Brain Dropping #117

         Shadowlands: That could be another name for the USA – Shadowlands!  So much of what affects the lives of ordinary people like me and you is done in the dark shadows of the bureaucratic landscape.  Just the other day it was reported that the 2nd Circuit of the Court of Appeals vacated the convictions of two hedge fund crooks for insider trading, dealing a set back for the already lame SEC regulatory agency and the equally ineffective Justice Department.  The decision will most likely stand unchallenged since fewer than 1% of Appeals Court decisions are taken up by the Supreme Court.  These two goniffs made tens of millions from inside information not available to the ordinary investor.  But most of the 23 judges on the Appeals Court decided that “Insider Trading” was too vague to pin down – the loot too difficult to trace to a criminal “quid pro quo” arrangement.  Who are these all-powerful Judges?   How does the man-in-the-street determine if any of them have conflicts of interest?  For the more cynical among us – how many have been bought off by Wall street?  You know, a swanky dinner here, a Caribbean vacation there – hardly a rarity among corrupt bureaucrats.  And these judges are nominated by the President, confirmed by the Senate and serve for life – hardly a recipe for trustworthiness.
         Day before yesterday the DOJ indicated that it will go easy on two big pharmaceutical companies, Biomet and Zimmer  about to merge, despite solid evidence that they bribed officials in Mexico and Brazil. Brandon L. Garrett author of “Too Big To Jail – How Prosecutors Compromise With Corporations” states: “If prosecutors want companies to take bribery laws seriously then they can’t keep letting companies violate the law over and over again.”  Sound familiar?  Well, guess who is gonna make a bundle out of this merger – Goldman Sachs in te role of broker!  It’s going to be “deja-vu” , all over again as the Attorney General is going to extend a deferred prosecution option to the companies to allow them to correct their criminal behavior without any jail time. Why?  You know – a swanky dinner here, a Caribbean vacation there, and the reward of a revolving door job with a salary in six figures, after leaving government service.
         Scene in Fantasyland:  A courtroom in Brooklyn.  Judge: “You were caught red-handed coming out of that bank with the loot!”  Thug:  “But your honor it was a momentary lapse in ethical behavior – I have Tourettes Syndrome and often the compulsion makes me do things that go against my normal decency.”  Judge:   “Well, in that case I’ll give you the option of deferred prosecution. No jail time!  I trust that in the near future you will redeem yourself.”
  How does this sliminess affect us ordinary schmos? Why by encouraging more deeply rooted corruption in government, and higher and higher drug prices. And it’s only getting worse!

What’s “Common” in your Town?

Brain Dropping #116

        Enclosing the Commons.  Here in Vermont we still honor the tradition of the Commons, at least in name.
       Almost every Vermont town has a swath of green space in the middle of town called the Commons, belonging to everyone in the community.  I’ve been told, until recently in some of the more rural towns, sheep would be brought in to graze instead of using a mechanized lawn mower.  The idea of a Commons harkens back to the middle ages when large areas of grassland was accessible to all, for pasturing sheep, cows, gathering grass, fishing and to collect firewood. The land under collective control was called “The Open Field System.”  Rural laborers who lived on the margin depended on open fields to fend off starvation.
        In England the tradition of the Commons was deeply entrenched in the agricultural community.  In the early seventeenth century the landed aristocracy began the process fencing off the open fields called – “enclosure”- driving the peasantry off the land.  Between 1604 and 1914 5,200 Enclosure Acts were passed by Parliament putting 6.8 million acres of land (11,000 sq. miles) off limits to ordinary Englishmen. Enclosures peaked in 1750 forcing peasants to leave the countryside for the city’s slums brought about by the “Industrial Revolution” just about to switch into high gear. Between 1750 and 1820 enclosures dispossessed farmers from 30% of agricultural land in England.  The dispossessed peasantry formed what Karl Marx called “the reserve army of labor,” driving down wages and fueling the expansion of capitalist exploitation – a process which continues to this day.
         Although technically not “enclosure” as practiced in England – the loss of the commons continues today in the U.S., as a conflict between the public interest and private money-making schemes.  Our national “Commons” includes our national parks and 52% of the land in Western States, which is Federally owned, meaning public land.  Big Oil and Big Agriculture in collusion with their hirelings in Congress are exploiting the Commons for huge profits with less than fair returns for the taxpayer. Herds of cattle grazing on private land pay a fee of $15 per animal per month and only $1.35 on public land.  It’s been known for decades that oil drilling leases on public land are going for peanuts, and royalties are pitifully small, depriving the national treasury of hundreds of millions of dollars. In Florida, Big Agriculture is trying to push through a gigantic land grab which would privatize 500,000 acres of publicly owned waterfront land.  In the U.S., we’ve allowed the privatization of waterfront properties, blocking off access by the public to beaches, all in contravention of  the ancient law of “riparian rights” – the right of all persons to have access to a body of water.  Riparian rights are still in effect throughout Europe.
          “Eminent Domain”, a legal ploy, is being used frequently to dispossess home owners for the sake of private enterprises. This was the case in New London, Connecticut when a group of homes were seized and demolished because Pfizer, the pharmaceutical giant, was building a new research facility  and did not want those “eyesores” nearby.  The U.S. Supreme Court, in yet another horrendous decision favoring big business and ignoring the 5th Amendment “taking” clause (which authorizes such takings for public use only) approved the city’s actions. The same was true in the South Bronx to make room for the new Yankee Stadium. Fewer seats for the peasantry but many more “Skyboxes” for the elite, in that case.
Another method used by the American aristocracy to limit the freedom of the “peasantry” to enjoy the “commons”, is the process of gentrification –  taking over moderate rental neighborhoods by building extravagant condos, or redesigning older homes for rentals that ordinary people can not afford, thus driving them out to the fringes of the city.  A case in point is what’s happening on the streets of Central Park South – the insane proliferation of sky high towers whose shadows literally block the sun from Central Park. With the collaboration of ambitious architects and money-grubbing realtors, these towers, with apartments selling for tens of millions, destroy the diversity of the neighborhood, and create an opulent, antiseptic ambience, well protected by the police, who discourage low-income “peasants” from walking those streets.  Stop and Frisk, anyone?
               We need more people like the Mayor of Paris, France. She has proposed severe restrictions on such gentrification in central Paris, to preserve a more human-scale quality of life, and to maintain the diversity which makes Paris the “City of Light” – unlike New York City where trying to see the sky can give one a case of vertigo. 

Broken Windows, Broken Cops

Brain Dropping #115

Broken windows, Broken Cops.    In criminology the “Broken Windows Theory” is a concept of setting social norms.  It assumes that monitoring and prosecuting small crimes such as vandalism, public drinking, toll jumping, windshield squeegeeing, loud gatherings in the street, littering, etc. will maintain social order. If a broken window goes unrepaired others will be broken, leading to increased vandalism, anti-social behavior and ultimately metastasizing into more serious crime and disorder.  This form of policing was put into practice by the autocratic Mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani and his Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, resulting in a huge uptick in the prison population of mostly low income folks of color.  Eric Garner’s murder by police was precipitated by just such a minor violation – selling single cigarettes on the street – hardly a major source of disruption.  The unconstitutional “Stop & Frisk” program of racial profiling was another variant of the Broken Window imperative.  The operational idea behind this “big brother” form of social control is to suppress negative behavior modeling – to quash bad examples which might inspire other desperate people to become copy-cats.   This policy of law enforcement also engenders a two tiered system of justice –  severe enforcement for ordinary, working class folks, and looking the other way when members of the elite break the law.  In your wildest imaginings can you see a loud, disruptive, drunken group of fat-cats coming out of the Waldorf Astoria being hassled by the cops?

Let’s open the discussion to a broader purview – the militarization of local police forces and the brutality of their methods – U.S. Army half tracks, grenade launchers, concussion grenades, AK47s muzzles pointed at peaceful demonstrators, water canons, rubber bullets, tear gas and SWAT teams, dressed as for an invasion of a terrorist camp, called out for ridiculously minor infractions.  The shoot-first-ask-questions-later actions of trigger-happy cops, has resulted in the unconscionable deaths of many unarmed young people of color.  If the purpose of the Broken Window Theory in practice, is to prevent growing social  chaos caused by copy-cat behavior triggered by destructive modeling, where does the modeling for the overly brutal and belligerent police departments come from?  In a society interconnected by technology, where very little escapes being promulgated electronically – or as they say “going viral,” patterns of behavior have enormous power to persuade.

Say I’m a cop!  Everyday on the news I see our government condoning criminal behavior – torture, murder by drone, kidnapping (extraordinary rendition) in violation of international law, in the name of security for the American people.  President Obama has a “kill list!”  He claims he can rightly target American citizens and murder them without  “due process”- without trial – without charges brought against them – without any oversight – purely on the basis of his personal say so.  All in the name of protecting the “Homeland!”  In the precinct station, my fellow police officers and I, see on the TV monitor the chief law enforcement officer of the United States, Attorney General Eric Holder, admit publicly that Wall Street crooks can steal with impunity, that he will not prosecute them because they are “too big to jail!”  I constantly hear twisted justifications for extra-legal actions coming from respected leaders.  Surely, if the highest authority in the land can circumvent the law, go over the edge and commit what amounts to the murder of innocent civilians, to “protect our precious land,” why should I, as a peace officer, with the same task before me, allow the letter and spirit of the law stay my hand to maintain law and order?  The modeling from our country’s leaders is clear – forget the spirit and letter of the law, do whatever you have to do, the system will  protect you and mete out no punishment.

Dead Man Talking : Ronald Reagan

Brain Dropping #114

         Dead Man Talking.    It’s been ten years since Ronald Reagan’s death and yet he is still talking to us from the grave through right-wing-loony Congressional intermediaries.  Reagan was famous for confusing the fantasy world of Hollywood with the real world.  He often indicated that he took part in WWII on the battlefield when all he did was to make propaganda films in the safety of the movie studio.  Some suggest that he suffered from dementia as early as his first term.  At any rate, it is documented that he lied a lot, not an uncommon trait among residents of the White House of both parties.  His most infamous lie was about the black Chicago Welfare Queen who had collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in fraudulent welfare payments, and rode around in a chauffeur driven Cadillac eating caviar.  It was a transparent, preposterous lie, but it resonated with the neanderthals of both parties, who love to blame low income victims for their ‘laziness and immorality.’  Bill Clinton, that paragon of moral behavior, was so taken with Reagan’s characterization of the poor that he signed into law the cynically titled “Personal Responsibility & Work Opportunity Act” which ended “welfare as we know it” – Aid to  Families With Dependent Children (AFDC) – and replaced it with TANF (Temporary Aid to Needy Families)  which plunged approximately one million children back into extreme poverty, according to Professor Peter Adelman, former Assistant Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare who resigned from the Clinton administration in protest. Professor Adelman states that one out of two Americans live in poverty.
        Reagan’s lie about the crippling dependency of those on welfare, swallowed hook, line and sinker, by the self-justifying elite, the right-wing-brain-dead, and even many tough-love liberals, has been exposed as the bullshit it always was.  To expand on the lie: Why work if you can live on welfare sucking on the public tit?  (It seems only corporations and military contractors are allowed to suck on the public tit.)  Furthermore – why work if you can receive a check from the government for just sitting around? In Vermont, abysmally, misinformed public opinion believes these bogus ideas are factual.  A new study shatters those heartless, Scrooge-like ideas.
       From a New York Times article of Thursday, December,18 2014 – B1 – Front page of the business section.  “Some of the highest employment rates in the advanced world are in places with the highest taxes and most generous welfare systems, namely Scandinavian countries.  The United States and many other nations with relatively low taxes and a smaller social safety net actually have substantially lower rates of employment.  More people may work when countries offer public services that directly make working easier, such as subsidized care for children and the elderly, generous sick leave policies, subsidized accessible transportation, and free or inexpensive education may make it easier to get the training to move from the unemployment roles to a job.  The United States doesn’t do much of anything in terms of supporting labor force participation via expenditures.”
     My own take on why the U.S. is so far behind the rest of the developed world in maintaining a substantial social safety net, and indeed is hell-bent on even more punitive measures against the poor and unemployed,(the recent cut in food stamp funding) is the puritanical heritage which looks on poverty as a form of sinfulness which must  be scourged: Obscene wealth, on the other hand, is a sign of goodness in the Calvinist  ethic, which extols the virtues of the select elite who bask in the grace of God. (See Max Weber – “The Spirit of Capitalism and the Protestant Ethic”)  
     It’s time to send Ronald Reagan and his spurious ideas to their eternal rest!

Shitty Choices

Talking about “SHITTY CHOICES” (see my previous post)  there’s Hillary Clinton hoping to start yet another dynasty to rule the Oval Office.  I perceive her as a woman hell-bent to prove that she can be as corrupted by power as any man, particularly her priapic husband, he of the unconscionable ‘willie.’  Shittier yet, waiting in the wings is Jeb Bush, already part of a dynastic clan.  The late comic philosopher, Robin Williams warned: “You gotta be wary of a family whose smart son is named Jeb!”
I’m not naive enough to believe that Bernie would win, but he could certainly stir the pot and upgrade the debate, especially if he ran in the Democratic primary against Hillary and her Wall Street handlers.   Bernie having so prominent a soapbox, could bring vital insights to a public bamboozled by the bullshit promulgated by the corporate media, media which turns them against their own best interests by  instigating cultural divisions.

Run Bernie, Run !

Brain Dropping #113 – Run Bernie, Run!

When I ran for the Vermont State Senate as a Progressive way back then, I decided those ubiquitous lawn and roadside election signs stuck in the ground, were pitifully small and ineffective.  And they had no information on them other than the name of the candidate.  I fell back on my skill as a sign painter and made yellow, paper banners twenty feet long, coated with a clear acrylic glaze and reinforced with packing tape. (My wife Gail started Gemini signs thirty years before and was far more skilled than I.)  I pounded three foot grading stakes into the ground, and used stovepipe wire tied to smaller stakes, to keep the banners from being blown away.  Most importantly, they carried not only my name but a succinct phrase about an issue the voters were concerned with, in bold, eight inch black block letters: “GET THE PROPERTY TAX OFF OUR BACKS – AL SALZMAN FOR STATE SENATE!  For paper banners they were surprisingly durable – the three coats of acrylic glaze and three layers of clear packing tape did the job. Running as a Progressive in a conservative place like Franklin County got me nowhere, but I did get about twelve hundred votes and met a lot of ‘interesting’ people.
I’m going to go back to the paper banner strategy to try to get Senator Bernie Sanders to run for President of the United States.  I believe that he is among the very few sane people in the loony bin we call Congress.(Elizabeth Warren is another.)  Not only sane, but consistently on the side of the working class and vocally against the “millionaires and billionaires” who are destroying our society and any hope of a decent life for hundreds of millions.  I haven’t decided on a pithy phrase to put on the banner.  Perhaps: RUN BERNIE,RUN – WE’RE SICK AND TIRED OF SHITTY CHOICES!

Con men, then and now…

Brain Dropping #112

The Incredible Dancing Clowns.   When I was a kid playing hooky from Junior High School #149 in Brooklyn (Danny Kaye went there), I headed for Forty Second Street on the IRT where I would lunch on a dozen shrimp at Grants (Long gone.) and end up at the “Laugh Movie”(Also long gone.) on the corner of Eighth Avenue, where the Ritz Brothers, The Three Stooges, The Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Abbot and Costello did their slapstick stuff for hours on end.  It was often dark when I got back out on the street.
There were all kinds of con-men plying their trade on the crowded sidewalk.  Remember, this was before the “Disneyfication” of 42 Street.  The one schtick that always caught my attention was the stringless
dancing clown.  The “spieler” would loudly extol the magical ability of a cardboard joint-hinged clown figure, about sixteen inches tall, to dance unassisted by any human hand.  For one dollar, a handsome sum, in 1945, you could be privy to both a cardboard clown and the secret of its dancing.  I didn’t have a dollar so I watched for a long time until I noticed another man, leaning against a darkened store front, about ten feet to the side.  He had his hands behind his back under his long coat.  I could see a subtle movement up and down and, on closer inspection, a barely visible black thread leading to the dancing clown.
This, of course, is an allegory!  The con-men represent our politicians – of all stripes, the dancing clown – the promises they make, and the suckers watching on the sidewalk, and who pay the dollar – the electorate, particularly Liberals, who desperately want to believe that the clown has magical power.  The invisible string is the idea of reform or regulation.  The Liberal cry of “we need greater regulation and all will be well” has the hollow sound of a tin-horn.
Historically, the greatest effort at regulating and reforming our corporatocacy was FDR’s “New Deal”
It did work for several decades mainly because of the strength of Organized Labor and radical parties.  But very soon the “Power Elite” began the inevitable erosion of those principles, and attacked the power of labor. The “Red Scare” of the McCarthite fifties finished the hatchet job. Beginning with the Taft/Hartly Act of 1947 – and culminating with the curtailing of collective bargaining for public workers in Scott Walker’s Wisconsin, the death of the labor movement has been all but accomplished.
The story of the failure of reform and regulation is a dismal tale.  Rescinding  Glass/Steagall of 1933, which prevented depository banks from gambling recklessly with depositors money, Bill Clinton, a phony, so-called Centrist Democrat gave it the coup de grace in 1999.  The Dodd/Frank Act of 2010 attempted an anemic repair of the defunct Glass/Steagall to keep the Wall Street gamblers at bay, but in the recently passed budget bill, hidden away amidst all the jargon and bureaucratic bullshit, Dodd/Frank was eviscerated and the bankers are once again free to plunder the working class.
Here in Vermont, the invisible string, which dragged Liberals and Progressives into Peter Shumlin’s camp was the promise of support for “Single-Payer” health care.  You’d think we suckers would learn to spot the man in the long coat manipulating the string, but our unquenchable desire to believe in the “spiel”, coupled with an incredible aptitude for denial makes us all easy marks.

Some sanity on Cuba ?

Brain Dropping #111

President Obama, declaring that he intends to open full diplomatic relations with Cuba, may be the beginning of the end of the dumbing down of America where Latin America is concerned.
The pernicious, illegal embargo, in violation of the U.N. Charter, will remain in place until the legislation creating the embargo is rescinded by the Congress – and that could be a long wait as the make-up of the two houses has become even more jingoistic and oblivious to what is happening in the world.
As for following international law, the United States has become a pariah – a rogue state – a power-drunken maniac throwing its weight around and becoming increasingly isolated in the world community.
For instance: The UN recently voted for the 22nd time to end the Cuban embargo and to rescind the Helms/Burton Act making it illegal in American law for a third country to trade with Cuba – a distinct violation of international law and the rights of sovereign states.  Israel, in an elegant kowtow as a client state, was the only other country to support the U.S. position. The law’s stupidity reflects its two authors – Senator Jesse Helms, was that unreconstructed racist conservative from North Carolina who opposed any Federal involvement in the Civil Rights struggle.  Rep. Dan Burton pursued Clinton for his immorality in the sordid Monica Lewinsky escapade when he himself had fathered a child out of wedlock.
The arrogant unilateralism of the U.S. shows up time and time again to the anger and dismay of the civilized world –  not only in Afghanistan and Iraq – but in being one of the only three countries not to ratify the U.N Convention on the Rights of the Child.  The other two being Somalia and South Sudan which are on the verge of ratification, leaving the U.S. as the sole hold-out.  One of the brain-dead legislators explained his position as the concern that the Convention will disallow American parents from spanking their children.  And we are among the pathetic few sovereign states not to recognize the International Court of Justice (The World Court) – and for good reasons, since we are guilty of torture and war crimes.
President Obama’s actions deserve credit as an indication that he recognizes that progressive forces are emerging in Latin America which are fighting to correct, in the words of Eduardo Galeano, “five hundred years of the pillaging of a continent!”  New trading agreements among those countries, like Mercosur (Common Market) – Andean Pact  – Latin American Integration Assoc. – CELAC (Community of Latin American & Caribbean States including Cuba) – the growing insistence of OAS members (Organization of American States) that Cuba must be included, could leave the U.S. out in the cold.  Perhaps Obama is wise enough to know that the era of ‘Gringo’ dominance  south of the border is coming to a close, and that our traditional “backyard” is no longer under the imperialist yoke.

In praise of a well-honed symphony

Brain Dropping #110

Human Endeavor.   I remember the words of General George S. Patton as spoken by the actor George C. Scott in the movie “Patton”:  “Gentlemen, compared to war all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance!”  I beg to differ with the lunatic General!  For me, the incomparable form of human endeavor is the ensemble playing of a well-honed symphony orchestra – no contest!  In terms of the collective heart beat, subliminal communication, preternaturally precise timing, the life-force of the organic whole coming together, playing with pin-point accuracy under the baton of  an extraordinary maestro – the symphony orchestra, of over a hundred exquisitely talented players, defies belief.
Google: “You Tube, Sibelius’ 2nd Symphony, the Berlin Philharmonic, under the baton of Leonard Bernstein” and you’ll see exactly what I mean – but wear headphones.  The great glory of the internet is being able to hear AND see these orchestras at work.  Or Google: “You Tube Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capricio Espagnol under the direction of Zubin Mehta” for more of the same.  Or click here: for a perfortmance of Respighi’s “Pine of Rome” by the Gimnazia Kranj High School of Slovenia – and hold onto your hat!
These ensembles go beyond the notes on the written page in the realization of the composers intent.There is something metaphysical about the capacity of human beings of all different characteristics, inclinations, emotional states, ages, sexes, ethnic backgrounds to surrender the self to the collective nervous system in the service of making  glorious sound.

The great pianist and conductor, Daniel Barenboim has long recognized the unifying power of music in bringing together disparate, and conflicted peoples.  In the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, he has brought together musicians from Israel, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iran, Turkey and Spain to further undermine General Patton’s mad assertions about war.  Google: ” You Tube Maurice Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnol – The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim.”  After a few minutes of listening, the feeling of the unity of all humankind will be palpable.

McCain ’08 !! — Dammit, I’m late again…

Will wonders never cease!  Here’s John McCain in the role of a truth-teller, something our constitution-violating, lawyer-liar President should take to heart. This speech on the Senate floor is an amazing instance of a man overcoming political expediency because of moral imperatives.  Yet another thing Obama has flushed down the toilet.