Archive for July, 2011

Rome Near the End

I am half way through the book The End of Empire: Attila the Hun and the Fall of Rome by Christopher Kelly.   It is a fascinating look both at the rise of the Huns and Attila, as well as the fall of the Roman Empire.   In the late 300s and early 400 its fascinating to see how the Roman Empire — it’s western center by then in Ravenna, while the eastern empire was more secure in Constantinople (now Istanbul) — was dealing with the geopolitics of the era.

The empire at 400 AD, the West is red, the Eastern Empire light blue

At this point in time Rome appears to be every bit an empire as ever, albeit dividing administrative functions between two capitals.    Yet in many ways Rome had already fallen.   Even as the Emperors and Generals of East and West tried to deal with various attacks by the “Barbarians” – Goths, Vandels, and of course Huns – they did so with the idea that they were protecting civilization from something dark and foreboding.

The book begins in 370, long before Attila, when the Huns first came upon the European scene.   They probably were from the steppes of Kazakhstan, moving westward and encountering Gothic tribes first.    Early on they seemed loosely organized, and often were willing mercenaries for the Goths and even the Romans.   In 376 a Goth leader of the Tervingi named Fritigern headed to the Danube river fleeing the Huns and asking the Romans for asylum.   They received it, but later rebelled in response to Roman mistreatment — with the help of Hun mercenaries.   The Roman borders had been breached, and soon the Emperors were making more deals, allowing outside tribes to have land in the Empire as long as they converted to Christianity.

The Empire was not what it used to be.   It was Christian, and the late Roman Emperors saw themselves in a pious role as defending Christianity.   Rome had been the most successful experiment in multiculturalism in human history, absorbing numerous ideas and cultures.   Now defining itself as Christian the goal was not just to defend the empire, but also support the faith.  Yet beyond that Rome was a shadow of its former self.    Once honor and virtue defined Roman life.  It was brutal; we’d call it inhumane.   What today would count as atrocities were everyday occurrences.   But such was the stuff of the people who conquered Europe, northern Africa and much of the Mideast bordering on Persia.

In 400 Roman citizens were used to the good life; wars were distant campaigns waged by professional soldiers.  Moreover, the good life was no longer defined by advances in science, technology, philosophy and architecture —  by 400 the great works had been completed, save the Theodosian Walls of Constantinople, built in the early 400s by Theodosius II.   But this exception tells the story — the great architectural triumph of the 400s was a defensive fortress of the capital of the Eastern Empire!

Still, emperors like Theodosius II in the East, and Valentinian (and his mother Galla Placidia) in the West managed to do a fairly competent job of keeping the peace through negotiated deals with the various tribes of the Goths, Huns and Vandels.  When necessary they fought, and constantly had to worry about conflicts with more than one front (and, of course, their enemies would see opportunity when that occurred).    Rome was still the great power, but it was buckling, trying to hang on to territory and control.    Slowly the tribes settled in land that had been part of the empire, usually negotiating deals with the Romans.  The Huns began their own empire, centered in the steppes of Hungary getting payments from the Goths (what Kelly describes as more a large protection racket than an empire of the Roman sort).

At this stage in the book — after Attila’s forces attack into the territory of the Eastern Empire but retreat before threatening Constantinople in 442, I want to reflect on what to think of this look at the late Roman Empire (recognizing, of course, that the eastern empire would persist for nearly another 1000 years in some form).

In hindsight, of course, it was in its last days.  The deals and maneuvers to protect personal and imperial power were doomed to failure as the “barbarian” tribes grew in number and strength.   Rome’s internal strength was depleted, the empire was stagnating from within.  Yet while it was happening the idea that the western empire was doomed was not a foregone conclusion.

Within a century of the defeat in 378 of Eastern Emperor Valens’ forces at Adrianople (where he died as well), the once mighty empire would crack.  The Western empire would be besieged from all sides and the various barbarian forces would claim the land.   Constantinople and the eastern Empire would survive, but as a shadow of the once mighty Rome.

Some people wonder if we’re facing a crisis like that of Rome.   Early in the 400s, it was still plausible to posit Rome as the dominant world power, needing to protect civilization from the barbarians.  For us, despite debt ceiling crises, recession, and difficult and strength draining wars in the Mideast, the US still appears the dominant power.   And for all the fear people have of Muslims coming and “imposing Shiria law” (eyes rolling) or Mexicans taking over, it’s a pretty safe bet that Washington DC isn’t going to be sacked and New York won’t fall to invading hordes.

Our problem is economic rather than military threats.   We are still the economic power house, but our economy is weakened by debt, over consumption and a lack of competitiveness.  Among the newcomers are China, India, and Brazil, slowly gaining wealth, market share and status.   Even the EU looks to mount a comeback most dismissed when Europe was seen as “yesterday’s empire” a few years ago.   To be sure, terrorism remains an uncertain military aspect of all this, but economic decline isn’t as horrible as sacks and conquests.   It’s also probably easier to turn around.

What strikes me so far in this book is that great power decline isn’t so obvious while it’s happening — both the East and West Empires were still the bastions of civilization and had powerful armies.   They knew they had vulnerabilities, but worked reasonably competently to deal with them.   I’ll reflect more on the Huns and the “fall of empire” after I finish the book (likely tomorrow!)

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Godfather’s yes, the Presidency, no

Lately I’ve felt satisfied that the bout of Islamophobia the US suffered a few years ago is over.   With the “Arab spring,” death of Osama Bin Laden, and a lessening of fear, people realize that Muslims are not the enemy, nor is the religion particularly violent and strange.   I integrate bits about Islam and its history in many of my classes, believing all educated students should know more than the caricatured image the media often gives.   Lately I’ve been impressed by how often they come out of high school with that knowledge — kudos to US schools!

But now Republican Presidential contender Herman Cain says that communities should be able to ban mosques when they want to.    His rationale is plain weird.  He says that Muslims combine church and state and use mosques to “infuse their morals into a community.”   A mosque cannot itself combine church and state, last I checked no mosques in the country were involved in government.  They are a place of worship.   Muslim theology traditionally sees church and state together (as did traditional Roman Catholic theology — they fought wars about it!), but mosques in the US are simply serving a community.

I’m not sure what to make of the “infuse morals” comment.   I daresay that Christian churches try to infuse their morals into a community.   Moreover, I suspect there is far more agreement than disagreement between Christians and Muslims about moral issues.  Does  Cain object to people trying to infuse their morals into a community?   If a community of Christians lived in a predominately non-Christian town, would the non-Christians be justified in banning churches from being built?

Cain earlier expressed hesitancy about having Muslims serve in a potential Cain White House (the more he talks, the more purely academic that scenario becomes), hinting that they were more prone to terrorism.    If these broadsides had been hurled a few years ago, back when Tom Tancredo was saying we should bomb Mecca in the case of another terrorist attack, he may have been able to get away with it.    Now he just looks like a bigot.

To be sure, Tancredo’s crazy was a level that Cain has yet to come close to.   To bomb the center of a religion serving billions because a miniscule fraction of people claiming to believe that religion pull off a terror attack would be evil of the sort that would be admired by a Hitler or Stalin.   Cain’s apparent bigotry seems more rooted in ignorance than evil.  It was even too much for Southern Baptist leader Richard Land, who isn’t exactly liberal!

So I’ll give Cain the benefit of the doubt.   He may not be a bigot, he may simply have a very strong belief that Muslims have the wrong faith, and that it is his duty as a Christian to protect our culture from their influence.   I still don’t like it and will argue against it, but that’s within the realm of politically acceptable action.   One can be an advocate for a religion.   He’s no different than Muslims in the Arab world who try to stop Christians from spreading their ideas (and they don’t like missionaries over there); he can make his case in the realm of political discourse.

I believe his opinion makes him inappropriate for the office of the Presidency.   A President must, above all else, be true to the constitution and be President to all Americans.    President Bush recognized this, and proclaimed Islam a “religion of peace” and refused to define Islam as the enemy.   After all, with 10 million Muslim Americans, almost all of them anti-terrorist contributors to their communities, he was their President too.

There is something I like about Herman Cain.  He helped Pillsbury keep Godfather’s Pizza alive.   In the 80s the pizza chain was losing money for Pillsbury and they gave Cain the task of reviving the brand.  He did, and Godfather’s returned to profitability.

For that, I thank Cain.   One of the first Godfather’s opened in Sioux Falls back in 1977.    That was less than four years after the very first Godfather’s opened in neighboring Nebraska, if I recall it was about the 5th or 6th restaurant.   Pillsbury didn’t yet own the company and the owner at the time, William Theisen, came to Sioux Falls to celebrate the new store.  I was doing “a week with the mayor” as part of a mini-course in high school, and Mayor Rick Knobe asked me to say some words.  I praised the new restaurant and even mimicked Marlon Brando’s Godfather character at the end, “come to Godfather’s, please try our pizza, we hope you like the pizza…no, on second thought, you WILL come to Godfather’s, you WILL try the pizza, and you WILL like it!” Miss South Dakota was there too, which is always a treat for a 17 year old boy.

Godfather’s quickly became one of my favorite pizzerias, second only to Village Inn Pizza, where I worked.   We don’t have them in Maine, so whenever I get back home, I make a point to have some Godfather’s.   It’s good pizza still (though I think it was better back in the late seventies).  I have fond memories of meals and dates there, as it was just three blocks from Augustana College, where I got my BA.

So, Herman Cain, you’re obviously a good businessman.   And if you want to be politically active to promote your own religion and warn us of “false” faiths, go ahead, the Constitution gives you that right.   But if you want to be President, you need to understand that our Constitution recognizes the right of people of all faiths to worship and be treated with respect.   Moreover, you need to learn about the reality of Islam, not the pamphlets and biased polemics put out by the Christian right.    The only people who benefit when the extremists here show anti-Muslim sentiment are the extremists there who want there to be some kind of ‘clash of civilizations.’  Let’s not help the extremists.

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Who Can Beat Obama?

Going into late 2011 the Republican party is in a quandary.   The economy is slow to recover, and that means they should be licking their chops at the chance to take out President Obama.   Yet he remains reasonably popular in the polls and due to his fundraising capacity and the advantages of the incumbency, he will not be easy to beat.   As I noted last month, it’s really too early to do much more than guess at what the situation will be like in November 2012.   Yet Republicans need to start thinking about who would be best positioned to defeat President Obama.  The question is trickier than it might appear.

First, the public doesn’t want crazy.   President Obama was elected in part because he exuded quiet confidence and pragmatism.   Attempts to call him a radical or an ideologue failed because it was clear to anyone who listened to him that he was at base a concensus building pragmatist.   His penchant for caution and intellectual reflection has caused him to seem aloof and “professorial,” a turn off for some, but at least the Republicans can’t run in 2012 by painting Obama as an extremist.  Indeed, Obama’s had more trouble with his base — a chunk of the “disapproval” ratings he gets come from disgruntled liberals who have seen him as being too willing to cut deals with the Republicans.  They think he’s been snookered by the GOP and fear he’s so willing to get a deal he’s not standing up for principle.

But just as Obama appeared more stable and cautious than John McCain whose knee jerk response to the economic crisis (suspend the campaign!  Cancel the debate!  Oh, never mind!) and the surprise and impulsive pick of Sarah Palin helped sink his campaign, a Republican challenger has to appear safe.

Many Republicans don’t fit this mold, and would probably be easily defeated by Obama.   Michelle Bachmann, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Herbert Cain, and Rick Santorium are not credible Presidential candidates.  If they ride the tea party wave to the GOP nomination, Obama probably will coast to victory.   I mention probably here because of the so-called Reagan effect.   President Carter’s people believed Ronald Reagan was similarly damaged goods in 1980 and they turned out to be wrong.   That gives supporters of Bachmann hope — ‘they thought Reagan was an extremist too!”   So far, though, this tier of candidates does not appear to have the kind of appeal Reagan had.

And Reagan had appeal.  I recall watching his speeches in the 1976 Presidential campaign (where he lost the GOP nomination to Gerald Ford) and as a teen ager being extremely impressed.  He came off as reasonable, kind, principled and likable.  That ability, perhaps coming from his personality or his acting skills, was a  gift few politicians have.  He was the “great communicator,” a candidate perfectly suited for television and mass appeal.   So I strongly doubt any of the fringe candidates would have a chance.

Ron Paul has to be put in that category too, though unlike the others he’s got some appeal and would make the kind of ideological argument that could create a fascinating campaign.   Paul is not especially well liked by the Republican elite, and the hawks can never forgive him his anti-war stances (even if he’s been proven correct in many of his claims).  Still, his libertarianism leaves him open for some pretty easy broadsides so the well funded Obama campaign could probably demolish him.

Mitt Romney is a lot like a Republican Walter Mondale.   The perfect candidate, the commensurate politician, but a bit boring and too much an insider.   If the economy is bouncing back by early 2012 (still quite possible — though it could be just a short term bounce, but that’s all Obama would need) an Obama-Romney match up could be a bit like Reagan-Mondale.   Just as the Democrats thought for sure Reagan was extremely vulnerable a year before the election (Reagan’s approvals were at 38%, well below Obama’s now), they learned otherwise.  That could happen.   On the other hand, Romney is a very credible candidate to independents, and while many Republicans distrust him (he had “Romney care,” and is a Mormon), they’d dutifully go to the polls for him against Obama.   Bottom line: he could beat Obama, but probably not if there is the perception of an economic recovery.

Tim Pawlenty could beat Obama if he got the GOP nomination.   The reason is the GOP nomination fight.   Right now he’s under performing, appears stiff and boring, and if anything a light weight.   If he can overcome that and win the GOP nomination, uniting moderates and the tea party brigade, it will be proof he has political skills and resiliency.  I do not think he’s going to do this, but if he can pull of an unlikely win in the nomination fight that in and of itself would prove his political skills.   He lacks the “crazy” factor, appears cautious, and could beat Obama.

Jon Huntsman still seems to me the one most likely to defeat Obama, though as with Pawlenty, getting the nomination will be difficult.   The right wing uses his service to Obama as Ambassador to China as a way to attack him; in a general election that will be a plus.  He can say he’s rising above politics and is willing to talk with the other side (that’s what the public wants), and foreign policy experience with China?   That’s a clear plus!

He also is the only one that has demonstrated the capacity to rise above the crowd with true charisma.   Given Obama’s advantages of the incumbency (and likely money), charisma matters.  Huntsman has real hurdles, but just as the far right found it impossible to stop McCain in 2008, once the real primary season starts, the GOP may not vote lock step with the tea partiers.

Rick Perry of Texas and Rudy Guilianni of New York are two possible candidates that each are viable, though both have real baggage.   I see them much like I see Pawlenty, if they can manage to join the race and get nominated, they’ll have a shot of knocking off the President.    But the hype around Perry reminds me of the hype around Fred Thompson in 2008 — he looks enticing from the outside, but once in the race he’ll have baggage to contend with and have to prove himself.

So as of July 18, 2011 the race still appears to be Obama’s to lose, especially if the economy improves.   If the economy doesn’t improve, Obama is still likely to prevail against most GOP hopefuls due to the fact the party’s mainstream is considerably different than that of the country.  However, Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman would be strong challengers to Obama, especially if the economy remains slack.   Huntsman seems to me the strongest.   The next level includes Paul, Perry and Guilliani.    Any of them might pose a viable challenge to Obama, but I’m skeptical.

Things will change dramatically over the next year and a half, and I’ll update my take on the race over time.   Anyone handicapping 2008 in July 2007 would have written McCain off and had Hillary the clear favorite.  Anything can happen.

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Borrowed Time

Continuing with the Styx theme, one song stands out in thinking about the chaos in Washington surrounding the negotiations on raising the debt ceiling.

In their 1979 triple Platinum album Cornerstone, one of the best songs was “Borrowed Time,” co-written by Dennis De Young and Tommy Shaw.   The song was supposedly a reflection on the US in the late seventies, but more poignantly it predicted the path the country would take the next thirty years.  The lyrics read, in part:

“I had my car, and I made the scene
Didn’t give a damn about no gasoline
They can go to hell
My friend we never thought about the world
And its realities
The promised land was ours
We were the Great Society

I’m so confused by the things I read, I need the truth
But the truth is, I don’t know who to believe
The left say yes, and the right says no
I’m in between and the more I learn
Well, the less that I know
I got to make a show
Livin’ high, living fine
Livin’ high on borrowed time

When this song came out, the US debt to GDP ratio was 30%.   Our debt as a proportion of GDP would double to 60% by 1990 as the Reagan Administration infamously claimed “budget deficits don’t matter” and created the appearance of prosperity through deficit spending.   Given that oil prices were going down as well, people thought things were going fantastically, especially when the Soviet Union fell and the US won the Cold War.

In the 90s the current account deficit, which also started growing in 1981 (basically meaning that we were borrowing from foreigners to finance our consumption) rose to new heights as the US experienced the dot.com bubble.    Much of that was also an illusory economy, but at least the budget was balanced.   After 2000 the borrow and spend mentality continued, the current account deficit grew, and these imbalances finally exploded into a deep recession in 2008.

Thirty years of living high on borrowed time, and now the politicians and the public demand a quick fix.   There isn’t one.   We’ve been living beyond our means for thirty years.   Even when the federal budget was in balance, private borrowing was soaring (and the private sector is no better than the government in this regard — public debt is about 80% of GDP now, private and public is near 400% of GDP).    We consumed on credit, even as we as a nation were producing less.  Consider this analogy:  what if you as an individual were burning 2000 calories a day, but consuming 2100?

It might seem like your eating wasn’t out of line; 100 calories is half a candy bar.   But in 15 years you’d find that your weight would have gone from 175 to 320.   In 30 years you’d be up to 470.   You’d experience massive health problems and you’d find your excess of 100 calories a day — a tiny snack — yielded tremendous problems.   There would be no quick fix, you’d have to eat less and exercise more to lose weight, and it would take awhile.

The problem is the same with us — we have to spend less and increase revenue to get our budget under control, and find a way to produce more while consuming less.   That’s what a recession forces you to do, there’s no escaping it.   To blame Obama for not “fixing” this (or to blame it all on Bush) misses the point.   We’ve done this to ourselves as a society, the politicians can no more bail us than a doctor can undo decades of overeating.

Here’s a tidbit from the Washington Post:    “In 2001, revenues were at 19.5 percent of gross domestic product and spending was at 18.6 percent of GDP. That was our surplus. In 2010, revenues were at 14.9 percent of GDP while spending was at 23.9 percent. That’s our deficit: Revenues are down and spending is up.”

As we argue about whether or not to raise the debt ceiling, note how we’ve decreased taxes and raised spending at the same time.   I gave this graph last year, but it’s worth repeating

In the last thirty years most of the wealth gain has gone to the top 1%, gaining 281%, while the top 20% gained a total 0f 95%.   The middle fifth and lower (60% of the population) did not gain enough to keep up with inflation.   Moreover, as graphs posted last December show, the US tax system is the least progressive in the industrialized world.  Our wealthiest are the richest in the world, while our poorest are in the same category as Greece or the Czech Republic.    Finally, tax increases do no more harm to the economy than spending cuts; in fact, since money that would be gained by tax rate hikes otherwise often go to buying foreign goods or paying down loans, cutting spending hurts the economy more than tax increases do.

So it’s a no brainer.   The wealthiest, who have had their taxes cut dramatically in the last 30 years, and who are taxed a historic lows, and lower than in any other industrialized state, have the capacity to pay slightly higher taxes to help us deal with the budget crisis and getting our house back in order.    The Republican refusal to allow any kind of tax increase is based on fantasy.   It’s like a religious belief of their base that taxes are always bad.  Sometimes, you need to raise them.   If Democrats have to accept that some of their programs need to be cut, well, Republicans have to accept that the rich might pay a little more in taxes.   Even with Obama’s proposals they’d pay less than in other industrialized states, and less than Reagan’s tax proposals back in the 80s.

So as the fiasco continues, as the negotiators try to prevent financial meltdown, the House Republicans are acting like petulant children, sticking their lips out and saying “we’ll never cut taxes, we don’t want to compromise, you have to do it our way.”   House Speaker John Boehner has been more adult, but he doesn’t seem to be able to control his party.   He’s like the dad in the station wagon screaming to the kids to behave but they ignore him.   Cantor is like the mom taking the kids side, leaving the poor dad unable to control the situation.   No wonder the public gives Congress such low rankings!

This crisis is a bipartisan creation.   30 years of economic imbalances won’t be solved overnight.   Adults have to make compromises and sometimes do what they don’t want to do.    The Democrats will have to make cuts, including entitlement reform.   Republicans will have to accept tax increases on the wealthy.   Americans will have to learn that you can’t live 30 years on borrowed time and not have difficult adjustments to recover.

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Why am I an Idealist?

I am an idealist.  I’m not talking about foreign policy or international relations (Wilsonian idealism), but rather philosophical idealism.   What does this mean?  It means that I see ideas as the essential “stuff” of reality.  There are many forms of idealism (just look it up on Wikipedia), and rather than categorize myself I want to explore why I hold this position — not explain why, but explore, since I’m really not sure myself why I think as I do.

To the realist/materialist there is a reality “out there” made up of things external to the self, which one has to navigate in order to survive and thrive.    Most realists see the external world populated by many individuals like oneself, and life involves learning to interact with others, cooperate and sometimes fight.  At a practical level, there isn’t much difference between how one would live life as a materialist/realist and an idealist.   Experience is what it is.  If I jump off a cliff I can injure or kill myself, regardless of whether reality is made up of matter or ideas.   Poverty, war, disease, pain and sorrow are experiences that are as real and valid regardless of ones’ philosophy.

Most people in our culture are realist/materialists.  It seems to be how the world operates; our language and way of thinking are geared towards such an approach.   For me to reject that for idealism seems odd.   Yet since experience is something processed in the mind, the nature of reality is an open question.    A dream reality seems real — one appears to have a body and there are objects apparently external to the self — but its all in the head.  We also have developed virtual reality games, holographic images, and other ways that hint at the possibility that one can have an experience that seems to be enmeshed in a world of external entities, but is actually contained in a computer program or beams of light.

Moreover, without going into the scientific detail, it’s harder to hold on to a materialist/realist view of the world and make sense of modern physics than it is to have a more idealist perspective.   The paradoxes around time, basic particles, the nature of space-time, how light operates, etc., are immense.   Well established principles such as non-locality (one particle can instantaneously impact another, which should be impossible) and quantum tunneling defy common sense views of reality.   Probably the best author (and someone who is a realist/materialist) about this is Brian Greene, and his books The Fabric of the Cosmos and The Hidden Reality.

OK, if you read those with an open mind you might say that my view is plausible, but so many questions are open that idealism isn’t self-evidently the best alternative.   So why do I believe as I do?

William James noted that peoples’ beliefs are often less about how they analyze reality and more a reflection of personality.   Perhaps my personality predisposes me to this kind of world view.   As a child I was naturally religious, reading the Bible by age 12 and taking prayer and faith seriously — much more so than my parents.    As I grew I became skeptical that one religious teaching could be right, but kept the sense of spiritualism.   Even my choice of music — Styx Grand Illusion, Yes, Supertramp, Alan Parsons Project, Kansas, and the Moody Blues, venture towards more mystical takes on reality.  The cynical realism of punk rock didn’t appeal to me, while traditional hard rock like AC/DC and Van Halen always seemed fun but shallow.  (And Grunge?  YUCK!)

Maybe by my nature I am drawn more to spiritual ideas (which link well with idealism) than material ones?   That is a bit disappointing if true — if we’re all sort of programmed to have particular world views through our personality, then how free are we?   Are people Republican, Democrat, libertarian or radical by dint of their personalities?

And what is it about my personality?   When I do personality tests a few things stand out.  I’m very non-judgmental (I’m radically on the ‘perceiving’ side), I easily accept both change and uncertainty, and I’m optimistic.  I don’t carry grudges, tend not to dislike people, and tend to be a bit dreamy and escapist.   I see those things as good, but my optimism can drive friends crazy, and my escapism probably has cost me life opportunities.

Perhaps the most important aspect of my personality that lends itself to idealism is that since a young age I’ve had a profound belief that I am in charge of and responsible for my own life.  I can blame no one else when things go wrong, I have to adapt and make do in circumstances I dislike, changing them if I can (figuring out when I need to adapt and when I can change things).   I view my success, happiness and joy as my responsibility and no one else’s.   This is a hard view to hold with a materialist/realist world view.

First, there would be the guilt attack — oh, that’s easy for a middle class American white male to believe, I’ve been born into comfort, taking responsibility for that is easy — but does that mean third world children born into a war zone are equally responsible?   Such guilt attacks usually come from within — how can I hold such a view, isn’t that arrogant and self-serving?   From an idealist point of view, though, its far more complex.   Managing life conditions is difficult, and material opulence can hinder joy and happiness and create illusions of false success.

Second, a realist world view makes such self-responsibility seem at best a delusion.  Drunk drivers, cancer cells, terrorists, and the ill winds of chance are there to threaten my life conditions.   To a realist/materialist life is a struggle, one has to compete and be on guard at all times — who knows what the world or other people might throw at you!   It makes more sense to see oneself as a victim of circumstance with a realist/materialist world view.  One has the responsibility to respond to what life brings, but life might end up a joyless struggle regardless of ones’ efforts.   My optimism and belief in personal control would be seen as a delusion, one likely to explode in my face someday when a true crisis hits.

Perhaps.   But its not like I haven’t had my own challenges in life.   If it’s a delusion, it might be one that is psychologically useful, giving me a positive attitude and a belief I can handle what comes my way.   Then again, maybe judging world conditions and ourselves on primarily materialist standards is misguided.   After all, my belief in control is not one of the individual self against the world, but of myself connected spiritually to the world; to me that’s the source of strength and opportunity.   It’s not me against the world, but me with the world.   That’s the kind of paradox (I’m responsible and can blame no one else, but that responsibility is based on a spiritual connection to everything else) that my personality has no problem holding.   To others it’s contradictory and downright corny.

Ultimately I can’t know if my idealism is correct.  It feels right at an intuitive level; I don’t believe I could convince myself to think differently.  My way of engaging the world and interpreting reality is part of who I am, it’s not something I can simply change or be talked out of.   And that’s a bit disconcerting.  I’m not sure why I think like I do, nor can I imagine thinking in a fundamentally different manner.   I suspect that’s also true of people who have a far different world view than I do.   I’ll have to ponder this further…

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Debt Ceiling Maddness?

I’ve not been following the negotiations on raising the debt ceiling very closely.  Besides being on vacation and teaching two on line courses, I am simply assuming that they will find a way to raise the debt ceiling.  My thinking is similar to why I had little fear of nuclear war during the Cold War — the leaders are not so dumb and irrational as to do something that would guarantee a catastrophe.

Moreover the tidbits I have been hearing — that Boehner and Obama are developing a good working relationship, and that a deal is all but done (and if a big deal falls through the fall back is a small deal) — suggest that they are on course to making a deal and raising the debt ceiling in time to avoid default.   But what if I’m wrong?

The worst case scenario is US default and a global unloading of US treasury bonds and currency.   The dollar’s value would collapse and the resulting chaos would spiral into a deep global depression, making the last three years seem like a minor pre-catastrophe bump.      This could be remembered as an irrational self-inflicted wound that would mark the end of US economic and political dominance in global affairs.  But would that really happen?   There are a number of scenarios.

The 14th amendment solution:  Section four of the 14th amendment reads in part: ” The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.”   One could interpret that to mean that the US cannot default, and the President could unilaterally raise the debt ceiling.   The Republicans have had a hostile response to this possibility, noting even that it could be an impeachable offense, threatening to go to court if President Obama tried it.   That might avoid economic collapse, but would cause a constitutional crisis with unforeseen political ramifications going into 2012.   Even if President Obama were to do that and it were upheld by the Supreme Court, the result would be a loss of power to Congress and even more power in the Executive branch.   This isn’t likely to happen, but would be extremely interesting to watch if it did!

Prioritization:   The Executive branch could also avoid default by paying interest on current debt and then prioritize the rest of the spending based on what the Treasury department deems most important.   If military spending and important programs like social security continue to get funded, there would be little money left to run the rest of the government.  This would mean something akin to a government shutdown — though theoretically the Executive branch could prioritize in a way that would punish Republicans.   This may be the most likely course of action in the cause of not raising the debt ceiling, with the prioritization both real and political — designed to maximize pressure on the Republicans.

Short term default:  Republicans and Democrats could play a game of chicken, each thinking they can wait to the last minute to get the best deal.   They may even think a symbolic one or two day “default” will cause minimal damage.  That would be a very dangerous game.  First, if there isn’t a clear deal in sight by late July, interest rates will start raising on speculation, and once that happens even a timely agreement might not stop an unraveling of the dollar.  That’s why most people think the sooner this is passed, the better.   Moreover, such thinking could be a path to a longer term crisis, should each side push the envelop and believe they can’t back down without gaining something significant.

Ultimately, the issue comes down to taxes.   Most Republican insiders are willing to see tax rates on the wealthiest go up slightly, especially for a short term, and the closing of loopholes also gains support.  However, the Republican base sees any tax increase as a defeat, claiming it will harm the economy.   (Reality check:  spending cuts do more harm to the economy than tax increases since in each case money is taken out of circulation, but government spending is mostly domestic while tax savings go towards consuming foreign made goods or paying down private debt).   The Democrats understand spending cuts are necessary, and deep down recognize that entitlement reform is the only way to get long term traction in reducing debt.

A “grand compromise” would see Democrats make concessions on entitlements, perhaps raising the social security retirement age, while Republicans would accept tax increases on the wealthy.   Each would risk the ire of their base, but they could claim they did what is best for the US.   It appears Boehner and Obama were heading towards such a deal, but the Republican base reacted vehemently against the idea of any tax cuts.   Boehner then retreated on the idea of signing off on tax increases, meaning that the Democrats now offer a smaller array of spending cuts, with entitlements fully protected.  The bases of each party will be satisfied, both sides hope, even though the deal will be smaller and less profound than either side claimed to want.

The Republicans will risk having it said that Obama just made symbolic cuts and they should have been willing to refuse to raise the debt ceiling to force deeper concessions.  Democrats will complain that tax cuts should have been part of the deal, and that Obama was too willing to give in to the Republicans just to get a deal.  “He’s not confrontational enough,” they’ll complain.   After all, leading Republicans know the danger of not raising the debt ceiling, ultimately they would have likely backed down.   Still, such a compromise would be the best way to make sure irrationality doesn’t become policy and we risk economic meltdown.

If the small deal is made, the Democrats might benefit most politically.   That will make “taxes on the wealthy” a big 2012 issue, and the Democrats can probably make a reasonable case that this isn’t “class warfare” but asking those who have done very well to pay their share turning around our deficit.   Moreover, by not accepting entitlement reform, the Democrats can make that an issue in 2012.   That may mean they’ll make promises they can’t keep — I expect entitlement reform will come — but thats a concern for 2014 or  beyond.

Right now most of the country isn’t paying attention, and that gives the political junkies a louder voice.   Immigration reform had much more support than it appeared in 2007 when the GOP base turned out to kill it.   That is the danger — will the leaders refuse to lead, bringing our country into a needless economic crisis at a time we can ill afford more risk?    I can’t imagine that a deal won’t be reached, the stakes are too high and the insiders know it.  They just need to come up with the appropriate political theater to avoid a backlash from their respective constituencies.

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On to New Hampshire!

Opting for comfort, we rented a tiny cabin at Eastern Slopes Campsites in Conway, New Hampshire

Sorry for disappearing for a week.   We were in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and though the campground was Wifi, I found no time to blog.   For those who have not yet visited New Hampshire, it’s a worthwhile destination (even if you’re not running for President).    We spent seven nights in Eastern Slopes Campsites in a nice little cabin, which had the added attraction of giving the boys a chance to sleep in the loft.  I was a little afraid that Dana (5) might fall down the steep steps if he woke up in the middle of the night to pee, but though he did get a bump on the head falling off his bike, he handled the loft just fine.

It was small, but nice -- under the loft a kitchenette, bathroom and sink, then in the "main" area a bed and a nice front porch.

Of course, the cabin was only for sleeping, and occasionally resting between activities (though the kids loved both the store and the camp swimming pool and kept begging to spend more time there).    Perhaps the most fun was the zipline on Wild Cat Mountain.   The zipline is like taking a long slide — except you’re suspended by a wire and zoom down at about 45 MPH from a point part way up the mountain to the base.   It’s not as much of a rush as I’d hoped for, but still fun!   We also headed to the top of Wild Cat mountain on a gondola for some nice mountain hiking.

A top Wild Cat Mountain, we had a good "top of the world" hike!

For the kids we did Storyland and Whales Tales (the latter a water park).   Ryan at 8 is already growing out of Storyland.  It was OK, but not worth the $114 we plopped down.   Whales Tales ($128 for four) was.   We spent all day Friday at the water park, despite cool morning temperatures and a threat of rain.  That kept the crowds down and it was a blast going down the water slides, either just sliding or with a tube, depending on the ride.    The water was cold but once you got used to it, it was great.   I was also surprised to see a young Halle Berry working there (at least she looked like a 17 year old version of the star).

On top of the world at Mt. Cannon

Ryan and I hit every water ride, and it was great zooming down the long slides, or twisting along on the inner tubes.  Personally I like the nature stuff better than the expensive “family fun” stuff, but the variety of pools, rides, and activities at Whales Tale made it a fantastic day.  The rain stayed away too!

Don't slip and fall in the rapids -- Diana's baths near Conway have amazing falls and rapids, with swimmers and waders meandering up and down stream

We also went to the Plume Gorge, the Cannon Mt. tramway, Diana’s baths (a great rocky area with falls and rapids, stretching out for hundreds of yards, climbing the mountain), Echo Lake, the independence day parade in Lincoln NH, and an OK train ride on the Hobo rail.   The one disappointment was July 4th, when the Conway fireworks, scheduled for 9:45, didn’t start until 11:00.   With tired kids we gave up at 10:20, and let them do some sparklers back at the campsite.   Still, it was fun.

Family vacations in the early 21st century are interesting.   Everything costs money, it seems, and marketing/billboards are ubiquitous.   As much as I want to rebel against that marketing of family fun, I have to admit the water park was awesome, and the zip line was fun.  Still, I think the natural (and inexpensive — $3 state park daily fee) fun of Diana’s baths, Glen’s falls, and enjoying the beauty of the White Mountains is the real draw.    Lincoln’s parade on the 4th was typical New England — nothing fancy, just locals out showing their colors and throwing candy at the kids on the side of the road.

The perfect roasted marshmellow (if you like having them catch fire)

So it was a nice change of pace, even though I had to keep up with my on line classes while there (and given the times, it should be no surprise that Eastern Slopes Camp Sites have free wifi — I could connect and sit in the screen porch after the kids were in bed and read papers and comment on discussion board).   But now I have a weekend of catching up to do, and it’s back to reality!

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Stalinist Styx?

John Panozzo, James Young, Tommy Shaw, Chuck Panozzo, & Dennis DeYoung

I’ve been in the process of taking my over 200 vinyl LPs and putting them onto CDs.   Admittedly both forms of music storage are obsolete, but at least I have access to the music on CDs.   I’ve been really enjoying the early Styx albums: Styx I, Styx II, The Serpent is Rising, Miracles (a re-release of Man of Miracles, with the track “Unfinished Song”) and Equinox.    They generated surprisingly good, early 70s American progressive rock, standing out from the start with tremendous vocal harmonies and solid musicianship.

I decided to go to the Styx website.   Now, I’m not one to take sides when a band splits.   They have their reasons.   I really like the album Cyclorama, which came out after Dennis De Young left the band.   Tommy Shaw is probably the best pure songwriter on the band, though De Young had more vision and better lyrics.   I am perfectly content accepting a new Styx line up.    At least, I was until I visited their website.

In telling the history of the band, Dennis De Young’s name is completely absent.  They do not mention the LP Kilroy Was Here, or their 1990s albums Edge of the Century and Brave New World.   In a way reminiscent of how the Communist party in Stalinist Russia would remove people from photos and rewrite history to “erase” a figure who had fallen from grace, they simply wipe De Young out of their history.

To be sure, they mention some songs.   They note that Lady was their break out hit, but even in describing their successful years they downplay anything related to De Young, casting the history of the band as something less than it was.   That causes me to lose respect for the band in its current incarnation.  Are they so sensitive and defensive that they can’t even admit their past was shaped in large part by a singer/songwriter they had parted paths with?   Without De Young, Styx probably would have a history that would read like the history of Head East!

De Young’s songs include Lady, Come Sail Away, Mr. Roboto, Babe, The Best of Times and Show Me the Way, among others.  These were the hits that propelled the band into mega-super stardom with four straight triple platinum LPs and sold out arenas.   These hits are the reason a band using the name Styx can still draw crowds.

To be sure, Dennis De Young could not have done it without Styx.   The band’s sensibilities were a force that helped guide his songwriting — his solo work is good, but having to satisfy the band brought out the best of him.    Moreover, it was a group effort, even early on.

The band formed on the Chicago south side back in 1961 when De Young joined Chuck and John Panozzo (they were about 14 at the time) named Tradewinds.    Later John Curulewski and James Young joined, both excellent singers whose voices combined with De Young’s to create the strong three part harmonies that defined the band from the start.  By the time they signed with Wooden Nickel records (a subsidiary of RCA) they had become Styx, cultivating a working class progressive rock sound that permeates their career.   When “Lady” hit the charts big time, their identity crystallized.   The song was from the album Styx II, but didn’t hit until after the release of the fourth album, Man of Miracles.   With a hit and knowing they had a chance to reach the next level, the band left RCA to join A&M (resulting in law suits) and releasing the album Equinox.    “Suite Madame Blue” emerged from that effort as a bi-centennial reflection on the US that hinted at De Young’s power in writing  seductive songs with social commentary.  The song was a huge hit in Canada, but in the US Equinox was a commercial disappointment.   With only one true hit and increased pressures, Curulewski left the band just as they were about to go on tour.

This created a crisis for a group so close but yet so far from hitting it big.  Curulewski was integral to the harmonies and had been the most progressive influence.   The band did a quick search and found the missing link to big time success — a southern rocker named Tommy Shaw.   Tommy was attractive to girls (the band had lacked that), had an excellent voice (he would actually improve the harmonies) and was a superb songwriter.  His guitar work was above Curulewski’s, but the next album Crystal Ball still failed to attract a larger fan base.

The break out album was The Grand Illusion, with the hit Come Sail Away hitting number 3 on the charts.   From then on the band filled stadiums and released three more triple platinum records, Pieces of Eight, Cornerstone, and Paradise Theater.   Derided by the critics as being too mainstream and pop oriented, Styx nonetheless spoke to a generation of fans who didn’t want the cutting edge “strange” stuff that critics admire, preferring instead a combination of power and grace, accessible melodies with strong lyrics.

De Young’s lyrics showed him to be a cynical critic of the emerging consumer society in Grand Illusion and Pieces of Eight and his the powerful commentary about America in decline in the concept album Paradise Theater is as relevant now as it was in 1980.     James Young could concentrate his writing on contributing one solid rocker per album (highlights are Miss America and Half Penny Two Penny) and Shaw’s introspective and well crafted songs created a perfect chemistry.

Alas, that tore the band apart.   The breaking point was De Young’s insistence on visionary concept albums like the theatrical Kilroy was Here.    De Young’s vision for Kilroy may have been an over-reach, though he deserves respect for pushing the edges at the start of the MTV era.   Mixing music and drama was at the core of Styx’s success.    It seems that Shaw and Young resented the fact that their artistic drives were being muffled in order to give De Young’s vision life.   That lead them to resent the power ballads that meant they could live lavish life styles.   De Young probably did not fully understand how much his success came from the dynamics of the band.   In 1984 they parted ways.

Styx came back for Edge of the Century  in 1990, but without Shaw.   Shaw, Young and De Young were back in the 1999 album Brave New World, but they did not collaborate in a manner that created success in the past.   In different studios they patched together music that sounded more like their solo efforts than Styx.   John Panozzo died of alcoholism in 1996, while Chuck became sick with AIDS, coming out as gay in 2001.   The new Styx still has Young and Shaw as its core.   Others, notably Glen Burtnik, have come and gone in the interim.

All this is well and good.   If they’d stayed together they could not have continued their triple platinum success.  Their sound defined an era, but eras shift.    They’d have had a few more chart toppers, but time would have claimed its prize in any event.   While I enjoy and recommend Cyclorama, the only studio album without De Young, it didn’t seem like a real Styx album with him absent (though Shaw has become a better and more compelling song writer over the years).

What I don’t get is the effort to deny obvious reality and write a history of the band on their website that ignores a founding member who has been part of all but one of 14 studio albums and who penned the hits that gave them lives as successful rock stars.   They don’t have to like him.   They can resent him, be angry with him, and consider him a jerk.   But to simply wipe him from their history reeks of a weird Stalin-like attempt to re-write the past.   They can’t of course — for a generation De Young is the voice of Styx, a web site can’t change that.

Which is a shame.  I want to be a fan of both Dennis De Young in his solo career and the current Shaw-Young based Styx incarnation.  Shaw is a great song writer, Young brings intelligence and power.   But the website leaves a bitter taste; if Styx comes to Maine I probably won’t trek down to see them.

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