SYMBOLISM

Suppose the modern day German government came out with a proclamation that they would be erecting a flag poll on the grounds of their capitol building in Berlin. Atop of this flag pole they would be hoisting the Nazi Swastika pennant that was the official flag of Germany from 1933-1945. They might explain with words such as: “We certainly don’t mean to offend or denigrate any race, religion or ethnic group. But we strongly feel that it’s important for us to honor the brave men who fought so valiantly and gave their lives for the fatherland during World War II; as well as the men who had the thankless duty of running the concentration camps and operating the gas chambers.” You think the rest of the world might be shocked and dismayed by such an unthinkable act. You think that everyone outside of Germany might vocally condemn this action in the strongest possible terms. As well as most Germans. Even the Obama administration might put its lethargic foreign policy proclivities aside and express total outrage. Fortunately, today’s German government is far more intelligent and rational to ever pull a stunt like that. The same can’t be said, however, for that part of the United States known as Dixie, or the  Southland.

The murder, a short while ago, of mostly elderly black parishioners peacefully going about their church services, by a deranged white racist cannot be blamed solely on the power of the Confederate flag. After all, a flag is merely a piece of cloth with certain markings. But people, not just Americans, but all over the world, are heavily invested in symbolism- which those markings on that piece of cloth represent. As we all know, the scumbag young killer responsible for this tragic event wore a shirt that had the Confederate flag on its face and presumably represented a symbol of his racial hatred. This flag also flies on capitol state grounds in South Carolina where this horror took place. The next day the governor of S.C. appealed to the state legislature to enact legislation removing the flag from the vicinity of their capitol. We’re still waiting for that to happen. To his credit, the governor of Alabama acted unilaterally through executive order had the Confederate flag removed from Alabama state capitol grounds. Throughout most of the rest of Dixie, however, it flies strongly and proudly. As well os other Civil War monuments such as statues or plaques dedicated to Confederate generals and other Southern soldiers and politicians of that era. And there isn’t the slightest hint that any of this is going away.

Just to be clear, the Civil War, which ended 150 years ago, was not just a fracas between the North and South, that kinda, sorta got out-of-hand. It was a 4-year-long bloody massacre that slaughtered 600,000 Americans, or the equivalent of 6 million American deaths in today’s population. Blood-drenched atrocities and savagery were committed by both sides that would constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity had their been a world tribunal in those times. The Nazi-military machine and Japanese Imperial Army of WWII would have been proud of all the depravity and blood-spilling. When the war finally ended in 1865, renegade southern diehards tried to re-ignite the Confederacy by ambushing innocent civilians and causing their deaths. One such Confederate diehard was the famed outlaw Jesse James who murdered with impunity. Today he is virtually considered a Western legend and hero. It took almost to the end of the 19th century before this Southern diehardism finally began to peter out.

In the meantime, shortly after defeat, the Southern states began to quickly institute a policy of strict segregation against its black population that became known as Jim Crow. The symbol of this state of semi-slavery against blacks was, of course, the Confederate flag, born at the outset of the Civil War. Any “uppity” blacks that tried to rebel against this state of semi-slavery were often subject to lynchings, torture or dismemberment. A good indication of the mood of times in Dixie at the turn of the 20th century occurred when President Teddy Roosevelt invited a mild mannered educationalist named Booker T. Washington to the WhiteHouse in 1901, the first black man so invited. Southern politicians went into a rage at this sacrilege. James Vardaman, Governor of Mississippi, proclaimed that: “If it is necessary, every Negro in the state will be lynched; it will be done to maintain white supremacy.” Not to be outdone, Senator Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina stated: “The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that n****r will necessitate killing a thousand n****rs in the South, before they will learn their place again.” Although TR loudly rejected these race-haters, he never invited another black to the White House again.

The Confederate flag also became a symbol for the Ku Klux Klan, which performed most of the lynchings and other crimes committed against blacks in the South for the next hundred years. In 1917 a young producer named D.F. Griffith filmed a movie called “Birth of a Nation” which had a profound propaganda effect on most of America. The movie, although crude by today’s technology, had a message and sold it well. Griffith, a strong Confederate sympathizer, portrayed blacks going a crazed rampage against Southern whites after they were freed from slavery. Blacks were seen as murdering defenseless white men, ravaging white women, stealing and burning plantations to the ground. But who rode in to save the day for the helpless white population? Why those brave, fearless men in the KKK, of course. It may sound crazy delusional in today’s world, but people back in the day swallowed this propaganda, hook, line and sinker, as the cliche goes. Klan popularity and membership soared during the 1920s, and not just in the South, but in the North too, mostly due to D.F. Griffith’s film.

So has the Confederate flag caused all this misery and tragedy? Obviously not, since, as I’ve said before, one could rationally certify that a flag is merely just a piece of cloth with certain markings. But are people so heavily invested in symbols that they would undertake the most heinous of crimes and hellish behavior based on the symbolism evoked by this piece of cloth. Absolutely. That’s why, for everyone’s sake, the Confederate flag should be removed throughout all of Dixie, (as well as other artifacts from the Civil War), so that from now on, no other deranged individual can use it as a motivation to commit pure evil. After all, modern Germany seems to function quite well by having the Nazi Swastika banished from public viewing

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MINOR MIRACLES

Sometimes, in the affairs of mankind, it will come to pass that flickers of human decency and just plain common sense will shine through in the most unexpected places. For example, a few weeks back, the state of Nebraska, a solidly red state, voted to repeal its capital punishment laws. The Republican governor actually vetoed the new legislation, but a heavily dominated Republican legislature overrode his veto. Thus, this relic of biblical times, (an eye for an eye type mentality) where the state is allowed to legally commit murder in the name of vengeance, now exists in one less place. Also about that time, Ireland, a heavily Catholic country, voted, in a public election, to overwhelmingly approve gay marriage throughout the land, much to the chagrin of its Catholic clergy. While states in this country, mostly in the South and West, still battle furiously to deny such unions. As I said, just small flickers of light in an otherwise dismal landscape.

Here in Nevada, where I reside these days, another minor miracle has also recently occurred. When the Republican dominated state legislature convened in January, our Republican governor, Brian Sandoval, was actually and actively promoting tax increases, mostly on businesses, in an attempt to remedy the state’s deplorable public education system. Nevada’s public school system, year-after-year, indeed, decade-after-decade, has consistently been ranked between 45th-50th place in quality of performance. In short, Nevada public schools are among the worst in the nation. To fix this, Sandoval is seeking more tax money to pour into public education in hopes that its rankings will dramatically improve. Of course, he wouldn’t dare call for personal income tax increases, which would invoke howls of protests from his fellow Republicans in the legislature, as well as from the public at large. So he sought increased business taxes, which, as everyone knows, is eventually paid for by ordinary citizens, since all businesses pass on their costs in the price of the goods or services they provide.  As it was, there was strong protest among many GOP state legislators at the thought of raising any taxes at all. But Sandoval eked out a narrow victory with enough Republicans joining the handful of Democrats left in the legislature to enact the new statutes.

Predictably, the far right fossils entrenched in the state of Nevada, screamed about the heresy of Republicans raising taxes. Aren’t Democrats the only ones supposed to do that? The dreary rag in Las Vegas that laughingly calls itself a newspaper, couldn’t get over this Republican betrayal. Continuing editorials, as well letters-to-the-editor from known right-wing looney-tuners continually denounced the tax increase and referred to Sandoval and his cohorts as RHINOs, (Republican in name only), who had, indeed, drank the kool-aid. They had absolutely violated the free-lunch-counter mantra of government, established during the Ronald Reagan era in the 1980s.

I have written before about the free lunch counter mentality among Americans, but it’s worth repeating because this mentality is still alive and well in today’s society. It first started during the great Depression of the 1930s. Just about everyone was broke and especially hard hit were bars serving alcohol. After all, who could afford to spend what little money they had on drinks in a bar. So these bars, desperate for business, established what came to be known as the free lunch counter. For the price of a nickel or dime beer, one was allowed to migrate over to the free lunch counter and avail themselves of free food. One can only imagine about the quality of this food, available for purchasing a really cheap beer, or similar spirits. When the Depression ended, the free lunch counters also disappeared, but the thought processes behind this concept remained alive and well.

When Ronald Reagan became president in 1980, he kicked the free lunch counter concept into high gear. Reagan  was supposedly a fiscal conservative bent on cost-cutting throughout his administration. In actuality, however, Reagan spent like a drunken sailor, and the U.S. budget deficit mushroomed beyond belief. The accumulated budget deficit from the George Washington thru Jimmy Carter administrations totaled just under one trillion dollars when Reagan first took office. In the following 12 years under Reagan and Bush the Elder, the deficit ballooned to to $4 trillion, a 300% increase. Reagan was given his conservative chops because he supposedly trimmed social programs, mostly around the edges. But when it came to Defense, Reagan spent like there was no tomorrow on military hardware and troop increases, in order to do battle with the old USSR during the cold war. ( I guess the theory was that military spending would be funded by the money tree that grows in the Pentagon courtyard.) At the same time, Reagan pushed through a slew of tax cuts, mainly for the rich, which further exploded the budget deficit. The free lunch concept was thereby firmly established. You want vastly expanded military hardware and forces, but you don’t want to pay for it all. No problem. Just gorge yourselves at the free lunch counter of deficit spending.

The budget deficit did moderate during the 8 years of Bill Clinton’s presidency. But it once again picked up steam during the Bush the Younger and Obama presidencies, and now stands at over $18 trillion. Remember, that 35 years ago it was only $1 trillion. Along the way, the GOP agenda, carved in stone, is that taxes can only go one way, and that’s down, especially for the rich. It must be because the food is so enticing at the free lunch counter. Obama did manage to squeeze through a very minor tax increase on the super-rich a few years back, but Republicans in Congress are still belly-aching about that. In any event, when a Republican governor in a mostly rural state does manage to achieve a tax increase with the help of members of his own party, one should consider this a minor miracle. In the meantime, I think I’ll have myself a sandwich down at the free lunch counter.

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THE TRITE AND THE HACKNEYED

When Senator Ted Cruz announced for the Republican nomination for the presidency, (the first of what looks like to be about 2 dozen potential candidates), he used the phrase-“we’re gonna take this country back”- during his announcement speech. He didn’t say from who or what we were “gonna take this country back,” but it didn’t seem to matter to his gung-ho right-wing audience. Of course, Ted is by no means the first politician to utter empty platitudes on his way to political stardom, since Rand Paul and Ben Carson and probably all the other would-be candidates have also indulged in similar triteness. But in Ted’s case, since he’s a Harvard graduate, I figure he has to be a pretty smart guy; and to so unashamedly pander with such banality is, in my estimation, unforgivable. I believe Harvard should, retroactively, declare that Ted’s degree is null and void, as a warning to any other panderer that might be tempted to also orate with such hackneyed phraseology.

Of course politicians have been attempting to “take our country back,” probably since the beginning of the republic. I remember Ronald Reagan using that time-honored phrase on his way to swamping the hapless Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election. Who was he taking the country back from, poor old Jimmy? Whatever your opinion may be of the Carter presidency, I don’t recall Carter ever stating that he owned this country, lock, stock and barrel. When today’s politicians, (almost always Republicans) vow to ‘take our country back,” perhaps they’re referring to Plutonians that came down in space ships and took over the halls of our government after we downgraded Pluto from being a full-fledged planet some years back. Yes, that must be it. I mean, it took great hubris on our part to arbitrarily declare that Pluto was not a real planet, without us even bothering to discuss the matter with representatives from other entities in the galaxy. I can see where Plutonians would be angry and upset enough to initiate aggressive action. Otherwise, who else would we be taking our country back from. Well, you might say, there is Obama and the Democrats. The problem is, however, no matter how much you might despise them both, neither Obama nor any Democrat has laid claim to ownership of the United States. Obama will be gone in about a year and a half, and the GOP will almost certainly lock in majorities in Congress, and will also, likely, take over the White House in 2016. Talk about who will have ownership of this country then.

Another exercise in meaningless babble is the political infighting taking place over the illegal immigration issue. Earlier, Senator Marco Rubio managed to, rather heroically, have an immigration bill passed by the Republican Senate, that would, among other provisions, create a pathway to legal status for an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. The problem was, that his fellow tea-party looney-tuners in the House became feverish and delirious at just the thought of even one undocumented immigrant in this country achieving legal status.  Their opposition was vociferous, and, in the end, Rubio had to disavow ownership of his own legislation in order to keep his presidential aspirations alive. So, the new mantra of meaningless babble emanating  from the GOP is that nothing will be done regarding the illegals until “our borders are made secure.” None of the candidates have defined how our borders are to be made secure, or how many more gazillion dollars they are willing to allocate for that purpose, above what we are already spending on border patrol. The only thing that matters is that our border, (at least with Mexico) ‘be made secure.”

So, since none of the Republican candidates are willing to discuss the details of what a secure border means, I will do it for them. The first thing you have to know is that our border with Mexico stretches for nearly 2000 miles. So securing that border would be no easy task. But if we really want to make sure that no illegal gets into this country, we would need to build a solid concrete wall across the entire 2000 miles. The wall should be at least 100 feet tall, and 20 feet deep, to assure that none of those sneaky illegals can tunnel their way into this country. We would also need to put electrified barb-wire on top of the wall just in case they have really tall ladders. Then we would need a few hundred drones constantly patrolling the area, as well as few thousand additional border patrol agents. All this could probably be accomplished for under another trillion dollars of additional debt. Think  the tea-party loonies will rally around this idea? Oh the dilemma.

To show just how racist the GOP immigration policy is, consider the case of Canada. Our Canadian border is just about twice as long as our Mexican border. All anyone has to do to enter our country illegally from Canada is to take a pleasant stroll through the woods. Yet our Canadian border, besides being twice as long, is almost unguarded.  Why is that? Because in the Republican mindset, Canadians are white like us, or most of us. They almost all speak English like us. For those that can only speak French, there’s an excuse for that too. I mean, French is so much more sophisticated sounding than mundane Spanish.

So the next time you hear some brainless politician tell you that he or she “is gonna take back our country,” or that the undocumented immigration issue can’t be addressed until “we secure our borders,” be on full alert. Those our just code phrases for the unthinking. In any event, with so manny politicians entering the Republican race, I’m thinking of throwing my hat in the ring as well. With the primary vote split among so many candidates, I might just be able to sneak in. Besides, someone has to take our country back, and secure the borders as well.

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DEVISING AN EXIT STRATEGY

In my last posting I described how the United States has been the sin eater for the rest of the planet during the past century. How the U.S. has come to the rescue of everyone else, over and over, when the world appeared to be overtaken by some very evil forces. And how most Americans are becoming sick and tired of sin-eating the rest of the world’s most dire problems. Yet with the rise of ISIS and other Islamic terrorist groups, as they continue to gobble up more chunks of territory and expand their caliphate in the Mid-East, as well as commit the most heinous of crimes while doing so, there are renewed calls from powerful figures in this country  and elsewhere, for the U.S. to once again initiate military action against these jihadists. And not only against jihadism. Many militarists would have us go to war with Iran by bombing their nuclear facilities, since they have no faith that current negotiations with Iran will lead to a cessation of that country’s nuclear weapons ambitions. For example, our illustrious former Vice-President during the Bush Administration, Dick Cheney, has come out with a new book recommending the use of military force in both situations. As well as in the Ukraine, where Russia’s Vladimir Putin seems intent on taking over huge chunks of territory through military means. The problem is that the U.S. has become like a person treading water while stranded in the ocean and waiting for rescue. Our arms are getting tired.

So let us see if the U.S. can devise an exit strategy from it’s role as the world’s sin eater. First, it should be noted that more and more Americans are having less and less interest in the U.S. becoming involved in foreign entanglements, much less being involved militarily. When the I-Phone 6 came on the market not that long ago, huge, hour-plus long lines formed at Apple stores around the country. Those on line just had to be among the first to acquire the new cell. I guarantee that everyone standing in those lines already had an I-Phone 5, but thought that by acquiring the new model, their lives would somehow be magically transformed from the pathetic existences they actually were. Same situation when the Apple Watch started being sold. Does anyone think that even one person on those lines had any interest for the U.S. to engage in militarily adventuring overseas. Of course not, since that would not increase their instant gratification impulses. Same is true for those worrying about who the next American Idol will be or those keeping up with the Kardashians, etc. The U.S. has become too soft and mushy to even consider the sacrifices needed and the costs incurred in going to war overseas.

Those that would have us militarily engage ISIS point out that the U.S. was steeped in isolationism when Nazi Germany was on the rise during the 1930s; and that by the time we did enter WWII the Axis countries had become so powerful that the cost in lives alone was unspeakable. Which is all very true. But it was a different time and a different  country. Americans at the time were willing to make sacrifices if it enabled the war effort. Food was rationed by giving every family a book of stamps that limited the amount of goods that could be consumed each week. Such basics as meat, sugar, dough, baking powder, etc. were only available in very limited quantities. Consumer products were virtually nonexistent, as factories around the country were transformed into producers of military hardware. You think consumers today, contemplating their next purchase of a top of the line Lexus or Mercedes, would be willing to make similar sacrifices. It’s almost laughable.

Also to be considered is the fact that if we did engage Islamic-Jihadists on the battlefield, it would not be the same conditions as military operations against Germany and Japan during WWII. The jihadists know that they would be no match for superior American forces and equipment, and that they would be slaughtered in a head-to-head battlefield confrontation. Most would, therefore, slip away and meld into the local population and bide their time. Some might stand their ground and would likely be killed. But, as I’ve said, most would avoid such a scenario. Unlike WWII battlefields where each side had huge tank forces that sought to destroy the opposing forces tanks. If we engaged militarily today, once we cleared the area of terrorists and the like, we would eventually have to leave. The terrorists are quite patient at waiting us out, and would simply re-organize and move back in when the U.S. left Dodge City.

So how do we get out of this mess. Is there an exit strategy short of war? I believe there is. The key is in understanding what motivates young men, and some women, to likely sacrifice 60-80 years of their lives by joining organizations like ISIS in the first place. While some recruits may be true believers in the cause of Jihadism, most come to join because they’re from poverty-stricken backgrounds with little or no skills, and virtually no prospects for a better future. So what if they’re gunned down while in their twenties. Their lives are filled with nothing but misery and poverty to begin with, and none of that is likely to change. ISIS likes to boast that it doesn’t matter how many of their members get slaughtered, because thousands of new recruits are willing to join their ranks every month.

Thus the key to ending the terrorist initiative is to convince would-be recruits that they do have something to live for, and that it’s myopically brainless for them to throw their lives away in such meaningless fashion. We need to fight ISIS on-line, where much of its recruitment efforts and propaganda take place, rather than fight them on the battlefield. Only when we can convince those that are down-and-out even at a young age, that their future is not as bleak as they imagine, will the terrorist thrust begin to wither.

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THE SIN EATER

Many of you are not likely to be familiar with the role of the sin eater in ancient tribes and societies, and more recently in some 17th and 18th century places such as Scotland and Ireland. But the sin eater was thought to play a vital role as one approached his or her death. For a very nominal fee, a designated sin eater was called in by the family of someone on his or her death bed, or someone who had just died but had not yet been buried. The sin eater was then served a sumptuous feast or perhaps just a few slices of bread depending on the wealth of the family in question. The sin eater would then consume the food presented to him, and by doing so, would absorb all of the dying person’s earthly sins. Those sins would then belong to the sin eater, and the dead could then enter the afterlife completely absolved. Pure as the driven snow. The problem was that when it came time for the sin eater to die, no one would be willing to absorb the huge tonnage of sins that the sin eater had taken upon himself over a lifetime. Most of the time, other sin eaters were too frightened to take on this burden. The sin eater, upon his death, was then doomed to roam the alleyways of Hell for all eternity. The relevance to today’s world is that the United States has been the sin eater for the rest of the planet for a century now, and the burden is beginning to become too heavy.

Just about a century ago, WWI broke out between the Allies and Germany; and  quickly bogged down into a stalemated exercise of trench warfare. More soldiers died from the filth and disease inherent in these trenches then from being shot. It wasn’t until the U.S. was persuaded to enter this fray that the stalemate was finally broken and the Allies were able to push on toward victory. Twenty years later history repeated itself, as a more vicious and evil war machine in Nazi Germany set out to conquer Europe while their counterpart in the Pacific, Imperial Japan, sought total dominance in that part of the world. Again, our desperate allies called upon the sin eater to save them from total destruction. It wasn’t until the U.S. entered that battlefield that the tide of war started turning in the Allies favor. Just a few years after the end of WWII, North Korea invaded South Korea, and the U.S. was again called upon to save the day. It did free South Korea, but could not do the same for the North, which today remains a giant concentration camp, under the heel of a ruthless and tyrannical dictatorship. As in the previous wars, the U.S. once again experienced a huge loss of life.

Not long after the Korean fracas, the sin eater allowed itself to become enmeshed in the hellhole jungles of Viet-Nam, in a war where the U.S. had no vital or essential interests. There was a huge loss of American life, over 58,000 dead, to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of Viet-Namese deaths. It was a war the U.S. lost, in time, and it took the much maligned Richard Nixon to extract us from that fiasco. It also soured the desire of most Americans from entering into any further military engagements. After another decade or so, President George Bush, the Elder, got us involved in another shooting match, this time in the Mid-East, by coming to the rescue of Kuwait, which had been invaded and conquered by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. We were successful in that venture, and Bush the Elder was smart enough to walk away after Kuwait had been freed.

Not so smart was successor George Bush the Younger. On the pretext that Saddam Hussein was in the the process of acquiring weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear bombs, Bush the Younger decided that once again, the U.S. would be the world’s sin eater by initiating another war against Iraq. Now unquestionably, Saddam Hussein was a very, very bad guy who had slaughtered tens of thousands of his own countrymen, because he believed they opposed his dictatorship. But the problem was that Iraq had not acquired WMDs. There were no nuclear or other deadly weapons to be found. But, on the theory that once you break something in the china shop you own it and have to pay for it, the U.S. has now, and it seems, will for evermore, be responsible for the events unfolding in Iraq, and indeed, the entire Mid-East.

As we all know, a ruthless band of cutthroat Islamic Jihadists known as ISIS has come on the scene and taken over  huge swathes of Iraqi territory, as well as large chunks of Syria, and lately Libya, and is active in other Mid-Eastern countries. In actuality, they are murderous serial killers on a grand scale, and bloodthirsty killings are the name of their game. But they seem to be gaining in both territory and power. So once more, voices in this country and the rest of the world, are pleading with the U.S. to be their sin eater. They want the U.S. to put boots on the ground and go to war in Iraq for the third time. ISIS must be stopped now, or like Nazi Germany, they will become too powerful to take on. However, most Americans are now too tired and weary of becoming the world’s sin eater. The U.S. has now been pretty well drained of any desire for foreign adventurism.

Next time I’ll explain why it would be a bad idea for the U.S. to put boots on the ground in fighting ISIS, and that another option exists outside of a shooting war. Remember that while things may turn out well for the sinners, they seldom turn out well for the sin eaters.

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PLASTIC AND MORE PLASTIC

I know it will be hard for some of you younger readers to believe, but back in my misspent yut, (that’s “youth” for those of you not fluent in Brooklynese), there was no such things as credit cards. It was cash on the barrelhead for all commercial transactions. This was, of course, before the electronics age. My father worked for a large company and was paid every Friday in cash. He would be given a small brown envelop that contained something like $76.23 in bills and coins. This was after deductions for social security and withholding. The first widespread use of a plastic credit card did not come into existence until around 1950, a mere 65 years ago. It was the Dinners Club card which has since largely gone out of existence. But it allowed people to experience something never before experienced in mankind’s history. And that was the instant psychological gratification that comes from from acquiring a product or service at a point in time that a person didn’t have the cash to pay for such items. It became a heady intoxication and it revolutionized the world as it existed back then.

A case in point was a girl I was dating when back in college. She was one of the first persons I knew that latched onto a Diners Club card and she rarely hesitated to use it. Especially on expensive stuff, like mostly clothing. When I pointed out that her family could ill-afford the items she was buying, via her credit card, she cooly replied that: “Well, that’s why God created plastic, isn’t it?”  I didn’t acquire my first credit card until the early 1960s when I was working overseas. It was an American Express card and for many years I seldom used it, fearing that if I started charging purchases, I would fall helplessly into a debt that I could not climb out off.

How quaint were such notions when viewed from today’s perspective. Today, the cumulative private debt racked up by all Americans stands at a shade under $12 trillion. That’s a 12 followed by 12 zeros. The entire commercial world is fueled by debt. In some financial circles it’s not even referred to as debt anymore. Instead it’s called leveraging, as if a debtor’s liability has suddenly become an asset. So where has all these easy money policies and the triumph of the instant gratification mentality led us to? Well, we don’t have to go very far back to achieve a clearer understanding; only back 6 or 7 years to around the year 2007.

It probably all started around the latter part of 2006 when real-estate prices were booming and credit was being issued with little collateral to back it up. When my wife and I bought our first house in the mid-1960s, a 20% down-payment on the purchase price of the house was required in order to qualify for an approved mortgage. I was able to make the down-payment with money I had saved up while working in Europe, and I was only able to to acquire those savings because the Government, at the time, gave its employees generous housing allowances when working overseas. The amount of my mortgage also had to be no more than the amount that was considered affordable based on my salary at the time. By the early 2000s, of course, all those fiscal restraints had melted away.

After the turn of the 21st century, credit became loose and easy, especially in the housing market. People were allowed to purchase homes with little or no money down, and were approved for mortgage limits that were well over their heads, financially speaking. It was the time for the fast-buck artists to make a killing. Housing prices began exploding, and real-estate speculators were riding the gravy train for all it was worth. Prospective real-estate buyers were told not to deny themselves the instant gratification that came with acquiring that big, beautiful house they dreamed of, but could clearly not afford. After all, realty prices could only one way, and that was up, they were told. When their property value increased in a year or two, they could always renegotiate their unaffordable mortgage into something more palatable. And so it went, as the easy money and instant gratification syndrome spread like a plague throughout the country.

Reality prices continued to rise beyond everyone’s wildest dreams, until one day they just didn’t. Suddenly, the air of overinflation began to seep out of the real-estate balloon, until one day the balloon just burst. Housing prices began hurtling downward in a death spiral, until new terminology had to be introduced into the U.S. vocabulary, such as mortgages that went “underwater.” Suddenly a large chunk of the U.S. population found themselves with mortgages that were considerably larger than the shrunken value of their homes. They were underwater. To add to their fiscal woes, as a result of the deep recession that was unfolding due to the plunge of realty values, many people lost their jobs as well. Thus, people suddenly unemployed found themselves with mortgages larger than their home’s value, and with no income being received to make the monthly mortgage payments. Many in this category had no choice but to simply walk away from their house, leaving the banks or mortgage companies holding the bag.

Next up in this on-going fiscal fiasco was the bankruptcy in 2008 of Lehman Brothers, a huge Wall Street financial institution. It seems that Lehman was holding billions of dollars of financial real estate derivatives. When the housing market collapsed, these derivatives became more worthless than the paper they were written, and Lehman was forced to go out of business. Many Americans didn’t realize that the U.S. economy came within a whisker of going belly up after the Lehman bankruptcy. People would have inserted their ATM cards at their bank, with a sizable amount of funds in their accounts, but nothing would have come out. Banks would have begun shuttering their doors. Credit cards would have become useless.  The whole enchilada, financially speaking, would have been gone.

Actually, it President George W. Bush’s Secretary of the Treasury that came to the rescue. He quickly instituted the Troubled Asset Relief Program, (TARP), which said that the Government was willing to pour seven hundred billion dollars in to the economy in order to avoid economic disaster. With that action the country slowly edged away from the financial precipice it was clinging to. In the six years since then, the American economy has achieved a remarkable recovery, although it’s still short of where it should be.

In the meantime, the mindset of instant gratification through use of credit cards, unaffordable mortgages, or other fiscal instruments continues to grow. Why put off for tomorrow, that which will bring us great pleasure today. So what if I can’t afford the new and very costly Apple Watch, which I don’t really need in the first place. That’s not going to stop me from purchasing one today. On credit, of course.

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SYSTEMIC FAILURES

What the recent race riots in Baltimore or Ferguson or other cities, were really all about is poverty. Ostensibly the riots and demonstrations have occurred because of white police officers killing young black men under dubious circumstances. But in Baltimore, 3 of the 6 officers charged were black themselves, casting doubt about the racial aspect of this tragedy. There may have been negligence, even criminal negligence, but its doubtful that the young man that died in that police van that day in Baltimore, was the victim of a racial hate crime. In the other cities, the cops that shot their young black victims were eventually absolved of any wrongdoing after fairly exhaustive local and federal investigations. So why all the outpouring of often violent demonstrations including the looting and burning of stores and businesses. Some of that could be ascribed to outside troublemakers being bused in to create as much havoc as they possibly can. But most of the violence is due to the fact that large numbers of minorities have to live in drug-infested, vermin-infested, crime and gang-infested slums that are so horrific that most people wouldn’t allow their pet animals to live under similar circumstances. People living in such conditions have generally lost all hope for a better future; and with nothing left to lose, they set fire and go out to destroy the very neighborhoods they reside in. Each slum-infested community is a tinder-box ready to explode with the slightest provocation.

Fifty years after the fall of Jim Crow, the system of segregation and racial bigotry that lasted for 100 years after the Civil War,  many blacks, Latinos and other minorities still find themselves mired in mind-numbing poverty and confined to the filth and squalor of inner-city slums, where gangs, drugs and crime proliferate. The promise of “the American dream” has never materialized for these people. The male black unemployment rate in these slums is over 50 percent. If a black male living there does show promise of succeeding in business and accumulating enough resources to move out of the slums, he is usually derided by gang members as being a “tool of whitey.” A subculture has taken root in these slums that states that African-Americans have always been, and always will be victimized by “whitey”; and especially by white police forces. When one becomes a believer of victimhood, there is usually little opportunity for betterment.

I consider this one of the major systemic failings of our capitalistic society. The fact that a relatively small number of multi-millionaires and billionaires live in the most lavish of mansions and often possess the most expensive cars, yachts, private jets, priceless art collections, etc., while millions of others live in the most deplorable squalor. Yet, for those advocating laissez-faire capitalism, this is supposed to be how the system works. And it’s not just the poverty-stricken. Our so-called middle-class, which is supposedly the bedrock of American society, keeps sinking lower and lower each year. Middle-class family income for the past 6 has been driven lower by our capitalistic machinations.

One of the reasons for dim economic prospects for those that are down-and-out, is that millions of jobs that were being performed by Americans have been shipped overseas. Most of these jobs are what’s considered blue collar work, which would greatly benefit the impoverished community the most. But according to the tenets of capitalism, you go where the product can be most cheaply manufactured. So, if it costs $5 to manufacture a widget on U.S. soil, but only $1.25 to produce it in Bangladesh, or Mexico or China, you put the factory in one of these latter countries. Even if it costs 75 cents to ship this widget back to the U.S., the cost of putting it on the market is $2 versus $5. The GOP once put forth a concept called enterprise zones. Under this idea, the Government would allow generous tax breaks to companies willing to establish factories in the worst inner-city slums. Such factories could have provided tens of thousands of blue collar jobs to neighborhoods with high unemployment. It was a good idea; but somehow it never got off the ground. U.S. businesses just found it a lot easier to ship badly needed jobs overseas where labor is so much cheaper.

Of course, our systemic failures are not limited to economic turmoil. I’ve previously written extensively about how our political operations are totally corrupt and dysfunctional, so I won’t repeat myself. Except to say that every political candidate from dog-catcher on up to president is bought and paid for by the same billionaires controlling our economic system. No one has a chance of being elected if money isn’t pouring into his or her political campaign. Once elected, the candidates are then beholden to those that funded them, such as the Koch brothers. Another way that the rich get to control the way life is allowed to function in the U.S.

Also indicative of our systemic failures is the way that religious fanatics (bible-thumpers) are allowed to influence our society. If a woman seeks to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, it should be a matter solely between her and her doctor. But not according to the bible thumpers, who have made huge strides in eliminating women’s access to abortion clinics in states throughout the bible-belt. The same is true for gay rights. While the Supreme Court will likely strike down state bans against gay marriage, look for the bible-thumpers to undertake a rear guard action against such unions. I mean, didn’t the bible say something really bad about homosexuality. And so it goes.

I think, in the end, that our systemic failures are a result of people being inculcated with various brands of ideology. And ideology is just a $10 word for fanaticism. The ideologue will usually ignore reality and adhere to a craven obedience of some form of a rigid fanatical system. When usually the only thing that works in public affairs, and in private life as well, is pragmatism. Go with what has been proven to be successful time after time. But what would be the fun in that?  If people became pragmatic, you couldn’t watch scenes on the nightly news of demonstrators rampaging and setting neighborhoods on fire.

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CALIFORNIA DREAMIN’…..OF FRESH WATER

“Water, water everywhere, and yet the boards did shrink; Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.” Those immortal lines are from “The Rime of The Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, first published in 1798. It tells the story of a crew of sailors aboard a sailing vessel, and how one of the crew accidentally shoots and kills an albatross; then considered to be an omen of good fortune for sailors when at sea. By killing the albatross, the crew’s good fortune quickly turns bad, very bad indeed. The ocean winds necessary to propel the ship’s sails die down and become nil. The sky becomes nothing but sunshine, with no rain in sight as the thirsty crew begins running out drinking water. Their vessel becomes stranded at sea, “like a painted ship upon a painted ocean.” If you’re interested in how it all turns out, read the poem. Anyway I thought I would use this literary classic to segway into a discussion of the brutal drought that is currently afflicting California; which I’m pretty certain is not the result anyone killing an albatross. Instead, it’s been brought about by decades of overpopulating and over farming one of the driest places on the planet, the Southwest United States. And it’s not just California; the drought also affects southern Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, and northern Mexico. But it appears, at this time, that Southern California is being hardest hit.

California is well into its fourth year of severe drought, with mountains to the north that would normally contain about 6 feet snow at this time, being completely bare. It’s the runoff from these mountains in the Spring when the snow melts that replenishes California aqueducts and aquifers, and what enables the state to maintain its huge agricultural industry. California is the 8th largest economy in the world, and this country’s largest producer of fruits and vegetables. With reservoirs beginning to run dry, farmers and county officials have begun to rely heavily on tapping into underground water in aquifers, which are now also being seriously depleted. As a direct result of the drought, the California economy is expected to lose more than $2.2 billion this year. More than 17,000 jobs, mostly agricultural, have also disappeared. Some farming operations have ceased to exist, especially in the dairy and livestock industries. The news just keeps getting worse with each passing day. The “wet season” is over now in California, and it won’t be until October at the earliest, that any hope for relief from the drought will occur. If there isn’t any significant rain or snow come next winter, Americans better get used to the fact that drought in the Southwest is the new normal.

Governor Jerry Brown has called on residents to reduce by 25% all water usage. A desalinization plant is being completed and should be on line within the next few months. One theory of solution is that if California could build a string of desalinization plants along its Pacific coast, it could suck in enough ocean water to fill its needs. The problem with that theory, however, is that desalinization plants are enormously expensive to build, and then would provide only a fraction of the water requirements for the entire state. One plant costs in the billions to build, so it would take hundreds of billions of dollars to construct plants up and down the state that would still provide less than half the clean water needed. Where would that money come from. Turning salt water into the drinkable kind is apparently a very complex and costly effort.

As I mentioned previously, the Southwest is vastly overpopulated, and the population just continues to increase. The entire region is desert dry, yet it’s inhabited by tens of millions, with more continuing to relocate there every day. I’ve written several times before about the dire water situation here in Las Vegas where I reside at the present. About 2 million people live in the Las Vegas Valley, which gets, in a good year, maybe 3.5 inches of rain. Las Vegas receives almost all its water from Lake Mead, which is provided for by the Colorado River. Or, as it should be more aptly called these days, the Colorado Streamlet. The same barren northern mountains with the missing snow pack, which is supposed to replenish California’s water reservoirs, also provides for the Colorado River flow. Just this past week, the local LV newspaper had a front page article about how the water level in Lake Mead is expected to hit a new all-time low, just in time for the big fight taking place Saturday night at the MGM Grand. A fight, I might add, where scalpers are charging tens of thousands of dollars per ticket, and unbelievably, some people are actually willing to fork over that kind of cash for a ringside seat. Wouldn’t it be a hoot and a half, if, after the fight, these big spenders went back to their hotel rooms, turned on the water facet or shower, and nothing came out. After all, MGM Grand never promised them free flowing water for their $2,000 a night room.

I may be old enough to where I can ride out the water shortage and drought existing here in the few remaining years I have left. But for young people moving to Las Vegas, or Southern California, or anywhere in the Southwest for the that matter, it could be a very rough future if unyielding drought does, in fact, become the new norm. Residents here could become like those mariners in Coleridge’s poem, stuck in a “painted ship upon a painted ocean.”

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IN THE TIME OF “THE TROUBLES”

For the past few years, the world has looked on with horror and revulsion as Islamic-Fascist terrorist groups  such as ISIS or Al-Qida have beheaded or otherwise murdered thousands of Christians, primarily in the Mid-East. It’s as if such mindless killings sought to deny the very essence of what it means to be a human being. But over a period of centuries, history has also been replete with scenes of Christian slaughtering other Christians, and again using the most gruesome of methods such as beheadings or burning people alive at the stake. Ever since a young priest named Martin Luther became so fed up with what he viewed as rampant corruption in the Vatican and with various church practices that, in 1517, he posted a treatise on on a church door in Germany describing such corrupt practices, have the killings taken place. Luther’s actions, of course, led to the Protestant Reformation, and it didn’t take long after that before Protestants and Catholics were at each other’s throats. In England, alone, the failure of HenryVIII”s  first wife to produce a male heir to the throne led to the British renouncing Catholicism and thousands of deaths in wars between Protestants and Catholics.

But one doesn’t have to go back centuries to find examples of Christians killing other Christians. One only has to go back a mere decade or so to view the spectacle of Christians spilling each others blood. To a time known as “The Troubles” that took place in Northern Ireland from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s, when over 3500 Protestant and Catholic lives were lost in an exercise of utter futility. To begin with, it must be noted that Ireland has had a very long history of famines, starvation, suffering, poverty and hardship. This has infused the Irish people with an overwhelming fatalistic view of life in general. So when “The Troubles” began it was just piling on more of the same. But first a little background.

After centuries of conflict, southern Ireland, which is predominantly Catholic, broke away from the United Kingdom, (which consists of Britain, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland) and became a separate country, officially known as Eire, and which no longer has any formal ties with the U.K. Eire was also highly desirous of having Northern Ireland  break free of British rule and join it in one large Irish Republic. The problem is that a good chunk of the population of Northern Ireland is Protestant, with no desire to join the Catholics that rule Eire. They would rather be united with Protestant England. Further, the Catholics of Northern Ireland have historically been poor, oppressed, and often unemployed; while the Protestants have represented the oppressive British side of the coin consisting of privileged classes with better job opportunities and better wages. A scenario constructed in Hell.

Eire and the Catholics of Northern Ireland were not about to go quietly into that dark night, however, and by the 1960s tempers had reached the boiling point. The situation got totally out of hand. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) was formed by oppressed Catholics as a paramilitary organization with the goal of forcing Britain out of Northern Ireland so it could be reunited with Eire. Using typical terrorist tactics against the civilian population such as bombings and random shootings, it set off a wave of Christians killing Christians, as Protestants employed even harsher countermeasures against the Catholic population. The British sent its military into Belfast in an attempt to contain IRA terrorism, which, in turn, led to IRA bombings throughout London. It was called the time of “The Troubles.” Terrorism and murder were carried out by extremists on both sides. People suspected of terrorism were often thrown in jail without a trial and languished there for years. As I’ve said, at least 3500 people died out of a total population of just 1.5 million, during this period of madness.

On a personal note, I made a business trip to London sometime during the 1980s, and was fortunate enough to stay in a hotel room overlooking Hyde Park. On the day I was leaving, I had some time to kill before heading to the airport, so I took one last stroll through the section of Hyde Park that was visible from my hotel balcony. On the way back I passed a park bench and then continued back to my room. I went out onto the balcony for one last look at the park before the taxi arrived. As I stood there gazing, a violent explosion suddenly went off under the very park bench I had walked by less than 5 minutes previously.  Obviously the work of the IRA. When I told the taxi driver about this on my way to the airport, he kept muttering-“fucking IRA.”

Finally, in the late 1990s, fatigue had set in over the senselessness of all the death, destruction and misery that had been inflicted on both sides. Negotiations began taking place between the 2 factions, engineered, in a large part, by U.S. President Bill Clinton. A peace agreement was at last reached in 1998, and was overwhelmingly ratified in a referendum among the populace. Today, that peace agreement is largely holding, but the enmity between Catholics and Protestants in Belfast continues unabated. Belfast is a city that is almost strictly segregated between the 2 sides; with huge concrete walls separating Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. Most children go to segregated schools. The old hatreds between Catholics and protestants is still thriving.

As I said earlier, the Irish people have experienced an enormous serving of human suffering throughout their history. Classical Irish writers such as James Joyce and Samuel Beckett have brilliantly chronicled this aspect of the human condition among the Irish populace. And if one ever makes a visit to Belfast, they can view first hand, how “The Troubles” in Ireland just keep rolling on and on. And also view up close, the results of what it looks like when Christians were killing Christians.

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DONATING TO THE PIZZA JOINT

In about 500 to 1000 years from now, when historians begin to chronicle the demise of the American Empire, similar to the way author Edward Gibbon chronicled “The Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire,” I hope they take into consideration 2 recent minor events that, nevertheless, speak volumes about the American psyche. The very mindset that will ultimately lead to American self-destruction in a manner similar to the way ancient Romans brought about their own downfall. In the American case, it’s about individuals clinging to power through the deployment of religious fanaticism, and a gullible public that buys into the trappings of such fanaticism.

The first event took place on August 1, 2013, which was proclaimed Chick-fil-A day by former governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee. Chick-fil-A is a chain of fried chicken joints, mainly in the South and Mid-West, whose CEO, Dan Cathy, felt compelled to come out publicly against the “sin” of gay marriage. He uttered statements to the effect that if the U.S. goes against God’s will by allowing such “atrocities” as gay marriage to become legal, then God will stomp on us in retribution. He will simply crush us like a bug. Huckabee, a bible thumper going back to his days in Arkansas, was so impressed by Dan Cathy”s proclamation, that he stated on his TV show that God-fearing Americans should turn out on Aug.1 at Chick-fil-A outlets to show their appreciation. And turn out, they did. Most Chick-fil-A diners were so swamped with demand that they ran out of food before closing time. At the franchise outlet in Augusta, GA, the lunch line was several hours long. People were willing to stand on line for 2 hours or more, in the broiling summer heat, only to end up with a greasy fried chicken sandwich, if that’s what it took to stick it to those “queers.”  Huckabee said on his TV show after, that he was “giddy” about the outcome. In areas where there were no outlets, evangelicals had arranged for caravans of people to schlep for hours to the closest Chick-fil-A and then wait in hot sun, just to show their solidarity with Dan Cathy’s statements about gay marriage. What this episode tells us is that the delusional fanaticism surrounding the bible thumpers ideology has no boundaries.

The second event is on-going even as we speak. As we all know, the Indiana legislature felt compelled to show its appreciation to the evangelicals of that state that elected them to office in the first place, by enacting what is called the freedom of religion act, or some such phony nomenclature. Remember that Indiana is in the heart of the Mid-Western bible belt, so due homage must be given to these Christian ideologues, that always vote Republican by the way. In any event, despite all denials to the contrary, what this legislation does is simply promote bigotry.  It states that any business open to the public can deny service to anyone, if providing such service somehow conflicts with their religious beliefs. So, any shopkeeper that’s opposed to gay marriage, can deny providing food or a wedding cake to, or refuse to provide photography for, a gay wedding ceremony. This time, however, instead of rolling over and playing dead, the gay community and their supporters have attempted to fight back. Business conventions scheduled to take place in Indiana have been canceled, as well as a slew of other commercial activities. Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, who replaced Steve Jobs, has also threatened Indiana with business losses. The uproar has caused the Indiana state government to somewhat modify the legislation in question, but, in essence, it’s still on the books in its basic form. Sort of reminds me of the 1960s when blacks attempted to de-segregate Southern lunch counters by sitting down and ordering off the menu. The white establishment owners would refuse service to any Afro-American by stating that since they owned the business, it was their constitutional right to deny service to whoever they wanted. Eventually those Jim Crow protections were struck down by the courts who ruled that any public establishment must provide service to the entire public without discrimination.

As an added wrinkle to all this fiasco, a pizza joint somewhere in Sticksville, Indiana, population 2000, has come out and publicly proclaimed that it would not provide any catering services for any gay marriages. Like gay couples from all over the country are just dying to have their wedding celebrations catered with pizza from Sticksville, Indiana. But the most fascinating aspect of this story is that, because of their stand on gay marriage, people from all over the country have been sending in cash donations to the pizza joint. So far, it’s claimed that over $850,000 has been collected with more coming in. Most of that money, I’m certain, is from people who are likely living hardscrabble existences. Nevertheless, their evangelical fundamentalism is so deranged, that they will gladly part with what fews dollars may have, if it feeds into their anti-gay bigotry.

Who knew that it would be that easy to have people part with their money once you can tap into their ingrained hatreds. I periodically get e-mails from places such as Nigeria, offering to deposit millions of dollars into my bank account if I would just give them my account number. Does anyone fall for these scams? It’s so much easier and even legal to scam people out of their money, the way they’re doing it at the Indiana pizza place. The deep-seated hatred of people making these voluntary donations is only superseded by their gullibility. As P.T. Barnum of circus fame once said, there’s a sucker born every minute. But the fact that such hatred and bigotry still seem to thrive in our so-called enlightened age, does not bode well for the long-term prospects of this country. The thing about hatred is that it corrodes from the inside out, until nothing but a shell or facade is left.

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