“People whom fate and their sin-mistakes have placed in a certain position, however false that position may be, form a view of life in general which makes their position seem good and admissible. . . . This surprises us when the persons concerned are thieves bragging about their dexterity, prostitutes vaunting their depravity, or murders boasting of their cruelty. But it surprises us only because the circle, the atmosphere, in which these people live, is limited, and chiefly because we are outside it. Can we not observe the same phenomenon when the rich boast of their wealth-robbery, when commanders of armies pride themselves on their victories-murder, and when those in high places vaunt their power-violence? That we do not see the perversion in the views of life held by these people, is only because the circle formed by them is larger and we ourselves belong to it.” (Resurrection, Leo Tolstoy, trans. Louise Maude)

New Readers:

Please start reading with my first post "A Cup of Coffee". Originally posted on March 19, the archival date changed when I made corrections on May 13, which is the date under which you can find it now.

I'll learn to manage this all more smoothly someday, but at present I have at most only an hour online each day (that thanks to the San Francisco Public Library system, without which I would be lost).

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

It Has Begun

I was on my way to City College this afternoon, hurrying to the BART Station at 16th and Mission.  Walking briskly toward the stairs, I saw that the curved wall which usually displays works of art or community information notices was instead covered with post-it notes.  I stepped closer, read a few, and then, because I was about to be late for class, I hurried on toward my train.  At the bottom of the stairs, I turned around and climbed back up, taking my phone out of my backpack as I did.  I was afraid that the notes might be gone by the time I could return, taken away by wind or the city.

I had to record what I could to show it to you here.  The close-ups all together show about a quarter, perhaps a third, of all the notes.  Post-it pads, pens, and tape had been left along the ledge at the base of the wall. 

I thought, "This is the city talking to itself."  I thought of the Freedom Wall in Tiananmen Square.  I thought of that guy standing in front of the tank.  And I remembered Leonard Cohen.

It's coming to America first
 The cradle of the best and of the worst
 It's here they got the range
 And the machinery for change
 And it's here they got the spiritual thirst
 It's here the family's broken
 And it's here the lonely say
 That the heart has got to open
 In a fundamental way
 Democracy is coming to the USA





Sail on, sail on
 Oh mighty ship of State
 To the shores of need
 Past the reefs of greed
 Through the Squalls of hate
 Sail on, sail on, sail on, sail on


Thursday, April 7, 2016

Socialist London

I was surprised to learn recently that Jack London, like me a native of Oakland, California and, unlike me, the first person ever to become a millionaire by writing (and a million in 1900 was a fortune indeed) was an outspoken and dedicated socialist and that his name is known around the world for his socialist writings.  I am not surprised that the American educational system has emasculated his literary reputation by teaching only his early works ("White Fang" and "Call of the Wild") and relegating him to the category of adventure writer.  [You gotta love this guy:  he is also responsible for introducing surfing to the U.S.]

In 1908 Jack London published "The Iron Heel," an odd little novel of the genre I would call Social-Science Fiction.  Like Bellamy's "Looking Backward", it purports to be a future history in which events in our future are recounted from the perspective of an even more distant future.  In London's book, the conceit is that an account of a socialist revolution begun in our time was written by one of the participants and that this account has come to light only in the 27th century.  Thus we have a first-person narrative of a revolution with commentary and footnotes provided by a scholar 700 years from now.

What astonished me most about the book is that it so accurately describes the major geopolitical and economic events of the 20th century even though it was written before any of them happened.  London seems to have foreseen the Stock Market Crash and ensuing Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, the labor unrest of that period, the strategy by which FDR co-opted the union movement and saved capitalism, the economic basis of the two World Wars, a U.S. foreign policy intent on keeping the country permanently at war, the development of the suburbs, the creation of NAFTA, and even the rise of the Christian Right as a political power.

What lends weight to the remarkable similarity between events that London imagined and events as they played out over 100 years is that London presents all of these developments as the inevitable result of observable facts about capitalism in the United States.  London does not argue for socialism on moral or political grounds:  he argues that an empirical observation of the society in which he lived would necessarily lead one to conclude logically that a nascent revolution of the working class would be crushed by a capitalist class that co-opted the political institutions of democracy to establish its own plutocracy.  London believed that the only possible outcome of conditions in his day would be that liberty and justice for the worker would be crushed under the Iron Heel of the oligarchy, and such is the story the novel tells.

The story revolves around a revolutionary leader who bears a striking resemblance to London himself.  Early in the novel, this working-class hero, Ernest Everhard, addresses a meeting of a secretive group of the most powerful capitalists and politicians in the country, something like the Bohemian Club of San Francisco.  Here is his indictment of capitalism:

"If modern man's producing power is a thousand times greater than that of the caveman, why then, in the United States today, are there fifteen million people who are not properly sheltered and not properly fed?  Why then, in the United States today, are there three million child laborers?  It is a true indictment.  The capitalist class has mismanaged.  . . . you have mismanaged, my masters, . . . you have selfishly and criminally mismanaged." 

Everhard goes on to say that eventually the oligarchy will be overthrown by the power of the working class:

"There is a greater strength than wealth, and it is greater because it cannot be taken away.  Our strength, the strength of the proletariat, is in our muscles, in our hands to cast ballots, in our fingers to pull triggers."

The working class revolution, London believed, would eventually establish a more just and peaceful social order.  But before that resolution can come, we must pass through a period of increasing domination and oppression.  The story describes the overwhelming power of the oligarchy, using as it does all the types of power available.  Police and military, universities and intellectuals, the news media, publishers, the churches and the clergy all cooperate with the oligarchy, reinforcing the self-justifying ideas and values it formulates.  Because the myths and propaganda of the oligarchy are so aggressively propagated, and the general population so relentlessly indoctrinated, only a prolonged suffering will awaken the proletariat to the true nature of the situation.

Simply put, The Establishment consisting of wealthy white males will not give up power easily.  The workers may have history and justice on their side, but the oligarchy has the military, the courts, the banks, the media, and the police to support and enforce its hold on power.  The oligarchy's dedication to the maintenance of its power is made clear when a member of the Capitalists' club answers the revolutionary hero thus:

"This, then, is our answer.  We have no words to waste on you.  When you reach out your vaunted strong hands for our palaces and our ease, we will show you what strength is.  In roar of shell and shrapnel and in whine of machine-guns will our answer be couched.  We will grind you revolutionists down under our heel, and we shall walk upon your faces."


The new book "Dark Money" by Jane Mayer reports in detail about the network established by the Koch brothers to take control of all levels of our government (municipal, state, and federal) and to control who is elected to all legislative and executive offices, from the small-town mayor to the President of the United States.  I know that many scoff at the idea that this country is being taken over by the extremely wealthy elite (just as many of the characters in London's novel refuse to believe the hero.)  Many will reject books such as "Dark Money", calling it alarmist and portraying its author as a "conspiracy theorist" who is not fully in touch with reality.  Many will think such things about me.  And they will say something to the effect that Jack London lived a long time ago and that things are surely much different now than they were then.

But before you dismiss all the talk of an oligarchy scheming to control our government at every level, consider what Jimmy Carter had to say in a speech he gave to a meeting of the Atlantik Bruecke ("Atlantic Bridge"), a non-profit that fosters better relations between Germans and Americans.  The former President said in his speech that "America does not at the moment have a functioning democracy."  Carter's remarks were not reported by a single mainstream news agency in the United States, but they were reported in Der Spiegel, the leading German news magazine.  (The report, by the way, did not appear in the English language version of Der Spiegel either, but only in the German one.)


In the final chapters of "The Iron Heel," the oligarchy does indeed bring its Iron Heel down on the people.  It walks on their faces.  And all that the revolutionary hero can do is to repeat the following again and again as bloody events swirl around the revolutionaries: 

"How many rifles have you got?  Do you know where you can get plenty of lead?  When it comes to powder, chemical mixtures are better than mechanical mixtures, you take my word."

Saturday, April 2, 2016


For the last six months or so of the two years that I drove nights, I often began my shift by driving Tito, who had been driving cab for more than thirty years, to his home in an apartment building on Bush at Stockton.  The beginning of my day and the end of his was a twenty minute conversation while driving downtown from the Luxor yard.  I asked him questions about the business, and he generously gave me some advice.  He also paid me $20 at the end of each ride, another bit of generosity, one that embarrassed me but which I could not afford to refuse.

Most often we spent the time talking about politics in the broadest sense, that is, about whatever affects the life of the polis.  We talked about the declining quality of life in San Francisco, the declining value of the dollar, the declining earnings of cabbies, and about the corruption rampant in the City's current administration.  I always talked too much, blabbing on with no editorial filters about the inhumanity of capitalism's drive for individual accumulation of wealth and about my longing for a shared sense that we are all in this together and must rely on one another.

As he got to know me, Tito asked the scheduler to assign me to his cab every night that I worked.  He appreciated the care I took to keep the cab clean and to monitor its performance in case it needed maintenance.  I think (or hope) that he appreciated other qualities in me, too.  I remember an off-hand comment he made one day:  "I like your politics, Howard."  As for me, I just plain liked Tito.

Tito suffers intense back pain constantly, a condition that has been aggravated (if not in fact caused) by the decades he spent sitting in a car for ten to twelve hours a day.  I have watched Tito take five minutes or more just unfolding himself from the driver's seat and trying to rise to his feet.  Still, he never complains, and even on days when I could see that the pain was cutting deep, Tito always had a smiling greeting for everyone he encountered.  He seemed to know everyone at Luxor and to have a bit of repartee ready for each.

I no longer drive nights.  I switched to driving what is called a "ramp van," a cab fitted with equipment allowing it to carry a person in a wheelchair.  I miss my conversations with Tito.  So I was excited when, a couple of weeks ago, Tito pulled up next to me as I was walking from the bus stop to the yard.  He offered to give me a ride the rest of the way.  He was ending his shift early just as I was beginning mine late.

I got in the cab and asked Tito how he was doing.  "Not too well," he said.  Then he told me why.
Tito is what's called a "medallion holder."  Any vehicle used to transport passengers for a fee (called a "commercial livery vehicle") used to have to display a medallion, which looks like a miniature license plate, on the dashboard of the car, making it visible from the front of the car through the windshield.  By limiting the number of medallions issued, the city was able to control the number of livery vehicles on the streets, to limit traffic congestion, and to enable the quick identification of any cab and its driver should the cab be involved in an accident or be the scene of a crime.

The medallion was a license to operate a transportation business and hence a license to make money.  They were valuable.  Every cabbie had to own one or rent one when its owner was not using it himself.  Cabbies put their names on the waiting list for medallions the minute they were hired and waited twenty years or more to get to the top of the list.  Then they were able to buy a medallion from the city for prices that eventually reached two hundred and fifty or three hundred thousand dollars.  The medallion system is still the law, and every day that I work, part of the gate fee I pay to use a particular cab goes to the person who owns its medallion.  So when I was driving nights using Tito's medallion, he received part of my gate fee.

When Tito gave me a lift to work that day he told me that he used to get a check for $2400 from Luxor each month for the use of his medallion by other drivers.  At some point last autumn, the check was cut to $1900.  Now it has been cut to $1000.

Tito has worked hard for thirty years and invested $300,000 in his medallion, expecting the income from it to provide for his retirement.  He played by the rules, paid with his health and his life savings for a position in the business that should have taken care of him in his old age.  His body is broken.  He has neither the youthful energy nor the time to start over.

This is what the Tech enthusiasts gleefully call "disruption."  I call it an injustice, and I curse the lives and the fortunes of those who have brought it about.  The lesson is clear:  you can take all that crap about playing by the rules, obeying the law, working hard, and being loyal and toss it all out the window.  None of it has any place in the new millennium.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Another Cup of Coffee

A few days ago I sat down in the mid-afternoon to have coffee with a recent acquaintance, G.  I met G at my friend J's house.  G and J are old friends, and G, who has lived in New York for the past ten years, has been staying with J while he looks for work here in the Bay Area.  G has been here looking for work for over six months now.  In that time he has interviewed for over fifty positions, one of which encouraged powerful hopes as he had sixteen interviews with that company.  In the end, they hired internally, and except for a couple of short-term contract jobs, G has not been able to find work.  G is 49 years old.

As we sip coffee, and stir it, and sip a little more, we get to talking about the current job market, the economy in general, and our personal experiences in trying to find work.  What strikes me about G's story is that he has done everything right.  I look back at my own long slide into poverty and see the errors of my ways:  bad relationships, procrastination, laziness, magical thinking, over-confidence, and spendthrift habits.  G, however, has managed to support his wife and daughter as the family's sole breadwinner, to save money, to buy a house in Warwick, New York, and to build a sizable retirement nest-egg, all at the same time.

G graduated from college with a degree in design and went into marketing.  When computers first entered the business arena, he immediately devoted himself to mastering the new way of doing things, and he has stayed current with technology for over two decades. At the height of his fortunes, during the period from 2005 to 2009, G was Executive Creative Director for a digital marketing firm in Greenwich, Connecticut.

At the beginning of this period, in December of 2004, G suffered a massive heart attack.  Luckily, he did so in front of a cardiologist who saved his life.  Luckily, too, he had just purchased a 20-year life insurance policy which he has managed to keep in effect to this day.  So even despite that huge piece of bad luck, G had every reason to believe that he was managing his destiny responsibly.  Although the heart attack in December might have led him to worry about the fact that he had purchased his house just two months earlier, in October, G did have unemployment insurance and health coverage to see him through the six months that it took him to recover.  Soon thereafter, the job in Greenwich came through, and G was once again sailing along a rational, responsible, and honorable course.


Not far from Greenwich and Warwick, and some 25 years earlier, I began my first full year of teaching at Union College in Schenectady, New York.  In the first term, I taught, among other things, a course in the foundational literary works of Western Civilization.  I vividly remember teaching Sophocles's play "Oedipus", a work with which I thought I had been familiar for a decade by then.  But it was only then that I understood the heroic virtue of Oedipus.  Like everyone else, I knew that he had saved the city of Thebes from the ravages of the Sphinx and that he had ruled the city-state as a good king.  But on that reading I realized how hard he had struggled to be good.

Having heard as a young man a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother, he ran away from home, not knowing that the father and mother he left were his adoptive parents.  It is in sacrificing his home and family and position in society in order to be a good man and avoid his terrible destiny that he finds himself at a cross-roads killing a stranger with whom he has quarreled and proceeding to save the city of Thebes and marry that stranger's widow.  It is in the very effort to remain good that Oedipus sets out on the path that leads him to kill his father and marry his mother.  The tragedy of Oedipus is that right action, undertaken for the best of motives, with true moral integrity and a heroic heart, leads the best of all men to the most horrible loss and suffering.  As Shakespeare's Gloucester says in "King Lear", "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods.  They kill us for their sport."


And so my friend had done everything right, and yet 2008 came along, and the financial system imploded, and the company in Greenwich lost its major clients, and in 2009 G lost his job.  Half of the men living in G's neighborhood in Warwick lost their jobs too.  So G knew that it was not a matter of personal failure.


I heard Hillary Clinton say, after Bernie Sanders had criticized a capitalist system in which the rich suffer no penalties for their misdeeds and only grow richer while the majority of citizens descend deeper and deeper into poverty, that she celebrates small business entrepreneurs, who have created most of the new jobs in our country for the past few decades.  This bit of proverbial nonsense is the nostrum offered up by the quacks of both parties:  it relieves the government and the society at large of having any responsibility for the economic well-being of us citizens.  What la Clinton is saying is "Let the little people take care of finding employment for one another."


A couple of years into his ordeal, G sank a good piece of his savings into starting up a new marketing company.  He developed an app which would allow those who had food to sell that was near or at its "sell by" date to offer it at hugely discounted prices to nearby buyers who could make use of it before it spoiled.  Realizing that much of this food ended up, at the time, in the pantries of various charities and non-profits that feed the poor, G built in an automatic donation of cash from the sale of this food to those charities.  Despite great enthusiasm from all sectors that would potentially be affected, the business failed to take off.  G did not have and could not get access to the capital necessary to develop this business to a point where it could survive and succeed on its own merits.

And so G went into debt for the first time in his life.  He has had to draw down nearly all of his retirement savings.  He was able to refinance his house, lowering his monthly payments by getting a new mortgage at a lower rate, but the length of the mortgage was extended from thirty years to forty years.  As G pointed out, the banks lose nothing.  G has lost his savings, his retirement, and, by the way, his marriage as well.  He has not lost his house -- yet.  But unless something changes soon, even that will go.


Jamie Diamond remains at the head of J.P. Morgan/Chase and continues to rake in hundreds of millions in "compensation" annually.  He has become big buddy-buddies with President Obama.  Alan Greenspan, Henry Paulsen, Tim Geitner, and Ben Bernanke remain at large.


                                    "Everybody knows the fight is fixed:
                                    The poor stay poor, the rich get rich.
                                    That's how it goes.
                                    And everybody knows."


"What really gets to me," G says, "is having to wake up in the morning and do another round of applications and interviews, to smile and act enthusiastic and energetic about these prospects that remain only prospects.  Sixteen interviews -- sixteen interviews -- and they hire someone else.  Or they decide not to fill the position.  Or most often they don't even tell you what they are doing.  You go to interviews -- I had one with the CFO of a company, supposed to be the final green-light moment, and she seemed to really like me, we were scheduled for a half-hour and she kept me there for over a full hour, and then you hear nothing.  These companies don't even have the courtesy to let you know that they are not going to hire you.

"And if you are hired, they expect you to work for them 24/7 but there's no loyalty from them in return.  I remember when I was just starting out and I was working at a big corporation in New York, a global marketing firm, and at one point they let all these senior people go.  I saw these guys who had given thirty years of their lives to this company filling cardboard boxes with all the personal stuff from their desks and crying.  I saw that and right then I knew that you couldn't trust any of them.  They'll throw you out like trash any time they want.

"But harder than that -- let me tell you a story.  So my marriage has fallen apart, and I'm out here dealing with all this stress, and I've already had a massive heart attack.  So I just don't know how long I can take it.  I can stay on J's floor on his air mattress, or I can stay at my sister-in-law's apartment when she's out of town, and J's a great guy but I need some more human contact than just that.

"So I go on a date with this woman, really beautiful woman.  I met her on Match.  And she's going through a similar thing where she and her husband are separated but they're still living in the same house because real estate is so crazy out here.  And on her profile are pictures of the house which is really big and beautiful, and she's wearing beautiful clothes that are obviously really expensive, and she's driving a Lexus.

"And we had great conversation, really connected, talked about all kinds of things, but, you know, I took her out for drinks at this place in the Mission -- and she offered to pay but I'm old fashioned and insisted on paying for us both -- and we had two drinks each and the bill was $60.  When it ended. she offered to give me a ride home.  I tried being evasive but she insisted.  So I had her drop me at J's place and, you know, the front door is under the stairs to the flat above, the original house.

"We got together again and had a good time, but I could tell she was wondering about my situation.  She knows that I'm not currently working and she was asking about J's place.  She wanted to know if that was the basement or something.  I told her that it was a ground-level flat, but still I could tell.  And she knows that I don't have a car and I'm staying with a friend.  So at the end of that date I said something about getting together during the week and she said that she was busy.

"I said, 'I know, I know, I get it.  Listen, you're a very attractive woman, and I enjoyed our time together a lot . . .' and I said goodnight and I'll never see her again.  I've always supported my wife and daughter, just a one- income family.  But people don't know that.  That's not what they see.  And I get so depressed and even suicidal . . . ."

G's eyes looked wet.  We were silent for some minutes.  I don't know what banalities I muttered then, to bring our conversation to a close.  I felt honored by his honesty, by the trust in me it evidenced.  And I felt moved to share his story, or rather this ragged approximation of it, with you here.

Listening to G, I felt my rage at the moral bankruptcy of this America in which we live.  I thought of the hordes of young people who have no idea what is going on as they order their Uber cars, condemning hundreds of thousands of good men all across this country to fates like G's.  I thought of the politicians and the pundits who assert that the solution to such woes is to provide educational opportunities so that the unemployed can learn new skills and find work in the information economy.  All of which is not just bullshit but elephantshit.  I can see in my mind's eye the lines of men and women who enroll in and complete the re-training courses offered by county services and non-profits filled with utterly false hopes and coming face to face with those disappointments when they enter a job market where even those with decades of experience and up-to-date knowledge, intricate expertise, in technology cannot get work.  I shudder to think how, when they have been sold false dreams by callous civic leaders, their inevitable disillusionment may break their spirits and even end their lives.

And then I think too of those hordes of young people who believe that they sit atop the world and that they have earned the tremendous sums they are paid, who believe that the labor market that pays them so handsomely is proof of their worth, and who believe that they will always be worth -- and be paid -- what they are receiving now.  I think of their disdain for unions and their refusal to identify with their elders, like G.  He understood, all those years ago, that one day he might be cast aside as were the men older than he who were clearing out their desks on that sad morning in New York.  I have doubts that the present crop of (blissfully unaware) wage-slaves understand their position at all.  I suspect that they believe in their cohort, the Millennials, as a highly aware, highly creative force that is giving birth to a whole new world, the digital world, which will itself bear fruit as a whole new way for human communities to flourish.

Their generation is likely to be brought up short by the cruelty of America's deified market economy at an even earlier age than my generation has been.  Despite having studied "Death of a Salesman" and "Grapes of Wrath" in school, we failed to understand our own lives as re-enactments of those stories.  We thought that organized labor was irrelevant to the shiny and brave new world that we were building.  We thought that Apple was liberating us from Big Brother when in fact Apple has developed even more effective means of totalitarian control than any that Orwell imagined.  In a culture that reveres youth and the new, the wisdom of age goes unheard.  The generations repeat the same mistakes just as the generations of a dysfunctional family repeat the same abuses endlessly.

And a dark corner of my heart is gladdened to imagine the Millenials suffering when their companies and their technologies and their children abandon them in turn.  Such is the solace of schadenfreude.