Poetry at Millsaps Today

Earlier today, Millsaps College had scheduled the Jamaican poet Claudia Rankine to visit campus and read her poetry. She’s the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale University, and unfortunately her flight was snowed in, so she couldn’t make it. In her place, three local poets and authors — and one undergraduate sociology student — read from her poetry and discussed it. The topic of race came up quite a bit, of course, as it is a central concern of Rankine’s poetry, but one point that came out about Rankine’s poetry is that it didn’t offer any solutions to the problems of race. One of the worst of these problems is how we tend to be intractably identified with a series of racial characteristics that seem to define our behaviors for others even before we act. Her poetry seems to hope that if these problems with race are presented clearly enough that others could eventually discover solutions.

Her Jamaican origins got me thinking about Caribbean history and, by extension, postcolonial theory. One of the central problems with Caribbean identity is that it is hard to define: for the most part, any original islanders have long since been gone, so that island populations tend to be a mix of Africans, Indians (from India), Native Americans, and a variety of Europeans. Compounding the problem is the fact that few, if any, islands have a single European identity. Islands tended to change hands among the British, French, Spanish, and other European nations throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century as treaty concessions.

So the question left with Caribbean nations — once they cut loose of the last European country to have colonized them — is, “Who are we?” They are too distanced from their African heritage to claim that as their own, and they are not just African anyhow. They seldom have a single European language or background, and if they did, it would be oppressive, so why keep that?

One solution that has come up, however, is the idea of hybridity. History has left most Caribbean nations a diverse mix of a variety of European, African, and Indian influences. They have been left by history a hybrid of many cultures and languages, and once they realized that, they realized they could form a new cultural and national identity out of that hybridity.

And then I realized the United States is a hybrid nation as well. And more personally, that I am a hybrid person. I grew up in a brand new Southern Californian subdivision alongside Scottish, Irish, Chinese, Mexican, Korean, Vietnamese, African-American, Puerto Rican, and mixed-race families. One couple was a Chinese man married to an African-American woman. Now when I say these families were Scottish, etc., I don’t mean really American with some Scottish background in the distant past. As Puerto Ricans we were all citizens of the United States from the start, but my mother grew up in Puerto Rico, as did my father’s mother, and Puerto Rico is very different culturally from the rest of the United States. Everyone else my age was first generation: first generation Scottish, Chinese, Irish, Mexican, etc. Their parents had moved to the US from those countries. My Chinese friend’s father didn’t even speak English yet.

So what is my culture? So Cal suburban? Yes, but a pretty diverse one, with many different languages, habits, and foods. But there’s more to it than that. I started thinking about Black culture and how much it made up my environment, and I realized that Black culture was a part of me. Among the hybridity that I experienced personally was a Black cultural identity. That was part of it too.

And while I realize this notion of hybridity is not an all-encompassing solution, I think it does present one possibility: every Black person in the United States can look at every white person in the United States and say, “My culture helped form who you are. It formed your history, your literature, your music, your art, your drama, your film, your sports, your science, your engineering. That means, like it or not, you’re part black. It’s not just that, as an American, I am part of your society. It’s that, as an American, you are part of mine.”

How might that change the terms of the discussion?

An Open Letter to President Trump

Dear President Trump:

In this letter, I’m going to presume to give you advice about how to make the adjustment to being President. It’s important to me because, like it or not, your decisions affect the world, including the world immediately around me. I was at first hesitant to write this letter because I don’t know anything about being President, but then I realized. . . neither do you. On that equal footing, then, here goes.

I understand that you’re used to running businesses. You’re used to being either the owner or an owner of some business or another. As such, you’re probably used to seeing your employees as generally dispensable entities whose primary existence is to benefit you. (It’s not that I think all business owners think that way. I just think you’re one of those that do.) Because everyone’s pay is dependent upon your profit, you’re used to seeing your own personal wealth as equivalent to everyone else’s sustenance, and you expect everyone else to see it that way too. And since you’re the owner, you think that your mistakes are yours to make, not anyone else’s to correct, because you stand the most to lose from them, and as the owner you assume that you know your business best of all anyhow. And either way, if you don’t like someone, or if they’re not working out, you can fire them. After all, it is you that they are working for.

I would like to suggest that none of that experience really applies to your current position as President. As President, you’re not the owner or the boss of anything, and in fact you’re not supposed to be that — with the exception of personal effects and private property. See, the nation, the government, the economy, and everything that you use related to that — everything that you’re surrounded with on a daily basis — none of it belongs to you. At most it belongs to the Office of the President and, by extension, to the American people, but the really big things actually belong to everyone and no one. We all own this system to the extent that we’re engaged in it, but none of us owns it to any significant degree.

In fact, the truth is exactly the opposite: it doesn’t belong to you. You belong to it. You belong to the government now. You belong to the people around you. You belong to everyone who works for you, to everyone who voted for you, and most importantly, even to everyone who voted against you. They are your boss. You are not theirs. You cannot fire the American people, but we can fire you. The point here is that you’re no longer the boss. You’re an employee. And a very special kind of employee: a servant. In your position, that is the highest kind of employee. No one is required to cater to you. In fact, what you’re going to be faced with is a seemingly incorrigible mass of people who seem to work hard against their own interests, often refuse to act as they should, and quite often act instead in self-defeating ways. And all the while, they still expect you to work for them and be happy about it.

Yes, it’s a horrible job, but you wanted it,  you accepted it, and now you’re in it, so you need to understand it. Your job as President is bigger than you, more important than you, and — we all know it, even if you won’t admit it — far beyond you.

So what I suggest you do now is this:

  1. Quit lying so much.
  2. Quit expecting validation. Related to this, tell your surrogates to show some respect.
  3. Accept responsibility for the hostility you’ve created and the divisions you’ve caused.
  4. Apologize for the horrible things you’ve said and done.
  5. Shut up.
  6. Listen.

This is just my advice. Of course, I don’t know anything. But I know that one thing: that I don’t know anything. That’s traditionally a very good place to start.

Thinking Clearly about the Abortion Debate

Media and public discourse define the abortion debate in terms of the following opposed positions:

  1. You favor complete legal restrictions on all abortions (but perhaps with some exceptions). The last version of this position to be seriously considered at the national level was under President Reagan, who wanted to forbid all abortions except in the cases of rape, incest, and when the life of the mother was in danger, but others do not want any exceptions to be allowed.
  2. You favor abortion on demand. This position varies by term: some favor bans after some specified number of weeks (maybe 21), others favor bans after viability (when the baby could live on its own outside the mother’s womb), while others favor no restrictions at all.

I won’t review arguments for both positions because I believe that framing the argument this way is frankly stupid. It is designed to create an illusion of difference between Republican and Democratic positions to drive groups of voters to either party — either out of an urgency to stop a holocaust of unborn babies or to protect women’s rights and their freedoms over their own bodies, or, at the least, to allow women safe access to a procedure that they will be undergoing anyhow, legal or not.

The problem with framing the abortion debate this way is that it completely ignores social and political realities surrounding abortion and prevents us from working together to find solutions better than merely legal ones to our abortion problem.

I will be defining abortion as a problem: I don’t believe any woman ever wants an abortion. I have never known any woman who became pregnant so that she could get an abortion. What she wanted was to avoid getting pregnant to begin with, so when she gets an abortion, it’s always a lesser of two evils. She will be grateful that they’re safe and legal, don’t get me wrong, but she would rather not have become pregnant to begin with. Both sides of that sentence are equally important. No, I’m not defining women’s thinking or choices for them. If you are a woman who got pregnant solely for the purpose of having an abortion, please do comment. I’d like to hear from you. I don’t think they exist, though.

Now here are the political realities about abortion:

  1. US Supreme Court decision Roe vs. Wade (1973) eliminated the ability of states to ban abortions completely, but it did allow states to exercise regulatory authority over abortions, especially in the third trimester.
  2. Since Roe vs. Wade, there have been a number of SCOTUS decisions that have given states increasing regulatory power. The abortion debate has really been carried out on a state level since then, with pro-life states pushing regulatory boundaries to see how far they can restrict abortions. However, at no time has Roe vs. Wade been overturned.
  3. It has just been reported today, June 27th, 2016, that the US Supreme Court just declared unconstitutional some highly restrictive abortion laws in Texas; even though the Court is split 4-4 between Republican and Democratic appointees, it voted 5-3 against highly restrictive laws in Texas that would in effect close the majority of abortion clinics in that state. Even if we had a full nine justices, the decision would still have gone the same way, at 5-4 or 6-3.
  4. Since 1969, there have been 13 justices appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Five of these have been Democrat and eight have been Republican. Republican appointees have dominated the Supreme Court since the late 1990s (remember that the Bush vs. Gore election case in 2000 fell along party lines, 5-4) — about 15-20 years — but Roe vs. Wade has not yet been overturned.

So here’s the political reality: there won’t be a Constitutional amendment banning abortion (when was the last time one was considered in Congress? How many times did Congress vote to repeal Obamacare instead?), and Republican dominated Supreme Courts have upheld Roe vs. Wade for the last twenty years or so.

Now how would you think about abortion if you had to accept that it was a long-term legal reality? Wouldn’t it be smarter to address causes, and to reduce the number of abortions by addressing the causes of abortions, rather than conduct a ridiculous debate that sets a political impossibility (outlawing abortion) against our current political reality (legal abortions with limited restrictions imposed by states)?

What are the causes of abortion? The top three are (and all stats come from the preceding link, but they are available from a wide variety of sources)

  1. Having a child would interfere with school, work, or other responsibilities (75%).
  2. The woman cannot afford to raise the child (66%).
  3. Relationship problems with the father (50%).

A few more relevant abortion stats include…

  1. More than 50% of women receiving abortions are in their 20s.
  2. Almost 50% of all women receiving abortions are at or below the federal poverty level and unmarried.
  3. 51% of women who had an unwanted pregnancy were using contraception of some kind.
  4. Some good news: as of 2014, the abortion rate was at its lowest since 1973.

So the two best ways to reduce the number of abortions by reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies are:

  1. Replacing the minimum wage with a living wage, so that women feel that they can support themselves and their children.
  2. Making contraception widely and easily available, especially to women right out of high school. Part of this includes providing instruction in their use for both men and women. Even if contraception was completely free, the cost of contraception is far less than the cost of abortions or unwanted children, or government support for poor women who are having children.

You don’t have to agree with these solutions, but of course the question is this: do you really want to reduce the number of abortions, or do you just want to punish women for having sex? Are you really trying to stop premarital sex with abortion laws? That won’t work either. It didn’t before Roe vs. Wade, and it’s not working that way now. Whatever solutions you propose, making abortions completely illegal doesn’t appear to be an option. The Republican Party delivered a majority of conservative justices to the Supreme Court by the 1990s, but Roe vs. Wade has not been overturned, and Congress hasn’t been aggressive about pursuing pro-life legislation (a Constitutional amendment) even when it was dominated by Republicans. The first two years of the Bush administration saw both houses of Congress and the White House occupied by a Republican. Abortion wasn’t high on their list of agenda items. The Republican Party isn’t really pro-life. It just says that it is to get votes from the religious right.

If you take the idea of outlawing abortion off the table, as it appears to be given our current political realities, how would you think about the problem instead?

 

 

Sanders’s vs Clinton’s Senate Records

All links below are to search results on congress.gov.

Bernie Sanders sponsored or co-sponsored 6,251 pieces of legislation during his time in Congress (Senate: 2007-present, or nine years; House: 1991-2006, or 15 years). Of these, he was the primary author of, or sponsored, 781 bills. Three of the bills he sponsored became law (two having to do with post offices and one with veterans’ cost of living adjustments). If we include his contributions as a co-sponsor of legislation (5,470), 207 of his bills have become law.

Hillary Clinton sponsored 713 pieces of legislation during her time in the Senate (2001-2009, or eight years), and co-sponsored* 2,677 pieces of legislation, of which 74 became law. Of the three on which she was the primary author, three became law (two having to do with post offices and one with naming a highway).

Quite a bit is unobjectionable on both sides, so I think we need to  understand that when people say that Sanders and Clinton have voted the same way 93% of the time, that number includes a lot of votes on roads and post-offices that no one on either side of the aisle would object to. They’re politically neutral and don’t mean much in terms of choosing between the candidates.

Sanders has 24 years experience as a member of Congress while Clinton has eight years experience, so I think there’s no question about who is more experienced in elected office. Clinton also has four years experience (2009-2013) as President Obama’s Secretary of State, which brings her total experience in Washington to 12 years, exactly half of Sanders’s time.

More importantly, I think you will find more legislation on Sanders’s side that is aggressively on the side of campaign finance reform, and I think there’s no question that Sanders has been able to get more done (over 200 of his sponsored or co-sponsored bills have become law) because he has been much more effective at working with his fellow Congresspersons through his extensive activity co-sponsoring bills.

You might find it interesting to click the links and browse through the legislation each have worked to pass through Congress.

*Corrected from a previous version of this page.

Why Donor Base Matters: Leeches vs. Producers

We all know that there are companies that produce things, like Apple and Google and Microsoft and GM, and there are people who work for them (represented by unions). These companies that produce things are who I’m calling the “producers”: tech and manufacturers and their employees. They are the representatives of our real economy, the ones who make up not only the workforce but the material nature of our everyday lives. Every building you work in, car you drive, road you drive on, and bit of technology that you use are produced by this group.

But I’d like to focus on a different component of our economy: the money handlers. These people take money from one group and distribute it to another. This group is commonly referred to as the FIRE sector: finance, insurance, and real estate. They don’t produce anything: they make all of their money by taking it out of the transaction somehow. They’re like someone who slices a piece of cake owned by one person and then serves it to someone else — all of their wealth consists of the amount of cake they can get to stick to their fingers during the transfer. The difference between the size of the piece of cake they initially collect and the size of the piece of cake that they eventually pass around is their profit: the bigger the cake starts out and the smaller it is when distributed always means more cake for them.

So insurance companies, for example, take your money in the form of premiums and then distribute it to doctors, medical facilities, and pharmaceutical companies in the form of negotiated payments for services. Insurance companies make their money — and they make billions upon billions of dollars every year — by collecting more money in premiums than they pay out in services. So they are motivated to charge premiums as high as the system can bear and pay for as few services as the system will allow. That is where their profit comes from.

The nature of the system motivates insurance companies to pay out very little, of course, and it’s well-known that insurance companies often deny payment not because denial of payment is justified, but because they save money that way: too many people will just pay the bill rather than fight the denial of payment. I worked for the American Arbitration Association briefly in late 1999, and I saw first hand how evil the insurance industry can be as the AAA was moderating a class action lawsuit against Prudential for predatory insurance practices.

That’s the thing with an industry that just sucks money out of a system without producing anything: it only cares about its own short term profitability because its only money comes from there. On the other hand, producers understand that they need educated employees, so they care about education. Producers know how much money they lose from sick workers, so they care about healthcare too. But insurance companies? They don’t benefit at all from an educated populace and don’t care about healthcare except for minimizing payment.

That same kind of thinking extends to the financial sector (in large part) and real estate: they just suck money out of a transaction between parties that are actually interested in and invested in the system as a whole — and I mean as a whole. All of our infrastructure, technology, healthcare, and education are needed by the producers to conduct their business. They may grumble about having to pay for it, but they still need it, and they know it.

So the FIRE sector is essentially a leech on our system that doesn’t benefit from the operations of the system itself. It just needs a host to suck on to stay fat and happy.

During his term in office, Bill Clinton helped deregulate the leeches. Some of the leeches working for Bill then got jobs in the financial sector, working for companies such as Goldman Sachs that were at the center of the 2008 financial crash — who then became major donors to Hillary’s budding Senate career. As we see, the problem is that a leech will just suck and suck and suck and suck until its host is dead, if it’s allowed to do so. It doesn’t matter that the leech will die when the host dies. Leeches are too stupid to understand that. They just want to get as fat and happy as they can as quickly as possible, so all they care about is an unrestricted blood flow.

And that is why we nearly had another worldwide Great Depression in 2008. The leeches ran wild.

So do you understand now why so many people are saying Bernie’s plans are impractical? Bernie’s plans cut out the leeches, and many times the leeches are funding economists and think tanks and even university economic departments.

Under our current system (let’s just look at health insurance), the money flows this way:

  1. Everyday people and businesses pay high premiums to insurance companies.
  2. Insurance companies collect these premiums, usually from employers (cost of administration plus MASSIVE PROFITS)
  3. Doctors, etc., receive payment for services from insurance companies.

Sanders’s plan would collect a 2.2% tax on individuals plus a 6.8% tax on businesses (in PLACE OF premiums) to support this cash flow instead:

  1. Everyday people and businesses pay a relatively low tax (compared to premiums — you are in the top 5% of the population at least if your premiums and the amount of your employer’s payment is more than 8.8% of your own salary).
  2. The federal government collects taxes (cost of administration only, but no profit)
  3. Doctors, etc., receive payment for services from the federal government.

That is why Bernie’s plan will help grow the economy. It will put more money into the pockets of people at the bottom and in their employers’ pockets. It will grow the economy from the bottom up. Obviously: because these are the people who spend their money within the system itself rather than hide it in overseas tax shelters.

Now I know some of you are thinking that big corporations (both leeches and producers) shelter their money too, and they do. But saving money on health insurance premiums benefits small businesses that keep their money here in the US, in the system. Small business accounts for almost 50% of all workers and 60% of job growth since the 2008 crash. The money saved under Sanders’s plans for health insurance and education will benefit a significant number of Americans who live and work in this country and spend their money within its borders. It will help their employers too, because small businesses pay higher premiums (think about that logic for awhile: who benefits from it?). Yes, it will grow the economy.

Education works the same way. The cost of college isn’t just tuition, fees, and room and board. It’s tuition, fees, room and board, and interest on student loan debt (i.e., leech profits).

Just as our health insurance is being run to benefit the insurance leeches, education is being run to benefit banking leeches.

We need the leeches, don’t get me wrong. Health insurance allows us to distribute the risk of serious injury or illness. Loans allow us to buy cars and houses before we’ve had time to save for them, which would be virtually impossible for most of us before retirement. But, the federal government can do the same thing just as well, and we certainly don’t need the leeches running things, because we’ve already seen what leeches do when they have their way. Remember the 2008 financial crash.

Now, the leeches have been supporting the Clintons, including Hillary, and the producers have been supporting Sanders. I’m talking about lifetime donor base. Bernie has every right to make videos like these, and to give speeches like these:

And that’s why I don’t think it’s all that great that Hillary has been raising so much money for downticket Democrats: she’s selling out the whole party to the leeches.

Here’s an overview. Let me start with Bernie Sanders’s donor base. Of his top twenty lifetime donors,

  • 15 are unions. They represent the working and middle class. Producers.
  • 3 are in the tech sector, including Google (his top donor), Microsoft, and Apple. They represent people who actually produce stuff rather than just shift money around. Producers.
  • 1 is the UC system, and educators are well represented on this list in unions as well. Producers.
  • 1 are the trial lawyers, which has for a long time been supporters of the Democratic Party. Service industry.

Now let’s compare that to Hillary Clinton’s top twenty lifetime donors:

  • Her top donor is Emily’s list, an organization working for women’s rights. That’s admirable. Service industry.
  • 2 of her top donors are the UC system and Harvard University. Like the trial lawyers, they have traditionally given to the Democratic Party. Service industry.
  • 2 are major media corporations: Time Warner and 21st Century Fox, the owner of Fox News of all things. Keep in mind that six umbrella corporations control 90% of American media and you’ll understand why news coverage has been so pathetically biased in favor of Hillary Clinton. Producers? Service industry? A little of both?
  • There are 8 large, international, very specific law firms on Clinton’s top 20 list: DLA Piper; Skadden, Arps et al; Kirkland & Ellis; Paul, Weiss et al; Greenburg Traurig LLP; Sullivan & Cromwell; Akin, Gump et al; Ernest & Young (large, multinational audit firm). I have not had the time to research each one specifically, but most of them seem involved in representing the interests of multinational corporations around the world. Trial lawyers as a group don’t appear in the top 20. Leech support.
  • There is 1 manufacturing company: Corning, Inc. Producer.
  • There is 1 entertainment company: National Amusements, Inc. Producer.
  • There are 5 firms from the financial sector, four of them very high on the list: Citigroup, Inc.; Goldman Sachs; J.P. Morgan Chase & Co.;  Lehman Brothers; and Morgan Stanley. Nothing but leeches.
  • And, of course, there are no unions. Workers aren’t represented here.

It’s that last group of five that is the most problematic, but of course we should see the law firms as folded into these and the media giants. As you know, in 2008 the world experienced the largest financial crash in history since the Great Depression. The U.S. Senate’s “Levin–Coburn Report concluded that the crisis was the result of ‘high risk, complex financial products; undisclosed conflicts of interest; the failure of regulators, the credit rating agencies, and the market itself to rein in the excesses of Wall Street.'”

Bottom line: Wall Street caused the crash. But who do we mean by “Wall Street”?

  • Citigroup, Inc., Hillary Clinton’s no. 2 biggest donor: Massive recipient of federal bailout money after the 2008 crash. The people who were the architects of loosening regulations in the late 1990s under Bill Clinton, Robert Rubin and Charles Prince, later found themselves on Citigroup’s board of directors pushing it toward the risky practices that led to its insolvency.
  • Goldman Sachs, Hillary Clinton’s no. 4 largest donor: Profited from the financial collapse and was later fined $550 million by the SEC.
  • J.P. Morgan Chase & Co.: Hillary Clinton’s no. 5 largest donor, which has been involved in a long list of controversies. It was fined $88 million by the Office of Foreign Assets Control in 2012 and was investigated by the Department of Justice for its role in the 2008 financial scandal, which found in preliminary investigations that it violated federal securities laws. The SEC has also been investigating this firm, which is also implicated in the Bernie Madoff scandal.
  • Morgan Stanley: Hillary Clinton’s no. 6 largest donor. This firm also has a long list of actions against it, with the Federal Reserve announcing a Consent Order against the firm on April 3, 2012 for “‘a pattern of misconduct and negligence in residential mortgage loan servicing and foreclosure processing.’ The consent order requires the firm to review foreclosure proceedings conducted by the firm. The firm will also be responsible for monetary sanctions.”
  • Lehman Brothers: Hillary Clinton’s no. 18 largest donor, this firm is now bankrupt and was found guilty of major financial malfeasance in the 2008 financial scandal, for reasons that included gimmicky bookkeeping.

Four of Clinton’s top six donors and a fifth in her top twenty are implicated in the 2008 financial crash and guilty of massive and destructive financial malfeasance. It’s not just that she’s taking Wall St. money. It’s that she’s taking Wall St. money from its biggest criminals. The Clinton campaign is being supported by large donors: 100 donors alone had contributed $195 million to Clinton’s campaign as of February 2016 while the Sanders campaign has been supported by over 5 million contributors — the largest donor base in history — who have averaged gifts of $27 each.

While the middle class is being squeezed, the largest transfer of wealth in history has been taking place, and it is primarily benefitting the top 1%.

Bill Clinton doesn’t take this at all seriously. He doesn’t take the damage caused worldwide by his policies and donors seriously. He recently, glibly said Sanders supporters believe we should “Shoot every third person on Wall St.”

When he said that, some people who have been paying attention thought, “No, every one of them should be shot,” while others thought, “Yes, and jail the other two.”

There is rampant, destructive criminality at the heart of the Clintons’ donor base, and everyone who observes it has a right to be concerned. Dismissing it just makes it worse. That’s been a common pattern within pro-Hillary discourse: to diminish the negative effects of these measurably destructive policies.

Please, NY voters: vote for producers and not for leeches. In other words, vote for yourself. The leeches have caused enough damage.

And in homage to our current political environment, a video: