Bangs of shadow

Framed by bangs of shadow
pock-marked Luna eyes
the Earthrise
still shivering
from the chaos
that birthed her
billions of years past

Gaia knows she
should send more
than the occasional postcard
but the squabbling folk
who call the surface theirs
seems to be more interested
in earthly war
than cosmic peace.

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The first day of the rest of your life

Yesterday the last of my college responses came. For the last four years I’ve been in and out of junior college, dealing with a bipolar disorder that was resisting treatment. Besides that, I realized in the fall of 2009 that the prep school utopia was not for me- I couldn’t switch from pressure cooker high school to a pressure cooker college, on to a pressure cooker career. That was a road with an unhappy conclusion. But I felt ready to try to transfer.

I got into all the places I had applied. When I first applied to colleges out of high school, I visited one and bought a lovely heavy long-sleeved shirt with the name on the front. When I did not get into that particular school, it always felt a bit strange (though the shirt was lovely and I couldn’t throw it away). This year when I visited my favored place I got a hoodie and played the same game of chicken. I’m glad it’s a reminder of what could be in the future, rather than a past hope.

There’s a comforting haze when the schools have yet to respond. The paperwork for the next step of my life was filed, but the mystery keeps it all from sinking in. I’m going somewhere in September to try for a degree. The junior college limbo period has ended; I’ve picked up enough pieces now, and in the process figured out what I need and what I can live without.

The commencement speech cliche that ‘today is the first day of the rest of your life’ hits home. Of course, that’s true for every day, but only at certain points does the perspective of that quote resonate.

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The drug war: where would Jesus stand? Who would Jesus jail?

There was a great story on Al-Jazeera America posted yesterday, regarding the push by faith leaders to end the war on drugs and establish more reasonable sentencing guidelines. The quote that ended the story hits home:

“We believe the greatest stimulus for the mass incarceration of our loved ones is the failed war on drugs that has spent billions and billions of dollars, and hundreds of thousands of lives, for primarily a public health issue,” said the Rev. Michael McBride, director of urban strategies at Lifelines to Healing in Berkeley, Calif. “Mass incarceration is the civil rights movement of our generation, and the faith community is at the forefront.”

Emphasis mine.

Let us remember the words of Matthew 25-

34 … ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father,inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’

Jesus traveled with a diverse group of people, outcasts included. He told a crowd ready to stone an adulterer that if they looked deep within them, they would see their own hypocrisy. The New Testament emphasizes that no person is beneath redemption; a system that throws millions to rot in prison cannot be a just one. Yet today there are huge numbers of prisoners serving serious time, despite their crimes being small and non-violent.

When the decision comes, Jesus triumphed empathy towards prisoners, not condemnation. Those that rejected a religious duty not only damaged the prisoner that needed them, but also themselves.

It is good to see a diverse group of faith leaders come together to speak with a united voice. In some modern Christian circles there can be an undercurrent of hypocrisy- people who triumph life in one instance yet don’t find the injustice in war and capital punishment. Often I see pockets that seem more at home with the Old Testament than the New. I won’t generalize, it would be unfair of me; there are many who see the grave danger of mass incarceration, religious and non-religious.

Chart based on US Department of Justice statistics

I don’t believe in God, though I am a proud Unitarian Universalist, but I find great wisdom in the words and actions of Jesus. Often people put words in his mouth, use him like some use Martin Luther King Jr. to gain false credibility. There is a sense of power with this movement, that only comes when a group of people truly grasp the mission they need to embark on. There is not the sense of dissonance that accompanies some journeys, where the premise is twisted or unfair.

I’ve been involved in the prison reform movement for several years now- I founded reddit’s prison reform community (reddit.com/r/prisonreform) and marched during the hunger strike in California prisons that opposed solitary confinement The problem truly is massive, there needs to be a mass movement to counter it. Big problems demand big solutions. I’m glad to know there are religious leaders alongside other activists and the families affected by mandatory minimums, three strikes laws, and other policies that stuff existing prisons and demand the construction of new ones.

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Turning the tide: the fight for a $15 minimum wage

There is a war going on in the Pacific Northwest. It has garnered some national attention, and cities across the country will be influenced by the result. Which side wins, and whether they get most of what they initially wanted, will ripple across the nation.

Seattle is debating a $15 minimum wage.

This is an extraordinary fight, because it was linked to an extraordinary campaign. Kshama Sawant, a member of Socialist Alternative, defeated a sixteen-year Democratic incumbent to win a seat on the Seattle City Council. I’ve written about Sawant several times (here was my pitch prior to the election), and her success is one of the biggest events in the American left since the McGovern campaign. The whole campaign was tightly bound around a single campaign promise- a $15/hr minimum wage.

Her victory, against the grain of traditional Seattle politics, indicated that popular sentiment was on the side of her campaign and the organization she helped found, 15 Now. Seattle is joined by San Francisco in pushing for a ballot initiative. The engine is Seattle though, with over a year of constant campaigning. Pressure has given the proposal wide political acceptance, even among business-friendly Democrats.

The split between worker productivity and worker wage increase

The split between worker productivity and worker wage increase

The argument is straightforward. Since the end of World War II-era price controls, worker productivity has increased substantially, but since the Nixon Administration is no longer matched by increases in wages. This era has also been one of sharply rising costs- education, healthcare, rent. I’ve drawn a grasp with permanent markers to give you the result. No, seriously:

A simplified graph of wages vs. costs since 1970

A simplified graph of wages vs. costs since 1970

The minimum wage isn’t tied to inflation, so it buys far less than in decades past. Increasingly, those that make minimum wage (or close to it) no longer have a living wage. They can’t afford to raise their kids, or live anywhere near where they work. Thus they rely on two things- credit and welfare. There are plenty of people working crazy hours yet still in the economic strata to require welfare to make basic ends meet. Without a strong wage, the taxpayers are footing the bill for underpaid workers.

There are two broad concerns at play in Seattle. The first is about the minimum wage as a whole- that it kills business, competitively, leads to unemployment. I tackled these broad issues last August here. I found there to be a lack of solid evidence that the minimum wage is a great harm to society- people often say that it is, but they’re relying on the standard (typically called ‘neoclassical’) model, which actually isn’t that accurate. We’ll return to that thought.

The second are the specifics of the wage increase. Basically, who has to increase to $15 and by when? Originally the idea was an increase from all businesses immediately. The version that’s being filed and will probably get voted on soon has a three-year lead-in for small businesses and nonprofits. $11, then $13, then $15.

In terms of a debate, the place I’ve found with the most content dedicated to the issue is The Stranger, Seattle’s sweary alternative newspaper. They strongly endorsed Sawant (dedicating an issue to making a case for her), but they’ve been releasing editorials in pairs- one advocating for an exception, one against. Currently, four pieces on the minimum wage are in the “most commented” section on the front page.

This is a bitter fight. Big businesses (especially those for which most of their staff make under $15) are fighting tooth and nail- and sometimes use small businesses as a front to advance their own interests. There is clear evidence in leaked documents. This is nothing new, but it’s important to pay attention.

While not anything close to an expert, I’ve taken enough college economics to have a decent grasp of minimum wage mechanics, as one of the basic aspects of the labor market. There has been quite a lot of misleading statements- and one would assume that if San Francisco and Seattle ultimately succeed, they will pop up again and again as the fight moves to other areas.

A number thrown out in the debate is 60%- the increase from the current state minimum wage of $9.19 to $15. Often the proposal is said to be a “60% increase in labor costs.” That’s not even close to true. What’s important to know is that essentially no business pays every worker minimum wage. If they did, it’d be 60%, but if people are making $10.50 or $12.75, it’s a lot less than that. Also there are plenty of workers who make over $15 in a given enterprise who won’t see any increase- at least directly.

$15/hr protestor in New York City. Peter Foley/EPA

$15/hr protestor in New York City. Peter Foley/EPA

Another issue is distorting costs. While labor costs are important, they sit alongside the cost of land, rent, licenses, legal and financial assistance, and of course whatever a business sells. The best read of The Stranger editorials is this one by bar owner Andrew Friedman. He got an overwhelming pushback by commenters, including several who work for a small business. As an accountant stated, if their firm raised all employees to $15 it would be a 4.33% increase in costs. There’s a big difference between 60% and 4.33%. While all cost hikes will affect total costs, labor is not all of a businesses’ costs.

A proposal has been made to include “total compensation”. A series of essays go back and forth starting here. What’s wrong with $15/hr total compensation? Well, a few things. It allows the employer to include (and overvalue) other non-wage benefits. Given the rapid rise in health care costs, this could easily eat into the actual wage earned until there is no rise at all. And it gives employers a great amount of power- they figure out the costs, they determine what total compensation is. You can’t make a good argument for wage theft because the wage has no solid meaning anymore. It’s just part of the total compensation soup.

The reality is simple. Large corporations, that employ a huge amount of minimum wage workers, are skating thanks to government subsidy of their business (sweetheart tax deals, plus tax loopholes) and government subsidy of their workers. The end result is incredible US corporate profits. A move towards a $15/hr minimum wage is recognizing that there is no disaster for American corporations if labor starts closing the gap between what it produces and what it is ultimately paid. It’ll throw a wrench into the economic idea that profits must constantly rise and increase- the system where shareholder concerns are much more pressing than labor concerns. But that sort of escalating system also causes destructive market bubbles, so maybe it needs a wake-up call.

I’m tired of people making hackneyed economic arguments that don’t have a solid foundation beneath them. The dangers of a high minimum wage are a meme, perhaps exacerbated by the fact that most introductory economics courses are strongly slanted to that conclusion. As I pointed out in a rebuke of Alex Berezow’s ill-suited attack on Sawant, many journalists and pundits don’t cite anything more complicated than N. Gregory Mankiw- often just leaving it at ‘common sense’.

Serious discussion is due for the minimum wage. Each month brings new depressing confirmations- income inequality is soaring, it’s reversing decades of gains by the middle class, people are getting wrecked by increased costs and don’t have the money to save, invest, and eventually retire. When a movement emerges that actually offers a potential solution, efforts must be made to understand it from their perspective. US journalism tends to start from the perspective of how a new policy will affect corporations.

Perhaps they should think of how the lack of a new policy current affects workers and families.

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Thick-set sentinels

forest

A thousand winters
come and gone
thick-set sentinels no longer pay
each more than casual attention;
snowmelt slides downslope,
each rivulet latches to newly-found
kin
their meandering journey to
water’s grand community
has begun

Drinking deep, the soil
run through with the needle gifts
of geriatric conifers
each new sprout could,
if lucky,
grow as old and numb
as the sentinel trees
their roots ground into
the forest floor.

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In verdant decay

Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge, by Andrew Mackay

Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge, by Andrew Mackay

In verdant decay
the woods lie low, now
and wait for those that crawl
in humble obscurity
to give them new life

Some may fall with panache
shaking the forest floor
their final, primal scream

Others dissolve
giving one last gift
to their kin
and the countless
who’ve yet to sprout.

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Will Russian expansion provoke a serious EU/NATO response?

When asked this question two days ago, I gave a long comment on the subject. Here’s what I wrote. It’s not meant to be authoritative, just my feelings as an American outsider. The question was both about Russia vs. EU/NATO, with special concern to Estonia, given rhetoric that seems similar to that over Crimea.


 

It’s not a rosy situation. A couple things are clear-

a) Russia let go of its regional control in the 1990s not because of the arrival of democracy (never arrived, insufficient postage or whatever) or the end of ultranationalism, but rather because at the time their economy had ground to a halt and everyone with a decent education was leaving for the West. They had no ability to project power, so they signed deals like the one with Ukraine that guaranteed its sovereignty.

b) Putin-era Russia clearly has a way of gaining territory. They support a nominal independence movement within a country. One may remember Abkhazia and South Ossetia as being the reasons for the Russians invading Georgia in 2008. They’ve done a similar thing with Transnistria in Moldova, which doesn’t even share a land border with Russia.

However, let’s be clear here. if Russia decides to invade a NATO nation- which includes the Baltic states- there will be serious retaliation beyond strong words. This isn’t just an American thing- one of the most important NATO nations historically is Turkey, who a) are now in a very strange position since they control the only way out of the Black Sea for Russia’s Crimean naval bases, b) just saw a half million Tatars (who are Muslim and Turkic) fall under the control of a very racist, ultranationalist power, and c) has hated Russia since the creation of Russia a millennia ago. The Ukraine wasn’t in NATO, or the EU, was very far to the east, and was politically unstable with a very weak military- a large portion of which defected. That’s not going to happen again.

NATO is a military alliance and not a theoretical one- Kosovo, Libya, Afghanistan. If they’re willing to fight on the other side of Asia, they’ll fight in their own backyards when it’s one of their members. Article 5 has been used, so it’s not just words on paper.

Regarding Estonia, there are some things to point out here. Estonia’s history under post-World War II Soviet control involved sending a lot of Russian speakers into the country to dominate it culturally. However, as the Christian Science Monitor points out in the feature on the issue, a lot of them speak Russian, but are not ethnically Russian. Jews, Ukranians, Finns. They cite a poll that shows the Russian population there are split right down the middle on whether Crimea was a good things, with most having no opinion at all. Clearly if Estonia circled the wagons it’s not “Estonians vs. Russian speakers” clearly divided.

Of course, what a ‘conflict’ means is important. The Cold War had much bigger situations- for instance, the forcible blockade of Berlin. One will hope that the lack of top-level cooperation that made Soviet control of places like Czechoslovakia and Hungary possible (they used to have friendly Communist governments, now they’re run by the majority non-Russian groups) means that Russia will be checked. On the other hand, it’s difficult to envision a near future where eastern Ukraine isn’t drawn into the Russian orbit. It’s not like Libya- the Ukrainian government is also disorganized like the rebels there, but Gaddafi and the Russian military are two vastly different classes. If Russia occupies, there would need to be a superior force on the ground.

Unfortunately, the idiocy that was (and is) Afghanistan has really killed the whole “boots on the ground” idea- this is good in some sense since it makes diplomacy and other means more relied upon. However, some countries are too big to threaten. Russia and China are the two big ones.

Now I’m a strict non-violent proponent so I don’t think using military force to drive the Russian military off is the ‘right’ course of action. Sealing the Bosporus to military vessels contingent on Russia withdrawal, mixed with a large-scale boycott and freezing the billions upon billions of dollars the oligarchs have stashed in European countries might help, as some off-the-cuff ideas. Certainly making a concrete plan where NATO troops would be deployed to places like Estonia known would dissuade Russia occupation- just a note that there is something beyond ‘strong reservations’. The Warsaw Pact countries joined EU and NATO because they feared continued Russian control. Even if places like France are ambivalent, any former country under the Iron Curtain with a pocket of Russians knows that they are the next potential domino.

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