Certain events such as love, or a national calamity, or May, bring pressure to bear on the individual, and if the pressure is strong enough, something in the form of verse is bound to be squeezed out. National calamities and loves have been few in my life, and I do not always succumb to May.
I propose a new rule: if someone made it, it’s safe. If something made it, it’s not. Last year, a good friend of mine, and talented cheese maker looked into starting a fresh mozzarella business in Northern California. Where I come from, the river valleys are full of small, family-run dairies. At my friend Kevin Renner’s house we used to have fresh cold milk in the mornings - chilled in a glass pitcher, unprocessed, from the cows 100 yards away. My friend figured that with all this great fresh milk, a local tradition of artisanal cheese making (Humboldt Fog!), and her skills, it was a slam dunk. Then she started asking around. She was told she would need a professional, inspected kitchen, that should she would have to get permits costing as much as $70,000, that inspections and working with raw milk would destroy any profit margin she could hope to achieve. The message was, go big or go home. She went home.
I wonder how many ideas for businesses are killed like this. I’m sure it’s not a few. Regulation in this country (see the SEC) was created by big business for big business. On some level, the intent was altruistic - truly large businesses have a stake in relatively healthy (or at least not immediately dead) customers. They regulate for safety because it’s good for you. But (and big business is very aware of this) it’s also good for their bottom line. Regulation often has the effect of driving out of business anyone who is not big enough or ruthless enough to follow them adequately. So little businesses, the kind that could have supported my friend, put her on the road to self-sufficiency and maybe even created a few jobs, are stillborn. Only big business can afford to produce safe soft-cheese. And cheese is only safe if it’s sterile. So we all eat Velveeta.
This is not to say I’m against regulation. Far from it. The government must protect us from what we cannot protect ourselves from individually. My friend, with her little business does not fall into that category. If she produced good cheese (she would have) she would have thriven. If she had made people sick she would have failed, with only a few belly-aches to show for it.
My point is, a basic component of all regulation should be scale. Let a thousand silly little businesses bloom. Let them make cheese and sausage and whatever else. Let’s promote craft makers. And, only when their size makes them truly opaque to their customers should we regulate. The harder a business is for its customers and the general public to understand, the more people it has the potential to affect adversely, the more heavily it should be regulated. The fact that this is so often not the case is scandal.
“If the writer concentrates on what he does need to be interested in, which is the truth and the human heart, he won’t have much time left for anything else, such as ideas and facts like the shape of noses or blood relationships, since in my opinion ideas and facts have very little connection with truth.”—
No one is without Christianity, if we agree on what we mean by the word. It is every individual’s individual code of behavior, by means of which he makes himself a better human being than his nature wants to be, if he followed his nature only. Whatever its symbol—cross or crescent or whatever—that symbol is man’s reminder of his duty inside the human race. Its various allegories are the charts against which he measures himself and learns to know what he is. It cannot teach man to be good as the textbook teaches him mathematics. It shows him how to discover himself, evolve for himself a moral code and standard within his capacities and aspirations, by giving him a matchless example of suffering and sacrifice and the promise of hope.
Mine is the standard which has to be met, which is when the work makes me feel the way I do when I read La Tentation de Saint Antoine, or the Old Testament. They make me feel good. So does watching a bird make me feel good. You know that if I were reincarnated, I’d want to come back a buzzard. Nothing hates him or envies him or wants him or needs him. He is never bothered or in danger, and he can eat anything.
Yes, I would like to make one of George Orwell’s 1984. I have an idea for an ending which would prove the thesis I’m always hammering at: that man is indestructible because of his simple will to freedom.
"The best job that was ever offered to me was to become a landlord in a brothel. In my opinion it’s the perfect milieu for an artist to work in. It gives him perfect economic freedom; he’s free of fear and hunger; he has a roof over his head and nothing whatever to do except keep a few simple accounts and to go once every month and pay off the local police. The place is quiet during the morning hours, which is the best time of the day to work. There’s enough social life in the evening, if he wishes to participate, to keep him from being bored; it gives him a certain standing in his society; he has nothing to do because the madam keeps the books; all the inmates of the house are females and would defer to him and call him “sir.” All the bootleggers in the neighborhood would call him “sir.” And he could call the police by their first names."
William Falkner Paris Review Interview, New York City ca. 1956
Debt is not just a credit instrument, it is an instrument of political and economic control.
Sharecropping and usury, held together by political violence, continued into the 1960s in some areas of the South. As late as the 1960s, Kennedy would see rural poverty in Arkansas and pronounce it ’shocking’. These were the fruits of usury, a society built on unsustainable debt peonage.
Today, we are in the midst of creating a second sharecropper society.
Today, the debts do not involve liens against crops. People in modern America carry student loans, credit card debt, and mortgages. All of these are hard to pay back, often bringing with them impenetrable contracts and illegal fees. Credit card debt is difficult to discharge in bankruptcy and a default on a home loan can leave you homeless. A student loan debt is literally a claim against a life — you cannot discharge it in bankruptcy, and if you die, your parents are obligated to pay it. If the banks have their way, mortgages and deficiency judgments will follow you around forever, as they do in Spain.
Young people and what only cynics might call ‘homeowners’ have no choice but to jump on the treadmill of debt, as debtcroppers. The goal is not to have them pay off their debts, but to owe forever. Whatever a debtcropper owes, a wealthy creditor owns. And as a bonus, the heavier the debt burden of American citizenry, the less able we are able to organize and claim our democratic rights as citizens. Debtcroppers don’t start companies and innovate, they don’t take chances, and they don’t claim their political rights.
Unclogging our constipated economy is not a complex problem — we must simply wipe out the bad debt that cannot be paid back. The complexity of the problem lies in the politics. Debtcroppers have no power, except to stop paying their debts. And that is a very scary threat to the creditor class, perhaps the only thing they are really scared of.
The “best and brightest” were those who knew how to exploit institutions and to make exceptions of themselves instead of playing by the old rules. Raw ambition counted more heavily, in the distribution of worldly rewards, than devoted service to a calling - an old story perhaps… Politics, law, teaching, architecture, journalism, the ministry - they were all too deeply compromised by an exaggerated concern with the “bottom line” to attract people who wished simply to practice a craft or, having attracted them by some chance, to retain their ardent loyalty in the face of experiences making for discouragement and cynicism… The degradation of work represented the most fundamental sense in which institutions no longer commanded public confidence.
Christopher Lasch The True and Only Heaven, ca. 1991
(Photo of the very full Don Pedro Resevoir, South-Eastern California, July 2010)
For West is where we all plan to go some day I tis where you go when the land gives out and the old-field pines encroach. It is where you go when you get the letter saying: Flee, all is discovered. It is where you go when you look down at the blade in your hand and see blood on it. It is where you go when you are told that you are a bubble on the tide of empire. It is where you go when you ear that that’s gold in them-thar hills. It is where you go to grow up with the country. It is where you go to spend your old age. Or it is just where you go.
Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men (Oregon Coast, July 2010)
I am at a fast food restaurant in the middle of Missouri on the stretch between St. Louis and Memphis. This was the first restaurant in 50 miles. I am eating a gross burger and the man sitting near me is being interviewed. “Tell me about a stressful time at a past job and how you got through it.” The man begins to tell a ranching story about a tornado and how he had to tie himself to the barn so he wouldn’t fly away. From the farm to flipping burgers. Sheesh.
Today I was confronted by a manager because I failed to write a cutesy thank you note on someone’s bill. I explained that I write my required note on the receipt, because it feels insincere to wish someone a great afternoon when you’re still interacting with that person for several minutes….
The Tea Party’s presumed victory is difficult for me to parse. On the on hand, I’m a Democrat because I think too many Republicans are crazy. I live in Brooklyn. On the other hand, for the most part, I agree with them. I’m sick of experts telling us how to gently realign incentives to this country back on track. I’m sick of half measures. I’m sick of Democrats betraying the best of their base and catering to a corporate consensus that continues to hollow out America. Our whole society needs less a nudge than a violent shove. I’m willing to empower an populist movement that has an even halfway chance of making other people aware of it, either by acting so crazy that people wake up to the mess we’ve been making of the American dream, or (some happy day) actually providing a viable alternative.
Back to the other hand. I like Obama. I think he’s trying. I think he’s got some of the right instincts. I’m sure I’ll vote for him again because it’ll be a warm Halloween in Margaretville before the Republicans become something better than the venal leading the ignorant. I’m very proud of his accomplishments. I’m proud to have worked for his campaign and donated money to him. But he has not been able to articulate a viable ideology that he is willing to fight for, that anyone is willing to fight for. It’s probably too much work for one man, one administration, but still, I’m disappointed. All I can say, is he better be prepared to fight now. And the veto better be flying fast and furious.
At root, it seems that many of the Tea Party activists are worried about a basic fact of 21st century America: A life of guided by the old American morality simply doesn’t work. Building things doesn’t pay. Hard work doesn’t pay off. The dominant institutions of our nation exist either to actively fleece us (banks, insurance companies, oil companies, for-profit universities etc.) or, in an effort to maintain a fast-fading mid-20th century ideal have turned to eating their young (newspapers, magazines, academia, unions, government, retailers, out-sourced manufacturers etc.). It’s quite a spectacle really, a truly sad state of affairs in the world’s richest country. Anyone who’s angry about this, who has the basic intuition to cry bullshit, is going to have my sympathy. Even if they don’t have my vote.
“The gentleman does not needlessly and unnecessarily remind an offender of a wrong he may have committed against him. He can not only forgive; he can forget; and he strives for that nobleness of self and mildness of character which imparts sufficient strength to let the past be put the past.”—