“Creating Jobs” is the Wrong Reason

There’s an illogical argument consistently used to support big projects. I hear it in support of projects I’m against, but I’m equally uncomfortable with its use in favor of projects I support. It’s the argument that a project will “create jobs.”

Any endeavor must be evaluated based on whether the result will enhance our lives and improve our world. Once we decide to do something, then we find the workers to complete the project. I’m not denying that many people need more work (I’m one of those people). But at times like these we must ask, “What is the best way to deploy this idle workforce?”

Let’s look at an extreme example of the “create jobs” argument: War creates jobs. There are jobs building tanks, planes, guns, bullets and bombs; and jobs operating the machinery and firing the guns. But the end result is that a lot of the stuff we built gets blown up, and a large part of our population comes home emotionally and physically crippled (if  at all). “Creating jobs” is not a reason to start a war.

Before we blindly “create jobs”, we should make sure the product of those jobs will make our world a better place. Then we can offer our citizens work that is worthy of their efforts, and that produces results they can point to with pride and accomplishment and say, “I helped build that.”

Can We Say “Twenty” Now?

It made sense  to pronounce the year 2000 as “two thousand”. 2009 made sense as “two thousand nine”. But I think starting in 2010, it was time to start saying “twenty-ten”, even though the media has been saying “two thousand eleven” for 2011.

Apparently, just as the print media has style books to dictate the “rules” of word usage, capitalization and so forth (AP and New York Times style books come to mind); the broadcast industry has a style book that dictates 2011 be read as “two thousand eleven”.

Well, we think it’s time to end this “two thousand” nonsense. Too much time is being wasted pronouncing and hearing all these unnecessary syllables. 2012 is a fine time to start saying “twenty-twelve”.

So Happy New Year everybody. Let’s hope that twenty-twelve is much better than twenty-eleven.

Meet Gizmo – Our Newest Family Member

Gizmo is a three-year-old kitten who joined our household this week.

While many other people got gadgets for Christmas this year, we got Gizmo. He’s a small white shorthaired cat with a solid black tail and big black spots on his back and the top of his head. He has almond-shaped eyes titled at an angle to his pink nose that gives his face an Asian look. He is quite agile, so he can navigate the forest of knick-knacks and gewgaws in our house without knocking too many things over.

His job is to evict and/or eat any rodent that trespasses in our house. As a bonus, he supplies us with endless amusement and kitty cuddles, and we are generous enough to supply him with human cuddles in return.

We met Gizmo at a local pet store that was providing space for Tabby Town (a no-kill shelter nearby) to display cats available for adoption. We got to handle and “meet” the kitties that interested us, and Gizmo was determined to be Our Cat. That was Saturday (Dec. 17), and we made arrangements to have him brought to our house the following Wednesday.

Since then, Gizmo has lived up to Tabby Town’s descriptions:

“sweet and gentle, tried & true”
“You’ll love his antics when he wants attention”
“very playful”

He likes to chase the red dot from our laser pointer, and a little toy mouse tied to a string. A few minutes of play – a couple times a day – seems to wear him out enough that he sleeps the rest of the day. When he wants attention, he sticks his face right into yours.

Gizmo is a complete clown of a cat, the spirit of a kitten in an adult cat’s body, and we love him to death already.

Havel, Hitchens and Kim at the Pearly Gates

I don’t literally believe the myth about St. Peter and the “pearly gates”, but it provides a useful metaphor for the passage we will all make one day from this world to the next one.

After all, the Pearly Gates are a busy place, so there must be a very long line of people waiting for their turn to negotiate with St. Peter for admission to Paradise. I’ve stood in enough long lines in my time on this Planet to know that time is often filled by memorable encounters and conversations with those near our position in the line. (For our international readers, we Americans say “line” instead of “queue”.)

So when the passings of prominent figures are clumped together on the time line, I imagine these prominent figures waiting in line together at the Pearly Gates. Last weekend, three big names dropped off the Roster of the Living simultaneously.

Vaclav Havel was a creative dissident playwright who led the Velvet Revolution that freed Czechoslovakia from authoritarian rule. Christopher Hitchens was also an articulate writer who opposed the Vietnam War but advocated the Iraq invasion, and who was an evangelical atheist until his last breath. Kim Jong Il was a pathetic tyrant who was completely full of himself. (A hole in one on his first swing of a golf club? Give me a break.)

What would these three have to say to each other while they wait in line? Would Havel and Hitchens debate over the existence of God? Would Kim insist that he was God? I’d like to think that the other two would want to kill Kim, but they’re all already dead.

Comedy writers, there’s a lot of fun to be had with this scenario. If you have an idea of what’s happening in this scene, let us know in the comments below.

How Much is Enough? The Case for a Maximum Wage

We keep reading about corporate big-wigs, banksters, and other assorted riff-raff who collect annual salaries in the hundreds of millions of dollars. $100 million/year is $2 million/week, $400,000/day, or $50,000/hour. At that wage, I could work for an hour and take the next year or two off, or I could work for a week and retire for life on $100K/year ($2 mil at 5%, do the math).

Two questions: 1) How can any one person deserve that much money? 2) What can one possibly do with that much money? Does a $10 million bankster crash the economy only one-tenth as hard as a $100 million bankster? If the $10 million CEO gets a raise to $100 million, does his life instantly become ten times as awesome? I submit that the answer to both those questions is “no.”

One doesn’t need to spend much time reading gossip columns or celebrity biographies to know that the wealthy harbor the same pain and struggles that the rest of us do (and in many cases, far more so). So more money does not make life more awesome.

At the other end of the income spectrum, a little bit of money makes a big difference. It means bills get paid, creditors back off, kids get fed, houses get fixed, and life gets much more awesome. Looking farther up the ladder, houses get nicer, and people buy lots of stuff.

But at a certain point, the house is so big you only use a corner of it, they don’t make cars more expensive than the ones you already have, and you’ve already bought anything you would ever want, so what’s the point of making more money?

We have a minimum wage because to ask someone to work for a wage at which it’s impossible to make a living is oppressive. We need a maximum wage because for an individual to demand more wealth than he/she can possibly use is greedy.

So what should be the maximum wage? And how do we define and enforce it?

Back in the 1950′s, we had a 91% tax rate on annual income over $3.2 million (in today’s dollars). History (and people like my parents) remember this as a prosperous time. Most people don’t like paying taxes, so if rich people made “too much” money they would avoid taxes by paying their workers higher wages, investing in more equipment for their businesses, donating money to charities, and generally feeding that extra money back into their communities until their income dropped out of the top bracket.

Since then, short-sighted corporate stooges have taken over government and dramatically cut taxes on these rich people. So now instead of sharing the excess wealth with their communities, they are hoarding it in tax shelters and offshore accounts. Instead of hiring more people for better wages, they are closing domestic factories and replacing them with cheap contract labor in the third world.

So we can implement a maximum wage by setting a 99% tax rate for all income above that defined level. And by all income, I mean all income: interest, capital gains, rent, inheritances… everything must be taxed as regular income.

I propose that the maximum wage be tied to the minimum wage. Right now the minimum wage is $7.50/hour. (Set aside the issue that this is a pathetic wage. It should be much higher… $10-15/hour would be a good start.) So the formula could be, “The annual maximum wage is one million times the hourly minimum wage.” That way, the maximum wage would be $7.5 million/year, and it could only be raised by raising the minimum wage. The rich don’t get a raise unless the poor get the same raise (in percentage terms).

Excessive income above the maximum wage will go to 1) charities, 2) reinvestment in businesses and higher wages for employees, or 3) taxes that the government can use to hire people (at decent wages) to build stuff. Either way, the money is “in play” in the community doing good things, rather than gathering dust in a vault in the Cayman Islands.

They’re Not Bongos

I’ve heard many commentators refer to the “bongo drums” at the various Occupy Wall Street actions, and it kind of annoys me, mainly because it’s inaccurate. The term is mainly used to belittle and ridicule the occupations, but I’ve heard it used by people on “our side” who should know better. The most appropriate term to use would be “hand drums.”

Many years ago, I built a website for a maker of hand drums. (I won’t link to his site, as I was never fully paid for it, but that’s another story.) In the process I learned a lot about hand drums, and what all the variations of hand drums are properly called.

The most common drum you’ll find in public drum circles is the conga. Check out this picture from the Washington Post web site…

At the Wall Street Occupation in New York, drummers play congas and large tom-toms. (Image from Washington Post)

In this picture, we see (from right to left) a red conga, a blue conga, a snare drum behind it, a blue floor tom (another “kit” drum), a red conga, a tan conga, and an improvised steel drum. No bongos.

These women and their djembe drums were at an occupy rally in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. (photo by a right-wing blogger)

This picture was posted for ridicule by a right-wing blogger from South Carolina who infiltrated the local occupy rally to gather fodder for his mean-spirited rants. He prefaced this picture with, “they even had bongos.”

No, they’re djembes. You don’t know what you’re talking about.

THIS is a set of bongos.

Bongos are indoor drums. They are small… far too small to be heard in the midst of dozens of congas, djembes, floor toms, snares, and hundreds of dancing and howling revellers; so they are rare in large public gatherings of drummers.

A bongo player struggles to be heard at a march in New York. (photo by Scott Lynch, "Scoboco" on Flickr)

The only place I could find a picture of a bongo player at Occupy Wall Street was from somebody’s Flickr stream, and this guy looks like he’s working really hard to be heard above the ambient noise of downtown Manhattan.

The Evolution of Revolution

Establishing and maintaining an activist encampment – whether to blockade a nuclear power plant or to occupy a state capital or a city park – is a major logistical undertaking. The Wall Street occupiers learned a lot about doing this from the Wisconsin capital occupiers of last winter, who in turn represent a major progression from the anti-nuclear actions of a generation ago.

In the fall of 1981, I participated in a two-week “blockade” of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant on the coast of central California. Nearly 2000 people were arrested during this action, and I was two of them. Occupy Wall Street reminds me of many of the things we did at Diablo that worked, and I also see the OWS crowd improving the things that we didn’t do that well.

The improvement I’m most impressed with relates to communication.

At Diablo, there came a time when money and energy were running out and we had to find a way to end the action and go home. A proposal was floated to declare the beginning of a “Phase 2″ of the blockade, and a discussion followed to define what that meant. The consensus process we used gave every individual veto power over any proposal, so we started hearing things like, “We will block any statement that contains the word ‘end’.”

Words that anyone disapproved of were removed and/or replaced. Strong language got weak and ambiguous. A reasonable and well-thought-out statement got watered down into a bland mush that offended nobody and excited nobody. And it burned through hours of our time.

OWS did something right in the way it composed and approved its declaration.* It’s well-written and strongly worded, which can be nearly impossible when writing by committee. I can see the markings of a committee in the list of grievances, but something has improved in the process to keep the well-intentioned saboteurs from muddying the text.

On behalf of the veterans of the Diablo blockade, I will take credit for one innovation in meeting management displayed at OWS: the jiggling of fingers in the air as a substitute for applause. I saw this introduced at the Diablo encampment as the size of the meetings started getting larger. A speaker would say something, and many people would cheer or applaud in agreement. This made it difficult for everyone to hear the rest of what the speaker had to say, and it would disrupt the rhythm and the flow of the meeting.

So someone suggested that instead of cheering, we should wave our hands above our heads to signal our approval and agreement. A “cheer” could erupt without drowning out the speaker we’d be cheering.

It may have been something other activists were doing before. But it shows that at the very least, such actions are networking events. Activists representing a wide range of causes, constituencies and age groups have lots of time to hang out with each other and exchange ideas to solve problems.

Each action gets more organized, and new best practices evolve from this stock pot of activism.

* My favorite declaration came from a blogger at the occupation, which concisely and explicitly covered the most important points. It’s brief enough to quote here in full:

We are the 99 percent. We are getting kicked out of our homes. We are forced to choose between groceries and rent. We are denied quality medical care. We are suffering from environmental pollution. We are working long hours for little pay and no rights, if we’re working at all. We are getting nothing while the other 1 percent is getting everything. We are the 99 percent.

It’s Corporate Greed, Stupid

Back when Bill Clinton was running for president, his campaign office famously had a sign on the wall that read, “It’s the Economy, Stupid.” It was how they reminded themselves what issue most concerned the voting public. Smart politicians would recognize that most people see corporate greed as the root of our economic problems, and adjust the sign on their wall accordingly.

For two generations, we have watched a handful of rich people hoard the wealth while the rest of us struggle more and more to get by. There’s a limit to how much the monarchs of our world can impoverish the rest of us before angry mobs with torches and pitchforks appear at the castle gates, and Occupy Wall Street is the modern equivalent of that angry mob.

Corporate funded media pundits feign mystification as to the grievances or demands of the 99-percenters. The truth is that these shills can’t say “corporate greed” (grievance) or “economic justice” (demand) out loud. After all, they’re employed by some of the largest corporations in the world, so they wouldn’t dare say anything favorable about the demonstrators. So all they have to offer are insults, ridicule and shoulder-shrugging.

Let me illustrate how greedy the banks have become during my lifetime. My first savings account had an interest rate that fluctuated between 4% and 5%. So if I had $10 in the bank for a year, I had $10.50 at the end of the year. That’s right, I made 5% interest on $10. My student loans had a 7% interest rate, and consumer loans typically were at 9%. Credit card interest rates of 12% were considered an outrage.

So if the bank charged 8% interest on a loan, their “cost” was the 5% they paid the depositors, so they made a 3% profit on the loan. (This sets aside their ability to loan out $5-10 for every dollar in deposits.) Bankers had no problem making a decent living under these conditions.

But now a savings account yields 0.5%, and that’s only if you have thousands of dollars in the bank. Meanwhile, consumer loans below 10% are rare, and credit card interest rates that low are little more than a dream. So the entire (typical) 12% interest rate the bank makes on a loan is gravy, since the depositors get next to nothing. Yet the banksters cry for more, and every time their price gouging is restrained, they find another fee to raise to make up for it.

This is one example among hundreds of how the rich are ripping off the rest of us, and of how the American dream has been crushed. As we were growing up, we were told this was a great country because if you played by the rules, worked hard, and got educated, then you would be taken care of and there was no limit to what you could achieve. But now millions of people who played along find their jobs shipped off to China, and those lucky enough to still have jobs work at poverty wages with no benefits.

So what was once the most prosperous country in the world has become a feudal society, where the money monarchs steal, swindle and hoard the wealth while leaving the rest of us with nothing. And then they wonder what the Occupy Wall Street movement is complaining about.

The great success of the Occupy movement (as of now) is that a national conversation has been started. We are aware that the system is broken, and we know why it’s broken. Now we must develop and enact a series of solutions to bring fairness, equality and opportunity back into our society.

I have a list of ideas that I intend to throw out into the ether for discussion in a series of posts over the coming days and weeks (as time permits). The money monarchs now own every square of the metaphorical Monopoly board we live on, and they’ve also seized all of the money. Now we need to change the rules so that the rest of us can find a way to survive and thrive.

Stay tuned.

Proposals (updated Nov 9, 2011):
How Much is Enough? The Case for a Maximum Wage

Eagles Are Us

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Bald Eagle on La Crosse Marsh

A bald eagle warily watches a photographer near La Crosse, Wisconsin.

One of the special treats of living near the Mississippi River is that we share our space with bald eagles. Usually we see them in the wintertime near the river, as they like to catch fish from the open water.

The eagle shown here was spotted over the marsh, along the bike trail between La Crosse and West Salem. A set of high-voltage power lines run next to the trail, and the eagle was perched in one of the towers.

Eagle on power tower

A wide view of the eagle's perch.

Too often when we get this close to a special bird, we either don’t have our best camera along, or the bird flies away before we can get it out. To our amazement, this bird struck some iconic eagle poses for us before flying off to look for food in some other part of the marsh, away from the paparazzi.

Bald Eagle near La Crosse

The eagle near the bike trail warily watches a photographer with his other eye.

A Month of Storms in 100 Seconds

RoZ and I are both weather geeks, and I’m a sucker for time-lapse video. I also think the brief animation of weather photos (satellite images, radar, etc.) that we see on TV or the Internet are kind of lame.

Knowing that the satellite picture is regenerated every half hour (and that the weather was about to get interesting), I set up our computer to automatically grab the image every half hour. I let the automatic frame grabber run until the weather got boring again, and assembled the 1300+ images into the video presented below.

You’ll see the progress of hurricane/tropical storm Irene, Lee, Katia, Nate, Maria and Ophelia. In between, there’s a persistent low pressure system that whirls over the midwest.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RY-HRfTEQ5c