Monthly Archives: May 2015

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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