‘Abundance without attachment’ is right-wing doubletalk

Swamp Rabbit and I huddled next to the wood stove and pored over a cheery Christmas article by economist Arthur C. Brooks, who wants people to make an attitude adjustment regarding possessions. He urges readers to “collect experiences, not things,” and to “steer clear of excessive usefulness” meaning don’t make it a rule to do only those those that are a means to some practical end. And to “get to the center of the wheel” — to belief in something that transcends wealth and status and other temporal joys.

“Who’s this here article for?” the rabbit said. “I ain’t got nothin’ in the world but a head of lettuce and that bottle of Wild Turkey you give me for collectin’ this here firewood.”

“He wrote it for the one percenters who feel guilty about their piggishness and want to be absolved,” I said. “He takes it for granted that all of his readers are wealthy, or close to it.”

I pointed to the one instance in the New York Times article where Brooks mentions Americans who don’t fit his target demographic: “For those living paycheck to paycheck, a focus on money is understandable. But for those of us blessed to be above poverty, attachment to money is a means-ends confusion.”

“I don’t know anybody ain’t livin’ paycheck to paycheck, or without no paychecks at all,” the rabbit said. “What planet is this guy on?”

“It’s not so much a planet as an alternate universe,” I said. “The other 99 percent of us don’t exist in his universe, unless there’s a need for babysitters or someone to clean the windows.”

I told the rabbit that Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute, a right-wing think tank whose boosters include Newt Gingrich, Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney. This helps explain why he writes things like “Celebrate the bounty that has pulled millions out of poverty worldwide” instead of mentioning that income inequality in the U.S. has been increasing since the 1970s. It explains why he focuses on the angst of the affluent rather than on the millions in the world who can’t make ends meet, despite their so-called bounty.

His message is that the well-off should embrace their possessions without becoming “attached” to them, because all things must pass. It’s a contemporary version of Billy Graham-style Protestantism, with the same underlying message: Enjoy your wealth but praise the Lord. Throw a bone to the poor to confirm you are unselfish and worthy of heaven. Fight big government efforts to feed the poor, that’s socialism.

“He’s part right,” the rabbit said. “You can’t take it with you. Ain’t it obvious?”

“What’s not obvious is his agenda,” I said. “He pretends to be turned off by the commercialization of Christmas but he’s a crusader for the free-market capitalism that not only makes Christmas ugly but also crashed the economy. He pretends he has transcended materialism in order to advance it. ‘Abundance without attachment’ is a bullshit expression, a contradiction in terms. I’d like to punch him in the face. His editor, too.”

“Get a grip, Odd Man,” the rabbit said, reaching for his bottle. “A couple of hits of this will take the edge off.’

I could smell the bourbon as soon as he broke the seal. “I would take you up on that,” I said. “But I’m afraid I might become too attached to the stuff.”

Posted in apocalypse, down and out, economic collapse, food, globalization, Great Recession, humor, liar, life in the big city, mainstream media, philosophy, unemployment, world-wide economy | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Damn lies and statistics in the NY Times

Swamp Rabbit and I were jawing about a NY Times report on the high unemployment rate in France. The story seemed to imply that those left-leaning Frenchies had turned their country into an economic basket case by not scrapping a law that was supposed to limit most workers to a 35-hour work week:

Analysts question whether the 35-hour week has brought economic benefits — or merely bureaucratic burdens.

Companies were expected to recruit more employees to compensate for the reduced hours for any one worker. While the French statistics agency Insee estimates that 300,000 to 350,000 jobs were created shortly after the law was passed [in 2000], economists said that the pace of jobs creation had not been maintained. And critics say the rule is a reason that France’s unemployment rate is more than double Germany’s rate of 5 percent.

Note the reporter’s evasiveness. She uses the phrases “analysts question” and “critics say” but doesn’t present information that would shed light on whether the critics she quotes are correct in assuming a cause-and-effect link between the 35-hour work week and high unemployment. What about other factors? Most obviously, the ongoing recession in Europe caused by the disastrous casino-style lending policies of America’s major investment banks? At one point, the reporter seems to contradict the point of her article by stating that France’s 35-hour work week is “largely symbolic.” She writes, “All told, French workers put in an average of 39.5 hours a week.”

I said to the rabbit, “Remember Mark Twain’s words – there are lies, damn lies and statistics.”

“Disraeli said them words first,” the rabbit replied. “But I know what you’re gettin’ at.”

I was getting at the fact that France’s economy isn’t in great shape but is doing better than America’s mainstream media would have us believe. As Paul Krugman wrote in August:

Why … does France get such bad press? It’s hard to escape the suspicion that it’s political: France has a big government and a generous welfare state, which free-market ideology says should lead to economic disaster. So disaster is what gets reported, even if it’s not what the numbers say.

Here’s a statistic the Francophobes don’t like: France has a higher unemployment rate than Germany, but its worker productivity levels are among the highest in the world. They score even higher than the Germans.

France also has a higher unemployment rate than the United States, but the out-of-work rate for French workers who are in the prime of life is lower than it is for the same group here. Our overall unemployment rate is lower than France’s only because of the number of students and old people who have to work in this country in order to survive.

French employers are like employers everywhere, always looking to spend as little as possible on labor. The 35-hour work week is bad only insofar as it allows French employers to hire part-timers in order to escape paying benefits, the same thing employers do in the U.S.

In fact, the Times story is as much about the disappearance of a social safety net in America as it is about unemployment in France. The rich get richer, in France and America, but only in America are the poor getting poorer, thanks to the big banks, politicians who only look after the interests of the one percent, and corporations such as Walmart that don’t pay a living wage and count on increasingly stingy government sources to keep workers from going hungry and losing their homes.

Footnote: A libertarian friend of mine on Facebook saw the Times story, noted France’s high unemployment rate and concluded: “Only socialists would try to tell somebody how much they can work to support their family.” Which is, I think, the sort of response the anti-socialist Times story was meant to elicit. It’s funny how Krugman always seems to be refuting statistics in news stories that appear in the paper that pays him for his opinions.

Posted in economic collapse, Great Recession, health care, mainstream media, New York Times, The New Depression, unemployment, Wall Street, world-wide economy | Leave a comment

Corbett pins hopes on deadbeat Democrats

I was telling Swamp Rabbit that the key to re-election of unpopular Republican incumbents such as Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett is to keep down the turnout among registered Democrats. That’s why the Republican Party, with help from the U.S. Supreme Court, is trying to impose restrictive voter ID laws in as many states as possible.

The rabbit, floating on his back in the swamp, said, “I don’t get it, Odd Man. Why bother passing laws? Most Dems don’t vote anyway.”

He reminded me that a GOP-backed law requiring PA voters to show a state-approved photo ID at the polls was struck down by a judge earlier this year. Which means the GOP is still pinning its hopes for victory in PA on voter apathy rather than voter suppression, especially in midterm elections.

“Here’s a fun fact,” the rabbit said after crawling onto the porch of my shack in Tinicum. “Voter turnout in heavily Democratic Philadelphia was about 700,000 when Barack Obama ran in 2008, but it was only 450,000 in 2010, when Corbett snuck in. No way Corbett wins if deadbeat Dems in Philly and other counties get off their asses.”

“You’re blaming the victims,” I said, watching the rabbit wipe pond scum off his fur. “Corbett won in 2010 because of the hick vote. I’m thinking of what James Carville said back in the day — Pennsylvania is Philly and Pittsburgh, and Alabama in between.”

“That’s a cute quote,” the rabbit said, grabbing the bottle of Wild Turkey he’d left on the windowsill. “But it don’t mean nothin’ if Dems vote for the Dem instead of just whining that Corbett is bad news for poor and fair-to-middlin’ people.”

The rabbit guzzled bourbon and rattled off facts. Corbett remained a rabid foe of tax increases even as the state sank deeper into debt. He took care of his friends in the fracking industry by taxing them next to nothing while he was cutting close to a billion dollars from the education budget. He endorsed vaginal probes in supporting crusaders against abortion. He blamed drug users for the state’s unemployment rate. He wasn’t even very popular with Republican voters.

All true, I said, but  why assume Democrat Tom Wolf could undo any of the damage, especially given the fact that so many state legislators are as reactionary as Corbett? And what about all those voters who are registered as independents?

“No way of knowing how they gonna vote,” the rabbit conceded. “But you don’t change nothin’ by bitchin’ about Corbett on Facebook. You cannot win if you do not play.”

He had me on the defensive. “You talk a good game, rodent, but you aren’t going to vote, are you?”

He spat in the swamp and said, “I would if I was a human. What’s your excuse?”

Posted in humor, life in the big city, mid-term elections, Philadelphia, unemployment, voter suppression | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Casinos to laid-off workers: Happy Labor Day!

I was telling Swamp Rabbit about my Labor Day Weekend trip to Atlantic City, where three casinos are closing and more than 5,700 casino workers are being laid off over the next two weeks.

“Closed” stickers were slapped onto the Showboat’s front doors by security personnel at 3 p.m. yesterday. Just like that, 2,100 people were out of work. A stunned looking woman standing nearby told me she’d worked in the employees’ cafeteria for 25 years and still was hoping Caesars Entertainment, Showboat’s owner, would reverse its decision to pull the plug. Good luck with that.

The rabbit said he’s angry because the news media keeps assuring us the recession is over and unemployment is declining. “I was hopin’ to git me a job in the service sector,” he said. “At this rate, I won’t never be one of them high net-worth individuals.”

Showboat is the casino located closest to the $2.4 billion Revel, which was audaciously designed and built at the place where the ocean meets the Inlet. The sixth-floor casino has floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Boardwalk, beach and ocean.

When Revel closes Tuesday, thousands more will be jobless. In its casino yesterday, I strolled past the HQ nightclub and noticed that superstar DJ Scrillex was scheduled to perform Sept. 6. Tough luck, Scrillex fans. Take your molly somewhere else. An HQ employee told me she was hoping to hold on to her job for an extra week. This would allow her to miss the rush Wednesday, Sept. 3, when the newly laid-off will swarm the A.C. Convention Center to sign up for unemployment compensation.

Revel’s casino was far from crowded yesterday. It was hard to believe high net-worth individuals had thought a gambling venue so vast and expensive — you’d have to see it to believe it — would succeed in today’s economy. Construction of Revel ceased for a long while when the recession hit hard and Morgan Stanley stopped bankrolling it,  but the casino-hotel was completed two years ago with much help from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who championed the project even as casino revenues in Atlantic City continued to decline.

“You should get all this shit in your book, Odd Man,” the rabbit said. “America wants to know.”

I told him America already knows about Revel and at this point is immune to — I should have said asleep to — economic disaster stories. But yes, there is plenty about Revel in my novel Good Sal/Bad Sal, including this passage, which mentions the construction site in 2009:

…Salvy’s plan today was for us to stroll from Valhalla to G. Michael Mazilli’s office, at the end of the Pacific Avenue strip, in the South Inlet section, where the terrain was still bleak after 30 years of casinos and redevelopment schemes.

“Let me guess, your lawyer works out of a crack house,” I told him as we walked.

I could see the lighthouse and a few high-rises and the steel bones of Revel, the mega-casino project that was supposed to pull Atlantic City out of its death spiral by luring in an army of high rollers, as opposed to the usual busloads of geezers on Social Security who dominate at the other A.C. casinos, most of which are glorified slots parlors. Construction of the Revel stopped when the housing bubble burst and the Wall Street crooks stopped investing in commercial real estate. They won’t invest again in casinos, not unless they sense a critical mass of new suckers with real money to blow. The old casinos will be on their own, laying off workers left and right. And even if there is a Revel someday, it won’t generate enough business to keep all the casinos in business…

Posted in economic collapse, fiction, Great Recession, humor, mainstream media, NJ, The New Depression, unemployment, Wall Street | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Q&A on A.C. casinos that crapped out

The $2.4 billion fiasco called Revel. Photo by John O'Boyle. Newark Star-Ledger.

The $2.4 billion fiasco called Revel. PHOTO BY JOHN O’BOYLE, NEWARK STAR-LEDGER.

Swamp Rabbit joined me in the shack to puzzle over an online obituary for Showboat, Revel and Trump Plaza:

A time few could imagine during the not-too-distant glory days of casino gambling has arrived in Atlantic City, where two casinos will close this weekend and a third will shut down in two weeks.

More than 5,000 workers will lose their jobs in an unprecedented weekend in the seaside gambling resort, leaving many feeling betrayed by a system that once promised stable, well-paying jobs.

“What they mean by glory days, Odd Man? Is that like golden age? Do you talk about glory days in that Atlantic City book you wrote?”

I explained to the rabbit that glory days in this case meant the mid-1980s through the early 2000s, when the casinos were thriving and expanding. When Atlantic City was one of the only places in America outside of Nevada where people could gather to legally bet on table games and slot machines. When blowhards like Donald Trump were treated like geniuses by the media, simply because they’d shoehorned their way into a racket in which it was seemingly impossible to crap out. And yes, there is plenty about A.C.’s glory days in my novel Good Sal/Bad Sal.

The rabbit scratched himself and said, “What’s all this guff about people gettin’ betrayed. Who promised them good jobs?”

That’s just the reporter’s way of dramatizing really bad news, I told him. Anybody with an ounce of sense knows there are only so many people inclined to bet on suckers’ games, and that the pool of suckers becomes smaller if the economy tanks and the suckers realize they don’t have disposable income, what they have (had) is credit. And that A.C. would collapse unless it evolved into a resort that didn’t depend entirely on gambling to attract visitors.

“So how come they dint start evolvin’ when they had the chance?”

They gave it a halfhearted try. There are restaurants, nightclubs and live music venues, a pier that was made into a mall, and other diversions. Borgata and a few other casinos turn a profit. But for the most part the casino owners have stuck to the path of least resistance, busing in customers whose idea of a good time is feeding the slot machines, and doing next to nothing to change A.C. into a town where tourists, not to mention residents, would feel safe walking the streets. That’s it in a nutshell.

“Goddam, Odd Man, if you’re so smart, how come you ain’t rich?”

“Shut up, rodent, you sound like my ex-father-in-law. You don’t have to be too smart to see what went wrong with Atlantic City. But you have to be incredibly stupid and greedy to have messed it up so bad.”

Posted in casinos, economic collapse, fiction, humor, mid-term elections, NJ, unemployment | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Message in a bottle to literary agents

new ms

Swamp Rabbit broke the seal on the bottle of Wild Turkey I’d just given him. This was his reward, in advance, for his advice today. It’s a tradition here at my shack in Tinicum.

I told the rabbit I’ve been around the world and I’ve been nowhere, searching for an agent to represent my novel Good Sal/Bad Sal. “Around the world” in that I’ve accessed a ton of information about literary agents that wouldn’t have been available before the Internet. “Nowhere” in that I’ve accessed nothing really useful. Agent X is looking for young adult, self-help and psycho-killer memoirs. She lives in a yurt. Agent Y plays Gaelic football and has read Gary Shteyngart but is looking to sign the next Gillian Flynn.

It’s irrelevant, all of it. None of the agents I’ve queried — or, more realistically, the interns they hire to read unsolicited queries — have expressed interest in my novel, which is about the enmity between two brothers in casino-era Atlantic City. I’m 0 for 24.

The rabbit spat into the swamp and said, “What’s your point, Odd Man? What you’re doing is like sendin’ a message in a bottle. It’s like playin’ poker and tryin’ to fill an inside straight. You got more chance winnin’ the lottery than hookin’ up with an agent.”

The rodent was right. Information isn’t access, and too much information is just noise. A simple example: Some agents swear a snappy synopsis is the key to attracting an agent who will read your work. Others say exactly the opposite. Here’s Betsy Lerner, an influential agent/author/blogger:

I think [synopses] are as boring to read as listening to a person’s dream. And they don’t give an agent or editor a clue as to what the writing will be like. In other words, more can go wrong with a synopsis than go right.

I wonder what Lerner meant by synopsis. Maybe she meant outline.

The rabbit cussed me and jumped into the swamp. Then he hopped back onto the porch and said, “Stop bellyachin’. If you wasn’t so freakin’ odd, you’d have a referral, like them writers who get published. Somebody to separate your slush from the other slush. Ain’t nobody’s fault but your own.”

I must have looked like I might take away his bottle. “Sorry, Odd Man, just tellin’ you the truth.”

I threw a beer can at him. “Stupid rodent,” I said. “If I wanted the truth, I wouldn’t have asked for your advice.”

Footnote: I’ve mentioned Betsy Lerner before, she’s a good writer and probably a good agent. But I’ll stick with sending queries that include a synopsis.

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Robin Williams, media vultures and the art of fiction

Swamp Rabbit was watching the news on my laptop and feeling blue. The media vultures were picking over details of comedian/actor Robin Williams’ life, as if trying to shed light on why he killed himself.

I tried to help the rabbit feel less grim by talking about fiction. Some fiction writers are like reporters, I told him. They want you to read fast, to hurry up and find out why their characters do what they do. But other writers deliberately avoid explanations and tidy resolutions. They want you to read slow, and they write passages like this, from Denis Johnson’s short story “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden”:

This morning I was assailed by such sadness at the velocity of life — the distance I’ve traveled from my own youth, the persistence of the old regrets, the new regrets, the ability of failure to freshen itself in novel forms — that I almost crashed the car.

The sun sank behind my shack. I said, “Notice what Johnson does here. He compresses the story’s theme into one sentence that more or less describes the arc of the narrator’s life. A stream of vague regrets collides with a vivid reminder of death’s finality. Why this juxtaposition, rabbit? Doesn’t it make you want to wake up to the mystery of the here and now, like the narrator does?”

The rabbit took a swig of Wild Turkey then ruminated on a carrot. Finally, he said, “It makes me want to go out back and shoot myself.”

He spit into the swamp and added, “I’d think twice about gittin’ into a car with that Johnson fella, especially if he was drivin’.”

I said, “You’re confusing the writer with the first-person narrator, but that’s OK. It’s a common mistake among the unschooled to assume the narrator’s thoughts and feelings are the writer’s.”

‘Phooey! How can you write about somebody’s feelings if you ain’t seein’ through his eyes? And what’s all this got to do with Robin Williams? The guy in that story talks like a failure. Williams weren’t no failure.”

“It’s fiction, you dumb rodent. There are no easy answers in good fiction, just as there are no easy answers in real life. The narrator is a construct, a vehicle that conveys the mystery of human nature. We can only guess why he doesn’t succumb to depression, just as we can only guess why Williams was undone by it.  The narrator is as much a mystery to Johnson as he is to us readers.” 

The rabbit took another drink and said, “Don’t gimme that Roland Barthes-style doubletalk. The writer is the narrator. He knows why his characters do what they do.”

I read Johnson’s entire story to the rabbit and told him my favorite part is where the narrator gets a phone call from his ex-wife Ginny, who is dying and wants to forgive him for being a bad husband. Her voice is weak and distant. He tells her he’s sorry for his various lies and infidelities. He has a panicky moment when he wonders if he had misheard her and is actually speaking to his other ex-wife, Jenny. But then he realizes it doesn’t matter, because “both sets of crimes had been the same.”

“The narrator is learning to accept who he is,” I explained. “A terrific alternative to suicide, but he might feel different tomorrow.”

“Right,” the rabbit said. “I still wouldn’t git in the car with that Johnson fella drivin’.”

Squinting at me, he added, “Or with a driver who likes that de-pressing shit he writes.”

Footnote: The New Yorker is allowing non-subscribers to view its content this summer. Part of an online marketing campaign, I guess… Johnson also wrote the great and greatly influential short story collection Jesus’ Son.

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