race out.  I notice you don’t have a sign in your yard either.”

He looked a little down.  “To tell the truth, Ace,” he said, “I’ve been the dutiful citizen and held my nose while I pulled the lever one too many times.  I’ve finally had enough.  I just can’t find it in me to vote for either one of these guys.”  

“Huh.  That’s funny, that’s about where I am too.  When it came right down to it, I couldn’t see putting a sign up for somebody I don’t respect, let alone have any reason to vote for.”

“That’s happening more and more.  When you find yourself  choosing the lesser of two evils time after time, you’re degrading the body politic almost every election cycle.”

“I hadn’t thought of it that way.  I’m not sure I want to.  It’s the reverse of the old ‘every-day-in-every-way-I’m-getting-better-and-better’ attitude.”

“Just answer me this, Ace,” he said.  “Do you find yourself wondering, ‘Is this really the way democracy is supposed to work?’  Seems to me that election after election, neither candidate will talk about the real issues.  It’s as if they drew up an agreement to stick major issues in the back of a giant ‘Ignore’ drawer.   And what do they campaign on?  Sex!”


“Sex.  It’s all sex-related,” he said.  “Divorce.  Abortion.  Homosexuality.  I’m sure not saying those aren’t important in people’s lives. But the planet is heading toward a meltdown, the middle class is a threatened species, Wall Street owns Washington, and we go from one trillion dollar war to another like the national equivalent of a serial killer who just can’t stop.  The only arm of government listening to what the people say is the NSA.  Our schools are turning kids into right-answer machines, and those who graduate are getting priced out of college or saddled with lifelong debt.  And what actions do these candidates propose in response to such colossal problems?  Not a damned thing!  They spend 95% of their campaign tearing into the other guy’s views on hot-button sex topics.”

“Wow, you’re pretty worked up, Ralph.  But I have to agree on the negative campaigning.  I’ll bet I’ve received fifteen or twenty mailings from my party’s candidate, and all but one consisted of  nothing but an attack on your man.  I wasn’t supposed to vote for anybody; I was supposed to be scared into voting against someone.”

“I know what you mean, Ace, and I apologize for the rant.  Like I said, I don’t have a man in this race.  But I just don’t know what to do with politics anymore.  It feels as if our democracy has been driven to the end of a dead end street.  Some of the candidates for other state and local offices are people I can support.  But more and more the big races remind me of high school, where we only got to vote on things like class colors and the kids ‘most likely to succeed.’  It was a charade, you know, but we were supposed to be grateful for the chance to go through the motions of democracy in action.”

“I guess I understand where you’re coming from.  If the system is rigged so that lobbyists and corporate donations call the shots, the two major parties freeze others out of the process, only the rich or those who’ve sold their souls can afford to run for a major office, and voting districts are gerrymandered to give incumbents a 95% chance of success, it seems pointless to spend  much energy ‘working within the system.’  But what’s the alternative?”

“Well, I can tell you what the historical alternative has been.”

“What’s that?”

[Ralph pulls a piece of paper out of his pocket, unfolds it, and begins to read]  
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator  with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Live, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

“Hold on there!  Don’t you think you’re overreacting, Ralph?  What about some intervening steps?  You aren’t really suggesting what it sounds like you’re suggesting--are you?  That’s un-American!”

© Tony Russell, 2013