Rural & Urban, Conservative & Progressive, and So Forth

I don’t know if it’s always been true. It wasn’t what was talked about in Reagan’s Eighties, when the focus was on the West, not rural America. But, in this intensely polarized time, Trump’s supporters take comfort in those maps of counties that show broad red swaths of American, with a few blue enclaves in those most urban of counties.

Never mind that the population density of those blue counties dwarfs the population density of those rural red counties. “We’ve got all the land,” and given how the Constitution stipulates the Senate be made up, having lots of densely populated counties and states wins over having large advantages in a few densely populated counties and states.

This was on my mind on the drive back to Madison, Wisconsin, after a weekend in Chicago, ending with a breakfast at one of the restaurants in Chicago with a cult following, Lou Costello’s. Two omelette breakfasts set us back about $40; in Madison, it’d be less than $30, and there probably are lots of towns in America where if you can get the local cafe or diner to make you an omelette, it’d be $20-25.

It’s not hard to figure out why an omelette breakfast costs more at Lou Costello’s than at the Pancake Cafe. Rent (or property values) on Jackson Avenue in downtown Chicago dwarf rents or property values on Gammon Road in Madison, for starters. Your servers and bussers either need more money to pay the rent or for longer trips to Lou’s than to the Pancake Cafe, if not both. Eggs, cheese, and other ingredients may cost almost the same, but the costs associated with so much commerce wanting to be in the same five square miles and so many hundreds of th0usands of people, if not millions, wanting to be within reasonable commuting distance of those companies and shops simply drive up the cost of living in the larger urban areas. It might not be as pronounced in cities like Dallas or Kansas City, where the city and suburbs can expand in all areas, but Chicago is bounded on one side by Lake Michigan, like Boston and Los Angeles are bordered by oceans.

Some of those local effects balance out; some don’t. If a secretary in Chicago needs more income to live, her manager understands and pays that accordingly, if grudgingly, due to market forces. If a secretary in Pontiac, Illinois, makes a lot less than her cousin two miles up I-55, she also pays a lot less for her home and land, not to mention her groceries and her local fitness club membership.

On the other hand, some costs are fixed. Netflix doesn’t vary its charges by the local median cost of living; a $20 per month charge covers both Chicago and Pontiac, but it’s two hours’ wages in Pontiac and only an hour and change in Chicago.

This probably isn’t the sole reason Pontiac is deeply conservative and Chicago is deeply progressive, but it has to be part of it. There’s also a matter of scale. The annual budget for Chicago or for Cook County has to dwarf the annual budgets for Pontiac or for Livingston County. So, when the press starts talking about a $100 million dollar project, people in Chicago don’t flinch as much as people in Pontiac are likely to.

States often, perhaps even usually, have fixed income tax rates. If you’re making more in Chicago, you’re paying more in taxes, but not exponentially more. Are you getting more in return? You get Soldier Field and Grant Park, but you also have zillions of “neighbors” to share those with. You have more miles of Interstate and perhaps wider interstates, but you also have more cars to fight your way through on your commute.

I wonder if what cities have that rural areas don’t have is opportunity. If a large company leaves Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, or Miami, there are hundreds of other companies in town that need bookkeepers, factory workers, and almost any other profession. If one of the major employers in Pontiac shuts down, who picks up the slack? When the state prison there was close to shutting down, maybe the guards would be offered positions at other prisons, but none were within commuting distance. If a seed company moves away, where do its employees go? How likely is some start-up to arrive in town, giving folks a chance at joining a venture that may make them rich? Maybe a new auto factory will come to town, adding 1,000 jobs, like the Mitsubishi plant in Normal or the Subaru plant in Lafayette, Indiana, but how often does that happen, and how often has your town tried to attract one of those plants? Your town didn’t get that Mitsubishi plan or that Subaru plant, did it? You can hope for the next one, but don’t count on it, or your hopes will be crushed.

To the extent that America truly is a Christian nation, we mostly follow the same Bible. Maybe we aren’t as religious as our grandparents were, or maybe we’ve never been as religious as we’ve been told we are. But, somehow, those lessons still get translated differently in the cities than in the villages. Bibles in both areas teach that Jesus cared for the poor. Do we take that responsibility upon ourselves, or do we share it with our government? Do we tell each other how to be kind and loving to our neighbors, and even to tell each other who our neighbors are, or do we try to use the government’s voice to remind each other that our neighbors include foreigners, people with different sexual mores, people with different religions, and even people who might not like us?

In a small town, maybe you know the town manager and the city council members. You know who parties too much on the weekend or whose marriage is in trouble. Maybe it’s easy to see government as flawed when you see how flawed the people making up the local government are.

Maybe in the cities it’s easier to see government as an arena for games of us vs. them. After the Irish climbed their way up the system, to be followed by the Italians, of course the African-Americans saw an opportunity to make government work for them. They, too, could work their way onto city council and into various government departments, such as the parks department or the fire department. You might hear the mayor and the aldermen are corrupt, but when you get your alderman and eventually your mayor, well, either the corruption stops or it benefits you!

I’m sure this is all too simplistic. I’m sure there are think tanks, both progressive and conservative, devoted to understanding these dynamics, if only to use them to their own advantages. Maybe none of this is really fueled by our local population density. Maybe this is fueled by how easily corporate forces and other shadowy forces can influence our moods. The Koch Brothers, for example, aren’t small town farmers any longer, if they ever were. Planned Parenthood doesn’t hate small towns; they just don’t have as many clinics in those areas.

But, for now, those wide swaths of red and those tiny, dense islands of blue are the state of political America. There have to be reasons for this, and we collectively need ways to blend them, not sharpen the divisions among them. There’s no way we can literally divide into two political structures, one for cities and one for rural areas. We are one country, and that won’t change.

Men and Cameras

One of the themes I heard intermittently growing up and in my life as a new college graduate was of men hiding behind cameras instead of being involved in whatever was going on. I don’t remember how often I heard this theme or from how many people I heard it, but it was more than one person.

So, naturally, I’ve overcompensated.

Most of my best pictures, the ones I use as screen-savers and desktop wallpaper on my computers, were taken when I was by myself. If I’m by myself, I don’t worry about someone else getting bored or impatient while I try to frame a picture or find the position from which there isn’t a branch in the way or someone walking through the scene. I can wait for the roller coaster to emerge from the artificial mountain or for the train to come around the corner. I can find the bird in the tree and try to get the best angle for the best lighting, even if I know half the time it flies away before I succeed.

This is not to say that I have lots of memories of people getting impatient with me while I’m taking pictures. In my best style, I don’t give them the chance. I’ve got some great pictures of various Disney resorts when my wife was sleeping in or when I was in a Disneyworld park while she rested back in the room. Similarly, pictures from other vacations or other sights were from when I was alone. I don’t have pictures from National Zoo when I was there with others; I have pictures from one day my wife was out of town and I went by myself on a weekend. She was disappointed I had gone by myself; she had no idea her stories about her ex fiddling with cameras all the time on family vacations had intimidated from taking pictures while out with her. This isn’t to say I don’t have pictures of her or her extended family from past vacations, but not nearly as many as I have from my times alone, and not as meticulously taken. Those are pictures of people in a place; the pictures i have of the place for the sake of the place tend to come from my own solitary wanderings here or there.

If someone I’m traveling with has their own camera and is taking their own pictures, this tendency is subdued. I’ll wait for them, and they’ll wait for me, or we’ll both take pictures from this overlook or of that scene.

But, yeah, in the back of my mind, I’m not going to be the guy with the camera for whom others wait and who was on the vacation but not actually engaged.

Performance or Performer?

When you think of Pink Floyd, what specifically do you think of? The Wall, some will say, or Dark Side of the Moon. Few will say Syd Barret’s illness and death, or anything other than the music.

With Harper Lee or J. D. Salinger, you think of their single books and their reclusive images, not some party they threw or some talk show interview they gave.

With others, it’s not so clear cut.

Do you remember Prince for his musical genius or for issues peripheral to his music, such as abandoning his name for several years, or his aggressively sexual imagery in his work, or his all-female backup band when he couldn’t play all the instruments himself?

I’m not familiar with Lady Gaga’s music; I haven’t heard most contemporary music. I am, however, familiar with the phrase, “meat dress,” as well as a probably-manufactured controversy about if she was a hermaphrodite or androgynous or what.

I don’t watch much football any longer, so maybe there’s a beauty to Cam Newton’s play that I haven’t seen, but I can’t help but see his pitches for a Greek yogurt brand.

I’ve seen some basketball, so I know LeBron James can play, but I also remember a less-than-humble announcement that he was leaving Cleveland for Miami, and I still wince whenever someone refers to him as “LBJ.” Maybe no one whose lifespan overlapped that of Lyndon Baines Johnson refers to James by those initials, but letting that use go unchallenged, as James seems to, reeks of hubris.

Actions should speak louder than words. Skills and art should negate any need for self-promotion. We should be known for any skills we have that are outstanding, not merely for being willing to be outlandish until we earn our fame.

Maybe Gaga, unlike Prince, has mellowed as her art has become recognized and has let her music speak for her. Maybe James deserves credit for learning a lesson and being more reserved as he left Miami to return to Cleveland. Maybe in ten years, Newton’s leadership of his team will dwarf any endorsements he has done. Maybe, to some, it already does.

I’m painfully aware that segments of our society watch the spectacle more than the art; that’s why someone like Stefani Germanotta has to take a name like “Lady Gaga,” even to get her music heard in some quarters. Wishing it wasn’t true doesn’t make it so; I have no idea how many flawless performers are outshone by auto-tuned publicity seekers who will do anything to attract our attention and then convince us that we’ve found something great, regardless of merit.

In the mean time, every time someone stirs up so much fecal material in an attempt to get my attention, they’d damn well better earn my respect or quickly fade away. Shit-stirrers who feel offended that I’m not impressed and not mesmerized will have no call to yell “discrimination” or otherwise take offense. It’s true of politics; it’s true of culture wars; it’s true of everything that clamors for my attention.

Immigration and Less-Than-Extreme Vetting

The idea that you have a judge in Seattle say that a foreign national living in Libya has an effective right to enter the United States is beyond anything we’ve ever seen before.

That was Stephen Miller, the sophomoric adviser to our Would-Be Benign Dictator (WBBD) this past weekend.

The foreign nationals in question are people who had already been vetted for visas. Being vetted for a visa, especially a refugee visa, is harder than being vetted for a Trump Administration position. It’s not like someone says, “I like her,” and the Republicans in the Senate promptly fall in line. There are applications, overlapping interviews by rival agencies, more forms, and lots of waiting. The ruling out of Seattle wasn’t that any foreign national in Libya could come to the United States; it was that people with approved visas could use those visas. That’s almost the same, except that it’s completely different!

These are the people who repeatedly make unfounded claims about voter fraud and assure us that Sean Spicer has been 100% correct, regardless of actual facts and published proofs that he’s 100% full of (feces).

The kid who used California state law once to force his high school to have a daily Pledge of Allegiance is now finding that laws can also be used against his (nominal) superior.

Meanwhile….

  • As far as we know, Donald Trump’s usurpation of power was directly aided by the Russian intelligence communities.
  • Our National Security Advisor-to-be conspired with a Russian diplomat, undercutting US sanctions against Russia.
  • Our President continues to make unsubstantiated voter fraud accusations, presumably to prepare us for voting restrictions designed to disenfranchise likely Democrats.
  • Our new Secretary of Health and Human Services would be guilty of insider trader if anyone bothered to prosecute him.
  • Our President’s Senior “Counselor” is guilty of illegally using her government position to endorse private interests.
  • Rick Perry, to his surprise, is in charge of the effectiveness of America’s nuclear weapons, not selling more Texas crude (that’s oil, not behavior) to anyone he can.
  • Dr. Ben Carson is in charge of Housing and Urban Development, although he may think “HUD” stands for “Helpless Urban Decay.”
  • Betsy’s DeVos’s corrections of tweets themselves need corrections.
  • The State Department is now a subsidiary of ExxonMobil.

This is week four.

Now, What?

What happens now?

A would-be benign despot was sworn in as my nation’s leader yesterday. In his inaugural speech, he spoke of ending “American carnage.” He spoke of returning power to the people, as if he wasn’t filling his government with billionaires who are philosophically inclined to dismantle the agencies they are tasked with running. Those in his Cabinet who aren’t billionaires seem to be generals and elected officials who share his pro-billionaire stances. He thinks that only he can save us from… something, like this “American carnage” that I don’t recognize.

The media tells me attendance at his swearing in was poor; the would-be benign despot (“WBBD”) railed today during a ceremony at the CIA about the dishonest media, as if we hadn’t all seen pictures comparing crowds yesterday with crowds eight years ago. Were the pictures yesterday from early in the day, before the crowds arrived? I’m waiting for the pro-WBBD media and trolls to post pictures identifiably from yesterday that show the larger crowds, presumably from later in the day. I’m also looking for something refuting reports that the National Park Service has been barred from Twitter in petty retaliation for tweeting estimates of inauguration attendance that support the smaller estimates.

Today, hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people turned out in Washington, DC and dozens of other cities in support of progressive policies, or perhaps in protest of the wbbd. I’m not sure what their appearance changes in the short term. Betsy DeVos can still gut the Department of Education. Rick Perry can still gut research into sustainable energy and try to turn the Department of Energy into the marketing arm of the petroleum and natural gas industries like he allegedly thought it was. Scott Pruitt can still still neuter the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts until he can gut the regulations in favor of industry over environment. Andrew Puzder can make a mockery of the Department of Labor, and Wilbur Ross can make the Department of Commerce the support group for robber-barons who will loot successful companies for their own profit. Jeff Sessions seems to want to redefine “Justice” in some way that Martin Luther King and Thurgood Marshall wouldn’t recognize.

In eighteen months, especially if there is relief from gerrymandering from the Supreme Court, we can start taking back the House of Representatives and the Senate from the puppets installed by right-wing well-funded special interest groups. That might provide some push-back in favor of the environment, public education, human rights, workers’ rights, and other causes we used to take for granted.

My country will now have two parallel media: the old “mainstream media,” upon whom the WBBD has declared war upon, and the cranks and foreign influences who benefit from the WBBD’s behaviors. I’ll continue to follow the old mainstream and some outlets that were distinctly more progressive than the mainstream, trying to take nothing for granted but giving them the benefit of the doubt compared to the rabble-rousers who seem to think the WBBD’s words are truthful and moral when most of us can plainly see they aren’t.

I hope “American Carnage,” isn’t something I come to recognize. I hope the undocumented workers among me in the community aren’t rounded up and deported for no more cause than their lack of legal status here. I hope my LGBTQ friends and friends of friends can continue to live their lives openly and happily, as families or in whatever form they prefer.

I am once more part of the opposition, even more than I ever was during any prior Republican administration.

I hope this is our low point, when the scales fall from the eyes of the blind and all of us are galvanized to say, “This isn’t normal; this isn’t right; this isn’t what I want.”

Use “Deplorable,” and I’ll Take You Literally

Two months ago, I vented about Matt Drudge using the term, “the deplorables,” the way others might use a term like “auto repairmen,” or “left-handed people.” I wondered if there was any shame any longer in society, as people mocked others by claiming the term, “deplorable,” as if being called a “deplorable” was similar being called a Yankees fan by a Mets fan.

Two months later, my position hasn’t changed. Even if someone purports not to be insulted to be called a “deplorable,” they should be. I can’t imagine any society I’d want to live in deciding that misogyny, racism, homophobia, or xenophobia are OK after all. If you claim you aren’t any of those things, why are you claiming the title, “deplorable”? It’s not like claiming to be a “dumb blonde” when you’re merely blonde and can show you’re not dumb. It’s not like you’re claiming Hansen’s Disease has an undeserved reputation and that you’ll call yourself a leper in solidarity with your friends with Hansen’s Disease.

So, yes, when someone tries to mock liberals by using “despicable” as a self-descriptior, I won’t feel mocked; I’ll feel warned. That person just gave away the benefit of the doubt. They may know my brother from military service, either past or current, but I no longer regard them as honorable, regardless of their classification at discharge, if any.

Government Is Not a Business

I find myself reminding myself that government is not a business lately. Some of that is due to Voldemort’s ascension to the head of government; people seem to think his alleged success means he’ll be successful at running the government. But we heard talk of running the government like a business long before he threw his wand into the ring. I think I remember hearing it during the (now only) Clinton Administration twenty years ago.

I was always amused when after people screamed about running government like a business they got upset when they found government managers paying their employees well and having lavish meetings to reward their best employees. Hey, that’s what some kinds of business do: they motivate their best people with rewards, not just praise, and sometimes they pay more to hire better people than merely competent. But, I digress.

Government exists to do the things that individuals and businesses can’t, won’t, or shouldn’t. They do things for a common good, which is very different from why a business operates. National defense is an example. All of us collectively have an interest in keeping our country safe from foreign aggression, and sometimes keeping our country safe means making alliances in which we trade the promise of other countries’ support of us in a time of need for our promise of support of them in their times of need. It turns out, we can find businesses that will provide soldiers and weapons, but they don’t offer their services to individuals or small communities; they offer their services to countries.

Fire protection is another service managed by governments. In the early days of America, fire protection was sometimes provided by insurance companies for their clients — but that caused problems as fires spread from one company’s client to another company’s client’s property. Communities recognized that fire departments were community assets and that fire protection was a community’s shared responsibility.

Law enforcement and criminal justice is another area that is — or should be — a public interest service, not a commercial enterprise. We want those enforcing the law and those prosecuting offenders to be beholden to all of us, not just those who pay for the services. While some legal matters are civil matters handled by private parties in lawsuits between each other, other matters are offenses against the state, against the collective good. Murder isn’t a crime because of the loss felt by relatives or friends of the victim; it’s also an offense against the peace shared by all of us, against our security and safety.

There are other things government does for the benefit of all of us when the will of the people is not to trust private enterprise with some goal or task.

The National Park Service and, to a lesser extent, the US Forest Service, are examples of government doing things for a collective common good instead of letting private enterprises manage those things for some combination of our common interest and their own private benefit. We the people own Yellowstone and Yosemite instead of the Disney Corporation or the Hilton Hotels chain because our collective interest is in conflict with some of their interests. Yes, they may be well equipped to collect park entrance fees and run campgrounds, but they have concerns about economic returns that we don’t want to subject natural treasures to. The Forest Service has a somewhat different mandate, focussing a little more on allowing the use of resources of managed private benefit while arbitrating among competing interests for the maximum benefit of all. So, they permit logging, for example, but in ways that will ensure the continued health of the forests, or so the expectation says.

The Environmental Protection Agency, that scapegoat for all that ails businesses, is an example of an agency that pursues goals that have intangible benefits, benefits few private enterprises would recognize, let alone make priorities. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA, is another such agency, protecting workers against economic pressures that might motivate private enterprises (and governments) to act against workers’ interests. Both the EPA and OSHA were founded after public outcries arose about abuses that were too scandalous to ignore. Worker safety wasn’t a priority for business owners during the Industrial Revolution until the collective public outcry led to OSHA’s foundation and various laws about worker safety and workers’ rights. Similarly, the EPA and other government agencies with mandates to fight pollution arose because business had no economic case to care about soil pollution, air pollution, water pollution, and other forms of pollution.

This is why I don’t give much of a care about business whining about the high cost of fighting global warming, or “climate change” if you want to call it that. We know that businesses have various economic incentives to ignore long term effects in pursuit of quarterly earnings or protecting the the existence of their market. To the private individual, long term thinking asks, “Will there be a healthy planet for my grandchildren’s grandchildren?” but the long term thinking of an oil or coal executive might ask, “Will there be a market for our products in fifty or one hundred years?” You might hope there will be other uses for oil or coal that damage the environment next, or other uses for the technologies they currently use for those fields, but for those businessmen, maximizing their economic return over the time periods they care about means preserving their markets as they are, pollution be damned.

I hear interviews on the radio with voters who want this candidate or that to downsize “government.” I have yet to hear someone say, “Let’s start with not filling in the potholes on my street.” Everyone always wants to start with the government functions they don’t use. Do we really need OSHA to make sure fishing in the northern Pacific fishing fleets is safe? Do we even need OSHA to tell me how to keep my workers safe? We don’t, until someone cuts corners and cuts more corners and suddenly our worker mortality rate is climbing. Mine safety? Well, sure, profit margins are getting thin for coal because natural gas is getting even cheaper and even more widely available, but, yes, those miners’ lives matter, even if they’ve become numb to the danger.

OSHA barely monitors, let alone regulates or enforces, safety in health care. Are nurses routinely asked to risk their bodies in how they do their jobs, moving heavy loads or working with dangerous diseases? OSHA has a mandate to do that, as they do with any job in which people get injured or killed, but according to a news story a I heard a couple of yeas ago, they have no funding or staffing to fulfill that mandate.

Can the National Park Service and the US Forest Service keep all of their capital investments and improvements in good working order, or is maintenance and upkeep slipping due to budget pressures? Why would we build visitor centers and campgrounds if twenty-five years later we can’t maintain them? (Please don’t talk about capital investment compared to expenses; look at the big picture and tell me if the result is right, not how we got that result.)

I would love to see some agency or perhaps some NGO think tank look at every branch of the Federal executive branch, at every Department, at every agency, at every bureau, and compute how much it would cost to do all of their jobs correctly. Would some park say, “We need 425 Rangers but we only have 230”? Never mind if we could find enough qualified people to do that work; just tell me how much you would need if you had access to the resources you need. Add all that up, and then tell me what the Federal budget should be. Then tell me how much more income we need than we have.

Every government agency and program exists because at some point in time, there was a compelling case to create that agency or program. Despite Tea Party intuitions, very few agencies or programs exist just because no one thought to kill them when their role disappeared. Politicians love to take credit when they can find a program that has outlived its usefulness and retire it. Government unions aren’t so powerful that there are 312 buggy whip inspectors now because we once needed 312 buggy whip inspectors.

People’s interests naturally conflict. I want the best tools at my work to do my job; my manager wants the lowest costs, unless we can demonstrate that the higher costs are justified by higher incomes as a result. I want the shortest route from Madison to Chicago, but there are small towns between here and there that don’t want an Interstate highway through their downtown and other cities in the region that want the highway to come close enough to them to be useful for them, too. Government exists to mediate among those competing interests. The rich and powerful might be just as happy without that mediation; they could just buy or bully their way to what they want, if they’re so inclined. But those limits on their ability to do that are meant for all of us, because all of us have times here or there when we can’t protect our own interests on our own.

Businesses are meant to be great in competitive situations; competition is supposed to keep those businesses honest in their dealings with customers and to encourage improvement.

Governments are meant to work in non-competitive situations, where there is a common good, regardless of whether their are tangible incentives to meet that common good. They’re also meant, as I just said, to provide balance among competing interests, to provide equal protections for all so that might and justice go to all of us, not just the most powerful or the richest.

Government is not a business. It’s not meant to be. The sooner we remember that — or admit that — the sooner we should return to a functioning, equitable government that serves us all.