Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Pete Seeger, R. I. P.

Pete Seeger died on January 27 after a lifetime of activism, energized by his music. Even if you think you don’t know Pete Seeger, you know his music:

“We Shall Overcome”
“If I Had A Hammer” (with Lee Hays, of The Weavers)
“Where Have All The Flowers Gone?”
“Turn! Turn! Turn!”
“Goodnight, Irene”

Seeger started performing in the early 1940s, and he released his final recording, “The Storm King,” last year.

He was often at the noisy center of political activism, and civil rights and anti-war protests. He made a splash wherever he could, and he used his beloved music to get the message across.

Here’s an early video (1947) of a boyish-looking Seeger, doing what he loved best, surrounded by people doing the same thing.

And click here for the New York Times obit.

And here’s a bit of Seeger wisdom that I think will stand the test of time:
"I usually quote Plato, who said: It is very dangerous to allow the wrong kind of music in the republic."

So, hum a bit of “We Shall Overcome” and think a nice thought about Pete.

Peter Seeger, requiescat in pace.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Why is it legal to sell cigarettes?

The Surgeon General says smoking kills 480,000 Americans each year.

That’s just about one death every minute, every day, all year long.

The report also brings it home to you and me:

The social and economic costs of smoking impacts each one of us—smokers and non-smokers—it’s about $300 billion a year—that’s an average of almost $1,000 a year for every man, woman and child—in smoking-related health care costs and, importantly, lost productivity on the job. Smokers are out sick more often, y’know?....

Look, with numbers like these, it’s obvious that smoking may be a personal choice but it isn’t a personal issue, it’s not a private issue, it’s a public issue, it’s an issue for all of us.

And let’s get real: there is no responsible way to smoke, unless you live alone and you never leave your own home and you’ve got wads of cash stashed away to pay full price for all your future medical care.

Why is it legal to sell cigarettes?

Think of the good things that would happen if we put a $50 tax on every pack of cigarettes….

Some other thoughts:

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Poverty Fact: right between the eyes….

The vicious political grandstanding about tens of millions of “lazy” chronically poor people is hogwash.

Most people who get poor also get out of poverty fairly quickly.

Less than 4% of Americans are chronically poor, that is, poor for a long time, for a year or two or more. That’s something like 11 million out of 317 million Americans.

And, yes, about 15% of Americans were poor last year, with income below the official poverty line—for a family of four, it’s $23,492 a year.

But the thing is, most of the folks who were poor last year were poor only for a short time—the median is 6.6 months, meaning that half of the people who were poor last year were on the skids only for a few months, possibly between jobs.

So, the 15% figure for folks in poverty is the “annual poverty rate,” it’s AN AVERAGE for the year. Lots of folks were in and out of poverty, and very few of the poor folks were in that category for an extended time. 

Brad Plumer, on, recently reported these eye-opening details, and also this astonishing fact: during 2009 to 2011, nearly a third of Americans were officially poor for at least two months. That’s almost 100 million people, probably including some people you know.

These insights about poverty are dynamite. They kick the you-know-what out of the ignorant, disdainful argument against government aid for the poor because "it's just handing over money to chronic deadbeats who live their lives in government-subsidized poverty."

Why hasn’t this report been getting top billing by the news media and the cable TV talking heads?

Some other thoughts:

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Some people have too much money….(part 3)

Could you spend $53 million a day, every day, for a year? How many yachts would you buy?

OK, another question: what do the richest 85 people on earth have in common with the 3.6 billion poorest people on earth?

Easy. Each group has total wealth of about $1.65 trillion. That’s 1,650,000,000,000 dollars.

Yup, Oxfam reports that this “global elite” group—the 85 richest human beings—controls as much wealth as the poorest half of humanity. Each of those poor folks—men, women and children—has an average of $458 in total wealth.  That’s roughly the value of a cow in Africa.

Each of the richest 85 folks on the planet has roughly $19 billion, in the bank, under the mattress, wherever you keep that kind of stash.

See, my point is, that’s too much money. If the richest 85 wanted to spend all their money, every one of them would have to shell out more than $53 million a day, every day, for a whole year.

If they did that, the world would be better off: they would create more investment, more commerce, more “multiplier effect,” more jobs, more prosperity, a rising standard of living for hundreds of millions of people, maybe a lot more.

But the richest 85 aren’t doing that. They already have too much money, and they’re working on getting more wealth. And they’re succeeding. You know it’s true.

In his latest column, Paul Krugman talked about the myth of “the undeserving poor” and the counterpart myth of “the deserving rich” in America. Basically, he confirms that inequality of wages and wealth is worsening in the United States. He pointed to “the simple fact — American capitalism as currently constituted is undermining the foundations of middle-class society.”

Increasingly, Krugman noted, the richest of the rich aren’t following the rosy storyline of the well-educated, well-connected, well-married and well-employed white collar folks who are claiming the American dream. 

Mainly, the “lucky few” are “executives of some kind, especially, although not only, in finance.”

You know them, many of these folks are the ones who dumped the U.S. economy into the toilet about five years ago….

$25,000-a-night, the Bridge Suite, Atlantis resort, Bahamas

They have too much money, they want more, and the grotesque imbalance of wealth is harming our economy and our society.


Monday, January 20, 2014

The wisdom of Albert Einstein (part 3)

"Those who have the privilege to know have the duty to act."

Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

I am slowly teaching myself to tolerate the awful reality that too many people don't feel this kind of self-imposed, constraining reverence for decency, civility and the common good.

I feel it, and I act on it, in my ways, small and not so small ways, private and public ways, for the sake of decency, civility and the common good. I'm happy to say that.

How do you feel?

The British statesman, Edmund Burke, famously (possibly) said "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." Scholars agree that there is no documentary evidence that Burke actually said these devastating words, but his known writings include substantially similar sentiments.

And Plato said, "The penalty good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men."

And my friend Bill down the street says "If more folks would get off their butts and do something good, do the right thing more often,  this world would be a better place." I think Bill nailed it.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

". . . ever a child."

I may think, whimsically, that I would like to be a child again….don't we all have such a thought, in some way, at certain times?

Of course we don't want to relive any of the unhappy or fearful moments. I pass along these penetrating dream thoughts from poet Toyohiko Kagawa:

I want to be ever a child.
I want to feel an eternal friendship
for the raindrops, the flowers,
the insects, the snowflakes.
I want to be keenly interested in everything,
. . . may I never find myself yawning at life.

Think like a child for a time. See new things, talk in rhyme. Sing a song. Let the kindred feelings be strong.

From "A Prayer" in Kagawa's Songs of the Slums, Cokesberry, 1935. Translated from the Japanese by Lois Erickson.
Posted January 10, 2014 on the blog A Year Of Being Here.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014 All rights reserved.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Movie review: "Nick of Time" (1995)

Movie review: "Nick of Time" (1995)
Johnny Depp, Christopher Walken, Courtney Chase
Director: John Badham
90 minutes

This Johnny Depp/Christopher Walken film is unremarkable in quite a few ways: at least, cinematography, script, acting are on the list….

But I was drawn to the central theme—the paralyzing horror of Depp’s predicament.

I think Johnny pretty well covers the range of emotions you’d think everyone would feel in his situation. His desperation seems real. Realistic. Lost. Enervated. Pissed. Galvanized. The unremitting adrenaline, pushing him to act, or run….or kill.

I was on his side, but I did not want to be him.

Almost too dreadful to say it in words: kill, or see his child killed.

I waited and watched for his escape, his release, his salvation.

I fiercely wonder how I would act in such a raging, tormented dilemma.

My salvation, right at the moment, is that I don’t have to make the choice.

Friday, January 17, 2014

“. . . and makes the Heart Lightsome.”

I’m a confirmed tea drinker, but I take a cup of coffee after an excellent meal, and I admit that a really good coffee tastes better than my usual cuppa….

You may already know that coffee was introduced from “Arabia” to London in the early 17th century, and, as we now say, went viral.

By mid-century, there were thousands of coffee shops in London , more or less everyone was drinking coffee and talking in those first-ever chat rooms.

The “Vertue of the COFFEE Drink” was proclaimed by a marketing-savvy coffee shop owner in St. Michael’s Alley named Pasqua Rosee, who advised his customers that this “simple innocent thing” was of good taste and would cure or prevent all manner of ailments, including “. . . Fumes . . . Head-ach . . . the Cough of the Lungs . . . Dropsy . . . Scurvy . . .Hypocondriack . . . Winds, or the like.”

Seems that drinking coffee took up a lot of time. While men hung out in the coffee shops, the women of London published a Women’s Petition Against Coffee in 1674, arguing that “Excessive use of that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called COFFEE” was the cause of a decline in England’s birthrate. The coffee shop boys denied it, of course.

King Charles II tried to suppress the coffee shops a year later, because he was afraid that treasonous talk might start cropping up in the establishments of Pasqua Rosee and others.

But coffee was too popular by then….the rest is history.

Mr. Rosee said it best: coffee “ . . . quickens the Spirits, and makes the Heart Lightsome.”

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Drinking was never illegal during Prohibition

Here’s a Fractured Fact about Prohibition, which went into effect 94 years ago on January 16, 1920: it didn’t make drinking alcohol illegal.

The Volstead Act (18th Amendment) simply prohibited the manufacture, importation, sale and transport of alcoholic beverages in the United States. Industrious private citizens, under the law, could make up to 200 gallons of wine and cider each year, at home, for their personal use. But not beer or distilled liquors.

As you know from watching movies like “Capone,” a lot of folks kept on drinking after Prohibition became law. While it was in effect (repealed in 1933), average spending on alcoholic beverages more than doubled.

Some of that money was spent in speakeasy clubs that sprouted everywhere. According to several estimates, in 1925 there were at least 30,000 “speaks,” and maybe as many as 100,000, in New York City alone.

And, of course, as you know from watching movies like “The Untouchables,” organized crime got involved in a big way. An informed guess is that more than $3 billion a year was passing through the hands of gangsters, whiskey runners and club owners who sought to provide a much-desired public service. Authorities never put enough money and resources into enforcement.

What were the “drys” thinking when they pulled the Prohibition caper?

p.s. An interesting aside from my trusted personal advisor: some Florida folks figured out how to beat Prohibition with the comforting collusion of their doctors and the barkeeper at The Palace Saloon,  established in 1903 near the waterfront in Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island, just north of Jacksonville. Under the Volstead Act, doctors could prescribe wine for "medicinal" purposes...and the local docs on Amelia Island generously handed out "prescriptions" to their thirsty patients who got ‘em filled at the Palace….which now righteously claims to be the Sunshine State’s “oldest continuously operated drinking establishment.”

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Political “independents” aren’t for real….

Most “independents” are faking it, more or less….

A few days ago I summarized data from Gallup that indicated a growing number of people (42%) decline to call themselves “Democrat” or “Republican,” and claim to be “independent,” whatever that means….

I said there's no clear and accepted concept of what being "independent" means, and I'm pretty sure that the roughly 100 million Americans who claim to be "independent" have more than one concept of what that declaration implies….indeed, all but a handful of those "independents" readily admit that they "lean" to the Democratic or Republican side.

Now two political scientists have shined a bit more light on this murky “independent” thing.

Yanna Krupnikov and Samara Klar report that most “independents” really aren’t independent, either in thought or deed—they claim to be “independent” because it gives a positive impression, because it’s a socially desirable label, because they’re embarrassed to explicitly align themselves with a partisan political party.

In a piece, Krupnikov and Klar mention that some folks try to distance themselves from partisan politics that are perceived as not socially acceptable.

But here’s the kicker:

“What we don’t find is any change in people’s actual political views. Even while reporting that they are independent, respondents repeatedly clung to the partisan issue positions they had held all along. Indeed, when we asked people to place themselves on either the Republican or Democratic side of a series of issues, they were not only consistent in which side they picked across all the issues, but reminding them of partisan disagreement had no effect.”

In other words, for many self-proclaimed “independents,” it’s about putting on a good face, not about any non-partisan inclinations, and it’s a cover-up for actual personal convictions and actual political views and actual ideologies.

Most “independents” are faking it, more or less.

p.s. ….the depressing reality is that people are not voting by the tens of millions, the ultimate critique of our political morass....
All the talk about independent/Democrat/Republican/liberal/conservative is just talk until people start taking their convictions and principles to the polls....

some other thoughts….

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Possibly more than you need to know….

….about how cows moo in Britain and thereabouts….

In case you were wondering about what cows sound like in up-country England and elsewhere in the Sceptered Isle, wherever cows may moo in that general location, I give you Sir Patrick Stewart to the rescue.

I know, I know, you’re thinking Sir Patrick Stewart? What? That vaunted thespian? That gentleman of boundless dignity?

Here’s Sir Patrick taking every opportunity to set everyone straight on the regional accents of British cows and such. Take the time to listen to the whole thing.

You’ll laugh yourself right out of your socks.

If you don’t, then obviously you have some kind of cow hangup and you should probably check it out, don’t wait around to do it….

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Commuting is old as the hills….

Well, OK, maybe not quite as old as the hills.

But "commuting" has a very American history, all the way back to the 1830s in Boston.

Throughout modern human history (last 1,500 years or so), folks who weren't doing farming or "cottage industry" work purposefully tended to live within an hour's walk (or hour's travel time) from the place where they worked. That makes sense, especially centuries ago, when there was no public lighting and darkness tended to shut down a lot of activity, and so spending no more than a couple hours a day getting to and from work seemed like a really smart thing to do….and, of course, a lot of folks lived a lot closer than that to their workplace.

In the 1830s, Boston investors and entrepreneurs started building the railroad infrastructure that would create "spokes" of rail lines leading from the central city "hub" to sparsely populated places that would become Newton, Providence, Worcester, Lowell, Salem, Newburyport, Plymouth, Fitchburg….

Now, here's the thing: these railroad pioneers built their lines to handle freight. Gradually it dawned on them that they could profitably carry people. Add in a little real estate speculation, and some homebuilding, and upper class folks who wanted to get out of the city, and Voila! The first approximation of suburbs appeared along the tracks extending outward from Boston.

The owners of the Eastern Railroad running to Newburyport, and the folks at Boston & Worcester R.R. serving Newton, started offering reduced price "season tickets" to regular users of their lines, that is, the folks who lived outside Boston and went in to the city to work or do business regularly. These tickets were said to have "commuted" prices—an old-fashioned meaning of "commute" is "to change or reduce."

So these early suburban travelers taking advantage of the "commuted" tickets came to be called "commuters." They could live outside Boston and still have an hour or less travel time to their work.

By 1849, there were 105 commuter trains arriving in Boston every weekday….and, y'know, they didn't have any traffic jams on the rail lines. We could use more rail lines today.

My sources for this historical tidbit:
Henry C. Binford, The First Suburbs: Residential Communities on the Boston Periphery, 1815-1860 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 95.
James C. O'Connell, The Hub's Development: Greater Boston's Development from Railroad Suburbs to Smart Growth (Cambridge, MA, 2013), 42.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Ashamed to admit you're a Democrat/Republican?

Maybe a sizeable number of folks are just too embarrassed to admit that they are Democrats or Republicans. 

Not too surprising if it's true—the national "approval rating" for Congress has been down around 10% for a long time, generally we think our elected representatives are worthless.

Gallup reported recently that the number of adults who explicitly identify themselves as a Democrat (31%) or Republican (25%) is at the lowest level in the last 25 years—and the ambiguously named "Independents" have been growing steadily for the last several years.

In fact, about 42% of Americans claim to be "independent" when first asked about political affiliation. Now, let's be clear: all but a handful of those "independents" readily admit that they "lean" to the Democratic or Republican side (about an even split between the two traditional parties).

I think the point of these Gallup results is that a lot of folks don't feel comfortable calling themselves a Democrat or Republican, and, I think, with good reason. The elected Dems and GOP reps in Congress have been doing close to nothing for several years to do their duty along the lines of boosting growth in our national economy and helping to create jobs for millions of Americans who want to work.

But I think there's a lurker in these survey results: there's no clear and accepted concept of what being "independent" means, and I'm pretty sure that the roughly 100 million Americans who claim to be "independent" have more than one concept of what that declaration implies.

Very fundamental elements of our presumed representative democracy are off balance, out of kilter and corrupted. Millions and millions of voters are confused, conflicted and contemptuous of politics and the "system."

Voter turnout has been dangerously low for generations. What if we gave an election and nobody showed up to vote?

Friday, January 10, 2014

Would you like to try being poor?

Shame on the Republicans in Congress who are "celebrating" the 50th anniversary of President Johnson's War on Poverty by claiming that it has failed.

I dare any one of them to "live poor" for a month.

I also dare all of them to do their duty, and start pushing legislation that will boost growth in our national economy and help to create jobs for millions of Americans who want to work.

Now, suddenly, there's a media frenzy of reporting on LBJ's kickoff of the War on Poverty 50 years ago, and, as in this story, we're getting a lot of senseless, partisan malarkey about it.

F'rinstance, Rep. Steve Southerland (R-FL) is claiming that government intervention to fight poverty has failed, because we now have "more Americans in poverty than at any other point in our nation’s history."

Indeed. There are now almost 50 million Americans, including millions of kids, who live poor and disadvantaged. That's 1 out of 6 of our fellow Americans who live the way you and I wouldn't want to live. And imagine all the millions of folks whose income is $100 or $500 or $1,000 over the poverty line—we wouldn't choose to live like them either….

….and well, yes, that's about 10 million more people in the ranks of the poor since 1963, more than any time in our history. But, wait a minute! The United States population has increased about 125 million since 1963, and the percentage of folks living in poverty has DECREASED from 26% in 1967 to 16% in 2012. I'd say that's a positive track record so far for the War on Poverty.

Only about 50 million poor folks that still need some work….

And here's my free advice for the Republicans in Congress who push for cutting food stamps and ending unemployment compensation and other generally lumpen efforts to cut government aid for the poor:

Try living like a poor person for a month.
Then come back and talk.