“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, October 30, 2013


After nine days in bed with the flu, and a tenth only partially out of bed, I am finally well enough to come before you again.

The seventh of those days, Friday the 25th of October, marked the 102nd anniversary of my father’s birth.  A number of things made the occasion a melancholy one for me.  My illness and resulting exhaustion of course depressed my spirits.  So too did the realization that I felt grateful that neither he nor my mother was alive to see where my life had led me.  To miss beloved parents and grieve their loss while aware of feeling relieved by their absence is another measure of what I have referred to above as “The Distance.” Happy are they who need not feel that particular kind of shame.


I discovered some months ago a reference in my father’s memoirs to “RLS” (Robert Louis Stevenson) as his hero.  Not knowing the man’s work, other than “Treasure Island", which my father read to us children over the course of two weeks one summer vacation.  When we had finished dinner, we continued to sit at the table while mother cleared the dishes, wrapped the leftovers, and cleaned up the kitchen.  Dad would read a chapter or two each night at that time.  If we were very lucky, and if the tale had reached such a crisis that our excitement might keep us from falling asleep, he would read more.  These evenings took place at Lake Tahoe, in a cabin which my father rented every summer from one of the secretaries in his office.

Such were the joys of living without television, computers, video games, handheld devices, and all the rest of the electronic gadgets that are trashing our relationships as well as  our minds.

It has only been in the years since my father’s death that I have learned a couple of things about him that are wrapped up with this memory.  One is that as a young man my father he chose to do volunteer work reading to blind people.  While in High School and after, he would visit these folks in their homes and read to them whatever they wanted to hear -- newspapers, books, magazines, et cetera.  And while I had known that he majored in journalism at U.C. Berkeley, it was not until I began to do some research into the life of his great-grandfather that I understood his (and thus my) literary bent as most probably genetic:  his mother’s grandfather, whom she idolized, had been an owner and publisher of newspapers in northern California and the Nevada Territory throughout the second half of the nineteenth century..

But back to Stevenson.  Curious about what kind of writer my father would have so admired, I looked for anything of his that I could find at the Goodwill Store on Mission at Van Ness.  I bought two volumes, one a copy of “Treasure Island” (which I re-read with joy) and the other a collection of essays and reviews.  In an essay on “The Profession of Letters”, I found the quotation below.  In it I recognized much of my father’s character. The humane values and the tone of this passage, and of Stevenson’s work generally,  his voice both congenial and charitable, justify my father’s -- indeed, anyone’s -- admiration.

“Whatever be your calling, and however much it brings you in the course of a year, you could still, you know, get more by cheating.  We all suffer ourselves to be too much concerned about a little poverty; but such considerations should not move us in the choice of that which is to be the business and justification of so great a portion of our lives; and like the missionary, the patriot, or the philosopher, we should all choose that poor and brave career in which we can do the most and best for mankind.”

Few voices in our day can be heard saying such a thing.  Today the Religion of  Markets declares that if a thing is valuable to mankind, mankind will bid up its price.  Our political debate, especially on the subject of taxes, declares people will not do a thing if they cannot make money, a practically unlimited amount of money at that, by doing it.  People argue seriously that any reduction in the money to be earned from a given activity will cause people to cease performing it.  Motives such as pride of workmanship and of innovation, honor and self-respect, concern for the well-being of others or of the natural environment, and all values other than the purely mercenary are assumed to be trumped by the question of wages.

Do you know how much Jonas Salk raked in for inventing the polio vaccine that virtually eradicated a disease that had crippled and killed millions every year around the world? Nothing.  He had found a way to rid humanity of much suffering, and his pride in that accomplishment and the knowledge that he had honorably performed a service for humanity were enough for him.

So too Theodore Geisel, “Dr. Seuss”, was offered a million dollars for the rights to make a movie of his book “The Cat in the Hat.”  His attorney said, “You will go down in history as the first person ever to be paid a million dollars for the rights to a book.”  Geisel answered, “I’d rather go down in history as the first man who turned down a million dollars.”

Geisel thought that children who had seen the story in a movie would be less likely to take the effort of reading it for themselves in book form.  Since Geisel wrote books for children because he wanted children to learn to read and to love reading, he thought that anything that might interfere with that purpose was not worth any amount of money. Indeed, it has always been the case that writers have written because they thought that what they had to say was worth the trouble of saying it -- certainly not because they thought writing was the surest way to get rich.

So it is with me.

Thanks, Dad.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Philosopher of San Francisco, Part Two

The Portuguese are migrating to Mozambique.  One man invested $1.5 million (the price of a middle class house in San Francisco) in a restaurant business and now employs 100 people. A Portuguese woman has begun exporting the handmade scarves worn by Mozambiquan women.  This morning’s report on CCTV cited high unemployment and high taxes in Portugal as the emigrants' primary motives.

African economies are among the fastest growing in the world, many expanding by 7% or more annually, but their people continue to live in poverty.  In fact, rates of poverty have remained unchanged  or even increased.  South Africa’s unemployment rate is 27%.  It is the economic powerhouse of the continent.  Many foreign companies have well established businesses there.  CCTV reports that French businessmen are there en masse this week for a business development conference.  Yet the rate of poverty among South Africa’s people has actually increased over last year’s rate.

This anomaly -- an increase in economic progress being met with a corresponding increase in poverty -- sparked Henry George’s work in economic theory, first fully set forth in “Progress and Poverty” and published in 1879.  George had come to San Francisco from his native Philadelphia, where he had not been able to find work that was both remunerative and at the same time meaningful to him.  After working in a relative’s dry goods business for a time, he found his calling as a newspaper reporter, editor, and, eventually, owner and publisher of newspapers.  He wrote skillfully, truthfully, and with a passionate sense of justice for all.

One day he was out riding his horse in the hills above Oakland, taking in the expansive views of the entire San Francisco Bay.  (My grandmother’s grandfather published “The Oakland Daily News” in Oakland from 1871 to 1877, and I like to think that he and Henry George were at least acquaintances, if not friends.)  Rounding the flank of a hill, George came across a teamster busy repairing a broken axle on his wagon, his horses idly munching the grass to one side.

The newspaperman had been contemplating the rapidly expanding cities and the throng of ships on the bay, their masts a huge forest taking the place of the now eradicated redwood and oak forests that had covered these denuded hills a mere decade before.  He asked the teamster, “How much is the land here worth?” to which the laboring man replied, “I got no idea what’s worth.  But there’s a man down there,” waving a hand covered in black axle grease in the general direction of a small farm lower down the slope, “who’ll sell you an acre for a thousand dollars.”

That teamster’s remark held the kernel of what would become the life work, first in his thoughts and then in his writings, of Henry George.  The difference between the value and the price of land, the fact that a single man had the authority to dispose of acres and acres of land at his discretion, and the inherent motivation to leave land unused while awaiting a higher price, explained why economic development was bringing poverty to the Golden State.

George had observed in his short time here that there had been no poverty in California when he first arrived, at least what might be called “urban poverty.”  The rural poor may have tattered clothing and few possessions, but they have clothing, food, and a home in which to sleep.  The poor people whose fate so weighed on George lived by contrast in abject misery, the children begging for food and eating out of garbage bins, the women forced into prostitution, the men hopeless, staring blankly on the filth and degradation in which they and their families were mired.  The lives of these people and the economic conditions that led to such ruin could not be explained.  Shouldn't the growth of a huge city, the arrival of trading ships laden to the Plimsoll line with goods from around the world, and the opening of the trans-continental railroad bringing the wealth and power of the United States to this place have improved the living conditions of even the poorest folks?  Why was there not, in Ronald Reagan’s phrase, a “trickle down” effect?  Why didn't the tide lift all ships?

The teamster’s remark led George to realize that “progress” increased the incentive for landowners to make the resource they controlled scarce and thereby to increase rents.  He also realized that there is no need for private ownership in land.  The institution amounts to nothing more than a monopoly granted by the State to individuals who can thereby enrich themselves without labor, without making any contribution at all to the society.  Landlords themselves he compared to the Pharaohs of Egypt and the Maharajahs of India as a parasitic class of people who extort their riches from the working class and employ men at arms and entire judicial systems to keep the oppressed subservient, to prevent revolution.  It is this system that causes poverty.

George believed that no one should escape the duty of working to benefit his fellow citizens by virtue of holding “title” -- a designation on paper created and enforced by the State.  You are entitled to own anything  you make or anything you can get by trading what you have made with someone else.  If you build a house, you can own that house, but you cannot own the land under it.  If you plant a crop on a piece of open land and harvest it, you have full ownership of that harvest.

George showed that it is labor that creates capital, not capital that creates jobs.  Reagan’s lie that  tax cuts for the rich would spur job growth has been decidedly disproved, despite the fact that the business media and politicians still cite the idea as unquestionable truth.  So too George laid to rest the idea that immigrants impoverish a nation’s citizens by taking up resources that would be available for the native born.  “Every mouth arrives in this world with two hands,” he liked to say.  The result of immigration is increased economic growth and more goods for everyone.

I find myself wondering most every day how George’s ideas would play out if implemented in this country now.  In fact, these imaginings are the raw material for my next novel.  In it I also imagine the magical transportation of Jose Cornelio Bernal, holder of a land grant (first Spanish and later Mexican) making him owner of a full quarter of what is now San Francisco, one of the most expensive cities in the world.  When the Americans took California from the Mexicans, his family lost ownership of the land, though after decades of battling their way through the American judicial system, they ultimately won:  the Supreme Court upheld the validity of their claim.  But by then they had either sold it all to pay lawyers or had seen it foreclosed on by lenders.  (The first to foreclose having been one William Tecumseh Sherman, who would later visit a terrorist campaign of violence and plunder on the Confederate States as he burned his way to the sea.)

Of course, now-a-days, Bernal would have no choice but to find work in the Mission as an undocumented alien.  From there he could watch the civic turmoil wrought by rising housing costs and reflect on the justice or injustice of what had been, he thought, his rightful prerogative and a birth-right he would hand down to his children and their children, the private ownership of land.

But that tale will have to wait for now . . . .

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Philosopher of San Francisco

At 9:0AM yesterday, the court dismissed the case against me at the request of the District Attorney, who said that she could not “sustain the burden” of proof “due to a lack of corroboration.”  So ended fourteen months of anxiety and hardship (difficulty finding work, inability to find permanent housing) caused when MRM walked into the Ingleside Police Station and filed a false police report.  He did not even have to show up for any of the court dates – approximately one every three weeks during that period.  He knew that if he accused me of physical violence and said the magic words (I am afraid of him) I would be arrested.  And he gets away with it all.

The “Justice” system.


I now begin a new phase, the second phase, of this work.  I started writing this blog just over six months ago and became somewhat entangled in a need I felt to identify myself and the circumstances of my current life to establish my bona fides for my reader.  I have no idea whether that project is complete or was successful, but my muse, a stern mistress, drives me on.  A friend of mine chided me last month for my failure to deliver on the promise of advocating for social justice and exposing inequities in our unacknowledged class system.  So by way of a mid-course correction, let me tell you how I came to upon the quotation from Tolstoy that stands at the head of this work.

In the summer of 1977 or 1978, I stopped at a used book store in New Hampshire.  As I browsed the selection, a copy of "Progress and Poverty" by Henry George caught my eye.  I had heard of George and his economic philosophy while studying Ezra Pound with Hugh Kenner at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.  I picked the book up and noticed that among the "blurbs" of praise printed on the dust jacket were quotations from Helen Keller and from Leo Tolstoy.  The praise offered was unequivocal:  Tolstoy said that George’s ideas were so fundamentally sound and so clearly presented that no one who read his work could fail to accept their truth.

I marveled at the fact that a work admired by such seminal figures should have become relatively unknown in the intervening years.  I bought the book, but I did not actually open it and begin to read until sometime between 2005 and 2008, about thirty years later.  It was then that I discovered that the thrust of George’s teaching was that the grinding poverty we see in modern societies results from the private ownership of land.  Henry George held that we would not see real social justice until we abolish the private ownership of land, and he supported his arguments with both rigorous philosophical integrity and with convincing historical scholarship.  Once I knew the essence of his teaching I understood completely why his ideas have been ignored and his books forgotten, at least in these United States.

In his own time, George was called “The Philosopher of San Francisco” much as Warren Buffet is today called “The Sage of Omaha.”  He was an autodidact economic philosopher who made his living as a newspaper man in nineteenth-century San Francisco, and he was  regarded highly enough to come close to being elected the Mayor of New York City.  His ideas were encoded in the laws of Ireland and of Australia, both of which were shaping major land-reform legislation during his lifetime.  But the ruthless and rapacious forces of capitalism have dominated his own country, my country, from his time through mine, and so once again the prophet is rejected in his own land.  It is estimated that 100,000 people attended his funeral.

My interest in George had been sparked in part by Tolstoy’s admiration for him, yet I also had little real knowledge of Tolstoy.  I had read only a short story or two of the Russian master’s work.  I knew about "War and peace" and "Anna Karenina" but had not read either one.  And I had not even heard of "Resurrection" until I was listening to NPR one day last winter and heard it recommended by George Saunders.  Having recently experienced the reality of incarceration myself, I checked the book out of the library and read it in a few days.

"Resurrection" tells the story of a man whose encounter with the reality of courts and prisons changes him materially, psychologically, and spiritually.  The hero, Prince Dmitri Nekhlyudov, finds himself sitting on a jury in the trial of a prostitute for murder.  He recognizes her as his aunt's maid, with whom he had an affair while a young student, dismissing her casually with a bank note as he went on to military service.  He realizes that it is he who caused her suffering, and when she is sentenced to fifteen years in Siberia, he resolves to give up all he has and follow her into exile.  The novel tells the story of their journey to Siberia, in the course of which the Prince sees the full range of human misery and depravity thriving within the prison system.

I will have more to say about Tolstoy’s ideas about criminal courts and prison systems in the future, but for now I must mention another element of the novel.  At the beginning, Prince Nekhlyudov is leading a life that is meaningless to him and thus also a life lacking any real pleasure and providing no sense of self-worth.  Ironically, his discovery of his own guilt, his sinful nature, restores to him the sense of purpose and pleasure in life that he had as a youth and ultimately brings him both great peace and great joy.  And one of his greatest joys comes from the one thing which he thought at first would be so hard that he almost gave up the whole project:  giving his estate to the peasants who work the land.

He discovers the proper way to do this so as to benefit the entire community without merely shifting the role of landlord from himself to someone else, who would then necessarily exploit the peasants as much as he had.  He finds the answer in reading “Progress and Poverty” by Henry George, and he follows George’s prescription for true economic justice:  the land will be held in common by the entire community of peasants, and the rent that they would have paid to him or any other landlord they will pay instead to an account set up for the benefit of the entire community.  This is George’s idea of the “Single Tax”, a tax of 100% on all land rents, the proceeds of which are used to finance all the necessary functions of government, e.g., to build roads and other infrastructure and to provide education, health care, and other necessities of life for all citizens.

Check out the Wikipedia article on Henry George – and then read his books!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013


The day has barely begun, and I already feel as though I am behind the eight ball.  I want to shelter in place.  I do not want to go outside, to get lunch at St. Anthony’s, to apply for a room at the Potter Hotel, or to renew my health coverage with the city.  The day is hot.  I am tired.  The way forward confuses me.

For three weeks I have been trying to write something to post here about people using drugs in my neighborhood and elsewhere.  I have covered pages (well, OK, screens maybe?) with well crafted sentences in well developed paragraphs.  None of it is good enough.

I had to appear in court last Friday, the 4th, and must again this coming Friday, the 11th.  The D.A. may drop the case, which my attorney expects, but if not, the trial will begin.  I will be on trial for allegedly approaching MRM in a park and slapping him across the face, causing him to fall and hurt his wrist., none of which happened.  Still, it is a he said/she said case, and the maximum sentence for me would be 180 days in Bruno.  I go to bed tired and then lie awake for three or four hours.

The world, meanwhile, races on.  Last night I watched Bill Moyers interview Wendell Berry.  For the first time in a long time I heard a voice that is both as certain of the darkness falling on us and as faithful to the future as I try to be.  I felt the same affinity for Berry that I feel for Leonard Cohen:  “I’ve seen the future, baby/It is murder.”

The willows can no longer live on the banks of the Kentucky river.  The smog is so thick in Beijing that major freeways have been shut down.  Spectators at the China Open tennis matches yesterday wore face masks covering their noses and mouths to protect them from the smog, but the players did not have that luxury.  The gladiators brave death for the entertainment of the plebeians.

Berry says that whatever the solution is, it will not come from above and be imposed on the farmer and the worker.  He says that what we need are people who see a problem and start doing something about it.  Joan Baez says, ‘I believe in big defeats and small victories.”

President Obama has missed the conference of the Asian Pacific Economic Council in Bali, Indonesia, because our government cannot function.  Each side blames the other and still does not use up all the blame there is to go around, more than enough of it.  In the wake of the global financial collapse of 2008, the U.S. poured -- and continues to pour -- money into the system to keep it afloat.  It thinks it is pouring water on a fire, but these are buckets of gasoline.  Watch what happens when the U.S. defaults.  Identify local sources of food and clean water as quickly as you can.  And plan to live without electricity.

At the APEC conference, President Xi gave the keynote address.  The Chinese economy grew at an annual rate of 7.6% in the first half of the year, on track to double in size between 2010 and 2020.  Free trade zones are opening between China and the ASEAN nations and between China and APEC countries as well. The smog is so thick in Beijing that major freeways have been shut down.  Whatever the solution is, it will not come from above and be imposed on the farmer and the worker.

This house is on fire.


Natalie Merchant finished recording sessions for the album on which this song appeared on September 10, 2001.