Brave New World
The Revolutions We Missed
Sometimes societies just plod along, oblivious that the world is being reinvented right under their noses. In 2000, one never saw pedestrians bumping into themselves as they glued their noses to iPhones. Thirteen years later, it is almost rare to see anyone on the street who is not stumbling about, networking or texting. Yet most of us are scarcely aware of the collective effect of that odd habit repeating itself millions of times over each day, of millions of books not read, of “hellos” not offered, of brains wired to screens rather than the physical world about them. When cars once drifted into your lane, you assumed a DUI; now their drivers are most likely texting.
Cars, of course, look about the same as they did thirty years ago. But we just assume now that they almost never break down. Up until 1980 I used to see them with hoods up by the side of the road almost every five miles or so. Today, entire notions such as points, plugs, tune-ups, and carburetors have simply quietly passed away for most motorists. The old jalopy with 100,000 miles on it was junk; the new Accord with 150,000 miles has another easy 250,000 to go. The world changes while we snore.
No wonder, then, most of us are still not quite aware of how vastly different the world of 2013 is from even 2008. Take interest: not long ago most Americans assumed that when they retired, their 5-7% interest rate on passbook savings would provide some sort of income. Not now. There is scarcely a 1% return. In fact, most accounts lose money. The interest is not even matching the rate of inflation. Will we soon be charged by the banks for “protecting” our deposits?
At some unspoken moment, we shrugged and silently accepted Ben Bernanke’s world, along with the thousands of ways that his Federal Reserve Board has radically changed our lives. Those at retirement age are not stepping down, not when they have a bad/worse choice of receiving no interest income or putting their life savings in the stock or bond market. Our fathers may have retired at 58; we will be lucky to quit at 70. Is there even such a thing as retirement anymore?
No wonder that unemployed young people are endlessly circling the airport with nowhere to land, given all of us old planes perpetually taxing around on the crowded runways below. To understand the effect of no, or very low, interest, think of the billions of dollars in cash that are silently transferred from those who have saved to those who have no cash. The former receive little or no interest from the banks. The latter take out mortgages or car loans at historically low interest rates.
Did the president ever mention this revolution, among his boilerplate of “millionaires and billionaires,” “pay your fair share,” and “fat cats”?
Does it really make all that much difference whether you are a doctor at 70 who religiously put away $1,000 a month for thirty years, compounded at the old interest, and planned to retire on the interest income, or a cashless state employee with a defined benefit pension plan? The one might have over $1 million in his savings account, but the other a bigger and less risky monthly payout. Suddenly the old adult advice to our children -- “Save and put your money in the bank to receive interest” -- is what? “Spend it now or borrow as much as you can at cheap interest”?
Them and Us
I think it was around 2009 when an entire new vocabulary entered the American popular lexicon. Where did the 1% versus the 99% come from? From where did the new financial Mason-Dixon line arise -- good below $250,000 in annual family income, very bad above it? When did the 47% -- or is it the 50%? -- pay no federal income taxes?
At some magical point, the rich became not the successful, the skilled, the well-inherited, the lucky, or the hardworking, but “them”: the suspect, the damned even, even as the lifestyles of the rich and famous became ever more sought after.
There are not just the rich and poor any more, but now the “good rich” (e.g., athletes, rappers, Hollywood stars, Silicon Valley grandees, Democratic senators, liberal philanthropists, etc.) and the “bad rich” (e.g., oil companies, CEOs, doctors, the Koch brothers, etc.). The correct-thinking nomenklatura and the dutiful apparat versus the kulaks and enemies of the people.
The president in his State of the Union damns the “billionaires with high-powered accountants,” as a friendly Facebook pays no state or federal taxes, as a George Soros walks away with $1.2 billion in speculation profits (in three months, no less!) by betting against the Japanese yen, and as a Jesse Jackson, Jr. gets caught stealing from a campaign fund to buy a $43,000 Rolex (was not a $1,000 one enough?). I thought Soros at his age knew when he had made enough money?
We shrug at all this. A president who thunders to the nation that we must be on guard against the “well-off and well-connected” heads south to Palm Beach to meet his $1,000-an-hour golf pro, while Michelle and the family go west to hit the slopes at “downright mean” Aspen, where no one accepts that they’ve reached a point where they’ve made enough money, or that there was any time when it was not good to profit.
Something strange has insidiously happened to the old notion of hypocrisy. Does it even exist any longer?
Or do we shrug and just accept it as rebranded medieval penance? Obama gets to golf with zillionaires because in soaring cadences he attacks them -- and all for us?
Jack Lew takes his $1 million bonus from a federally bailed-out Citigroup and invests his stash in his offshore tax haven in the Caymans because he will be a progressive, raise-your-taxes secretary of Treasury -- and because Barack Obama has castigated those who took bonuses from a federally bailed-out money-losing company and derided offshore tax havens in the Caymans?
Chris Hughes is a cutting-edge, gay progressive who buys the New Republic because his Facebook portfolio does pretty well without owing taxes? Is that how it works now?
Have we come to the point where we expect John Kerry’s populist rhetoric to explain why he can feel no pain over dodging taxes on his yacht or marrying into the big money that he used to warn against? John Edwards can lounge around in his ugly mansion precisely because of his “two Americas” choruses?
When did we expect the elite to enjoy their wealth and to rail against its acquisition, to lumber around on four legs in the barn with the animals and strut on two in the kitchen with the overseers? Do Levis and t-shirts mean it’s okay for Google to offshore its profits? Does “Earth in the Balance” mean you can walk away as a guilt-free liberal with $100 million in petro-profits from a sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic sheikdom?
The End of the Law
When did the idea of citizenship largely disappear? There is now little argument over the nomenclature of “illegal alien,” “undocumented worker,” or “unregistered resident.” About three or four years ago, all those rubrics simply became irrelevant.
Most police forces won’t turn over any foreign national stopped for DUI to immigration authorities (e.g., do you really think Obama’s illegal-alien uncle will be deported for drunk driving?). The student body president of the local university not only bragged that he was an illegal alien, but dared anyone to do anything about it -- to the loud applause of the university president. If an illegal alien can walk into Congress without fear of deportation, then there is no longer any sense of legal/illegal, or even amnesty/deportation.
“Comprehensive immigration reform” is likewise a silly construct. It does not exist any more. The truth is that we will allow “a pathway to citizenship” for those who broke the immigration law but who have been here a few years, who are working, and who have not been arrested. And, likewise, for those who broke immigration law but are not working, have just arrived, are on public assistance, and have been arrested, we will mandate neither citizenship nor deportation -- but just allow a perpetual limbo of residence. When proponents of amnesty declare pathways of citizenship predicated on a fine, or on learning English, or on returning to the back of the line, we know both that they will never audit such requirements and that it would not matter much whether they did. There is now just a sort of nothingness.
So what does it matter whether one is legal, illegal, holds a green card, holds no green card, is in line for citizenship, or is in line for deportation? There is no deportation; there is no real border anymore; there is no federal immigration law. All these are but states of mind, talking points of politicians without meaning.
In or around 2010, these rubrics finally disappeared, buried under the rhetoric of “nativist,” “racist,” “the borders crossed us,” and the reality of the new demography and emerging Democratic constituencies. Try to deport an illegal alien with a felony conviction and instead six hours later on television we will see helpless dependent children cast adrift by the nativists. Eleven to fifteen million foreign nationals, and ten or fifteen million of their American citizen offspring, represent voters that have made the immigration-debate rhetoric and policy superfluous, a revolutionary fact that most have napped through.
The New American Army
Suddenly one moment, women were eligible for combat duty at the front line: no congressional vote, no national bipartisan panel with white papers of pros and cons, no in-depth Pentagon study, no national dialogue. There was an executive order -- and that was that. Get over it.
Why then are women not eligible to play in the NFL or the NBA? Or are they, in theory? Yet something tells me that we will see a 140-lb. female SEAL in hand-to-hand combat with a 220 lb. Pashtun tribesman before we will see a female quarterback dodging defensive ends.
Are enemy linemen more dangerous than the Taliban?
Or is the assumption that women can in theory both play quarterback and go mano-a-mano against Mullah Omar’s thugs, but whether they do depends on whether they can meet male standards? One moment we had assumed that most men had about 30-50% more body strength than do women, and perhaps in most cases a more venomous aggressive streak. In the next blink, all that mattered not at all -- or was it the sort of sexist fact that we kept silent about?
What is in store for those Neanderthal frontline infantry who object to the new rules? Apparently male reactionary combat soldiers of small units who for various reasons are not willing to entrust their lives to women at the front line are dead wrong. And they are so dead wrong that they can leave the military if they don’t like the new statutes.
And if they leave the military, their presence either won’t affect combat efficacy, or will in fact improve it. Really?
Because we have effective and aggressive female Blackhawk pilots who risk getting shot down and killed or captured, de facto we must have no problem finding female SEALS who can rip the throats out of jihadists with no more difficulty than pushing the fire button in the chopper above. Yet we suspect that some of the female soldiers who can’t quite meet the existing male standards of physical prowess for combat units will argue that the bar is set artificially too high and is an irrelevant construct, given that 21st century knives, kicks, and choke holds are so passé and just the sort of artificial talking points that the sexists erect.
We all expect that in the near future there will be gender equity lawsuits, and sexual harassment writs -- and we fear lurid stories of captured and killed women at the front that will shock us in the years to come. And we will continue to sleep, in the manner that we will soon whisper: “Wow, Iran finally got their bomb, after all”; or “Hmmm, that Korean missile got sorta, kinda close to Maui”; or “Wouldn’t you know it -- they’re back to hanging female doctors from light poles in Kabul”; or “Whoa -- 550 shot in Chicago this year?”
The New Normal
When did 7.8% unemployment become the new normal? After 49 months above it? What happened to a “jobless recovery"?
Are we always to borrow $1 trillion a year? Will the national debt always rise, never decline? Did $4 a gallon gas become the new normal -- a small price to pay for more windmills and solar panels?
Suddenly, college is not the pathway to the upper-middle class, but a risky 50/50 proposition that just as likely can lead to a $100,000 plus, 8% student loan debt, no job, and five years in the parents’ spare bedroom. Who ever objected to tuition climbing at twice the rate of inflation? One day there were sparse dorms, and the next rock-climbing walls; one day deans and provosts who at least taught one class, the next diversity czars with scores of assistants. The more kids can’t pay for college, the more college looks like Disney World.
The new America is a society where 50% pay federal income tax, and for 50% April 15 is an occasion for a tax refund or credit. I grew up with my parents dreading the date; now I see signs offering all sorts of “tax refund” sales. When did disability insurance merely become an extension of unemployment insurance?
There Is No Media
About four years ago, the media just dissipated. Gone, buried. Did we notice our newsreaders are virtual government employees? The media is a Ministry of Truth where spokespeople vie for superlatives -- a living “god,” a man who creates tingles in our legs and is pictured as a “messiah” on our magazines. Each sermon is a new “Gettysburg Address,” each gesture is Lincoln’s, each new Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton part of the new Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals.”
Journalists are now Photoshoppers of news: Guantanamo once bad, now good; we all grew to stop worrying and to love Predators; renditions, the Patriot Act, and preventative detentions must have gone with George W. Goldstein.
Those noisy free-for-all press conferences are now like Xerxes’s court at Persepolis, where toadies compete with kowtows. “Investigative reporting” is how some reactionary, enemy-of-the-people hacks dig up dirt on a progressive like Sen. Menendez or Susan Rice. The video maker sitting in jail and the 16-year-old American who was vaporized were reactionary troublemakers -- and that is all ye need to know.
Brave, New World
Panta rhei -- “everything is in flux” -- Heraclitus says. The world we knew is not the one we wake up to after a short nap. January 2009 now seems like a far-off dream, in a way that 2016 may be a nightmare.
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