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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Red Is the New Green

I must preface this by saying that drivers everywhere are little more than animals, at least most of them, at least as far as most cyclists are concerned. Spanish drivers have an annoying and probably lethal habit of watching the pedestrian signal when they are stopped at a light. When the pedestrian light flashes yellow drivers here take this as their signal to proceed through the intersection thus shaving at least one second, perhaps two off of their commute times.

This coupled with drivers running through yellow lights makes you wonder how there aren’t thousands and thousands of accidents every day. The problem is mostly for cyclists as drivers may be looking either to the right or the left at the pedestrian signal and not see you as you make your way across the zebra crossing. The police could easily remedy this situation but they don’t.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me" F. Scott Fitzgerald

They are also different than they were before the Reagan tax cuts.

Remember Sherman McCoy, the protagonist from Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities and his $2 million apartment on 5th Avenue? Even if you take inflation into account that place wouldn’t be fit for a college crash pad for the children of today’s hyper-rich elite. Only 30 years after the Reagan era tax cuts for the rich went into effect we have seen Tom Wolfe’s cautionary tale turn into a quaint little fable.

It’s one thing for people to stand by and do nothing but watch as our elites stack the cards in favor of the richest few in America but it’s another thing to cheer it on at every step, convincing ourselves that we could be part of that group with the right lottery ticket, a few hands of blackjack, or maybe a little promotion. Most criticism of the hyper-rich is met with a cascade of insults about how you’re just jealous, or that you hate capitalism—the modern version of apostasy.

It just pathetic that we allow ourselves to be fed these inequalities in our diet of popular culture, as if it’s now perfectly normal that a few members of our society have risen to god-like status leaving us questioning whether or not it’s even possible to be considered a citizen if you’re merely eking out an existence like most of us. It’s supposed to be OK because in the future (according to the books, stories, TV, and movies we are force-fed) we’ll all have a super-rich friend who can lend us money.

The pop culture landscape is littered with the propaganda that hyper-rich people are our friends, they just have enough money to make the world spin the other way if they so desire. A recent example is Why Him?, an utterly forgettable film with the following synopsis: A holiday gathering threatens to go off the rails when Ned Fleming realizes that his daughter's Silicon Valley millionaire boyfriend is about to pop the question.

Except the boyfriend isn’t a millionaire because that would be too boring and unoriginal, not that the film is adverse to boring and unoriginal during its seemingly endless one hour and 50 minute runtime. No, a millionaire doesn’t travel in a private helicopter and may not even fly first class unless it’s a company upgrade. In the film the father calls him a “zillionaire” which is just further proof that our ship is sailing off the face of the earth in uncharted waters in which a new vocabulary is necessary. Vocabulary is the least of our worries in this age of wealth inequality.

This poison is making its way into what we read. This is from the short story “Signal” form the April 3, 2017edition of the New Yorker where we are served this description of one of these plutocrats:

“Michael was loaded, seriously and unambiguously loaded. He was the kind of rich that even other people who were rich considered rich. He had made the money himself. It was all the more impressive because Michael seemed barely to have noticed. His peers and friends and rivals and colleagues were all amazed by the fact that Mike was now some kind of gazillionaire…”

Just why it’s important to the story to have a “gazillionaire” isn’t really clear except that he has a house so big and vast that one would hardly notice if, during an overnight visit, a mysterious stranger may or may not have diddled your unsupervised kids while you were out doing something stinking rich people do (killing animals that are served to you on a platter, like hunting at a petting zoo). He could have placed the whole story in a moderately-priced hotel but where’s the fun in that? I suppose that the author feels that the mega-mansions of billionaires make for better literature than any Holiday Inn Express.

Next we have the excellent Showtime series Billions which goes right to the heart of the matter, sort of. Here is the synopsis: U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades goes after hedge fund king, Bobby "Axe" Axelrod in a battle between two powerful New York figures. U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades goes after hedge fund king, Bobby "Axe" Axelrod in a battle between two powerful New York figures.

Half-way through the second season it’s almost impossible to tell who the good guy is and who is the bad guy—if there is a bad guy. I completely understand the idea of not painting this Manichean tableau of good and evil but at the same time I have some misgivings about the storyline.

Balzac wrote in Le Père Goriot, Le secret des grandes fortunes sans cause apparente est un crime oublié, parce qu’il a été proprement fait.I don’t care to discuss here whether behind all great fortunes there is a crime but I can state confidently that nothing threatens our democracy more than the concentration of wealth into the hands of a few individuals. If you doubt this I will point you to Exhibit A, the new president of the USA. If ever there were an unqualified plutocrat running the show then that guy is Trump.  

Hello Citizens United, adiós democracy, and welcome to the new aristocracy. For those of us who have read some history we already know how this ends. Now where did we put those guillotines?

Friday, March 24, 2017

What the Clothing Pin Industrial Complex Doesn’t Want You to Read

This is the view below my window where I hang my clothes to dry. As you can see there are dozens of clothing pins that have fallen from above yet people on the first floor make no effort to return these lost items. Clothing pin manufacturers obviously pay them to sit on this dormant resource so that chumps like me continue to give money to the man to replace the pins we lose. Can I blame Trump?

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Friday, March 10, 2017

Forgotten Aphorisms of Sun Tzu: The Art of War for Chickenhawks

If you were the executive producer of The Apprentice, assistant night manager of Trump International Hotel Las Vegas, chief executive officer of the Central Park Carousel, founder of Trump Model Management, chairman of Trump Spring Water, necktie magnate, and the current president of the United States of America, you may as well take advantage of your other title as commander in chief of the world’s most powerful military to invade somewhere. Winning a war would be as good a way as any to Make America Great Again® as well as padding your Wikipedia entry.

As experienced in the previous Republican administration, with war comes a stampede of excuses as to why those most in favor of military solutions mostly tiptoed away from military service in their personal lives. President Trump didn’t even bother with a phony National Guard stint during the Viet Nam conflict. His bone spur deferment probably wouldn’t be an accepted excuse for one of his minimum-wage day laborers to take an afternoon off. According to his records Trump was denied full military laurels by his “phenomenal draft number.” Millions of American veterans are probably kicking themselves and asking, “Why didn’t I think of that before defending my country?”

Cowardice is an attribute most Chickenhawks have no trouble working around, but sometimes we all could use a little help with verbal self-defense. It's not easy to maintain a tough guy strategy advocating military force while getting no closer to the action than binge watching Band of Brothers over the weekend. Famous Chinese philosopher and draft-dodger Sun Tzu offers a few words of wisdom on how to insure that the “boots on the ground” won’t belong to you. Transform your spinelessness into military glory with this volume of maxims that are every bit as silly and meaningless as Sun Tzu’s better known work.

1 - Death is a given in war and someone must bring comfort to the young and beautiful widows. Try to get that job.

2 - Shooting your enemy in the back or while he sleeps may be cowardly but let’s face it, in a fair fight the guy would stomp a mud puddle in your chest.

3 - The greatest art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting, at least on a personal level because, let’s face it, we’re too important to get our hands dirty. Furthermore, we’d have to change out of these snazzy dress uniforms.

4 - Sometimes the greatest warrior must position himself at—how shall I say—a very comfortable distance from the field of battle and disguised as an old woman, or a Red Cross worker.

5 - Understand the wisdom of running away in panic…I mean retreat, an orderly retreat. Understand the wisdom of an orderly retreat, and by “orderly” I mean fast and pay no heed to that liberal “women and children first” propaganda.

6 - On the day of the great battle there is no shame in claiming you have car trouble, forcing you to work from home. Don’t allow the indignity of your cowardice to be compounded by being docked a day’s wages.

7 - Winning great battles is what separates the great generals from the common. Still, it doesn’t hurt to look the part in shiny boots, and those medals you bought at the thrift shop.

8 - It is impossible to overstate the importance of being really good at playing dead.

9 - War is the last resort and you must fight to the bitter end. However, if the time comes for you to face the music you should try begging for your miserable life while convincing your enemy how useful you will be to them.

10 - In times of war either lead, follow, or blog about it from your parents' basement.

11 - Failure is not an option, but surrender should fit prominently in your repertoire of talents. Never forget that laying down your arms allows you the ability to fight another day—and if you throw in the towel before noon you can take advantage of “Taco Tuesdays” in the POW mess hall.

12 - Politicians are the true enemy—especially politicians who call for mandatory military service.

13 - Of your adversary, know but one simple thing: does he have lots of cool loot you can pillage?

14 - Let history be your guide in future wars. Unless history shows that war leads to disaster and ruin which it does most of the time, so screw history. History is for unemployed chumps, not warriors like us.

Coming soon: The Sun Tzu Chickenhawk Desk Calendar. There is also a companion version of this book for businessmen: The Art of War for Bankruptcy.