About those golden years…

Something many people don’t know about me is that, years ago, I was a young person. Back then, I saw the world in terms of unlimited possibility, if only I could overcome the proliferation of totally unfair obstacles it was throwing at me. I was idealistic. If something wasn’t good enough, then, dammit, get rid of it, and if you didn’t agree with me, then it was time to leave you behind to fend for your sorry self.

Now that I’m old, I’m not much different, except that I keep my more misanthropic thoughts to myself. I imagine I’ve gotten smarter about life, but how can you trust someone who has always thought that anyway?

I hear a lot of people my age (old) say they still feel like they’re in their 30s, or 40s if they’re 10 years older than I am, which is not at all what we expected to feel like. When you’re young you imagine old people as a kind of separate species. You imagine them sitting around on benches, either thinking wise and kind thoughts or crabbing about everything, when you’re not seeing them drooling their walkers through the corridors of a nursing home. The wise and kind elderly are usually dead, the better to be idealized; the crabby type lives in your neighborhood to be seen every day. The old fart yelling at kids to get off his lawn has become a trope, but I’d venture to say that sort of behavior is more characteristic of the young and up-and-coming. A bit of projection?

Anyhow, my young friends, I’m here to tell you exactly what being old really feels like.

It feels exactly like being young. And recovering from a car wreck.

Achilles who?

Years ago, when I was traveling in Morocco, I was fascinated by the story tellers who plied their wares in the souks of the ancient cities. It was radio, television and the news all rolled into one bright, vivacious package.

The story tellers would begin something formulaic, and gradually work in current events and other things the audience would be familiar with.

They worked for tips, and if you were generous, you could get your name added to one of the stories in the teller’s repertoire. If you were particularly generous, you could get a story custom made, with you as the main character.

Years later when I was studying Homer’s epics, it occurred to me that what I had seen in Morocco was directly descended from that tradition. There’s a long-standing debate about who Homer was, or if he even existed, but what’s clear is that the poems attributed to him were written down in the early 8th century BCE, just about contemporaneous with the development of writing itself in ancient Greece. Before that they were a part of the rich tradition of story telling in the agoras of Greece. Analysis of Homer’s poems reveals his use of standard structures and characters from older traditions. The stories themselves relate to the Trojan War, which seems to have happened near the end of the 12th century BCE.

This all got me thinking about Achilles, the hero of the Iliad, and the most fearsome of all the Greek warriors. For a hero, he was not much of a bargain. The story is that, on the way to lay siege to Troy on a trump-up grievance, the Greeks sacked a few minor cities here and there, apparently just to pass the time. In one of these attacks, Achilles kidnapped a woman with whom he became enamored. Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae and the commander-in-chief of the Greek expedition, decided to take her for his own.

Achilles was furious, and, in revenge, spent almost the entire war, which lasted ten years, sulking in his tent while his comrades were getting slain and wounded. It was only after his friend and probable lover, Patroclus, was killed that Achilles roused himself and joined the fray, killing Hector, crown prince of Troy, and the killer of Patroclus.

For my money, Hector was a much more admirable character for a number of reasons; go read the Iliad for yourself, and you’ll see what I mean. I recommend Stanley Lombardo’s translation.

So why focus on Achilles? True, he was a formidable fighter when roused, but mostly he’s portrayed as a pouting adolescent nursing his pride.

Unless, of course, a contemporary of Homer, co-incidentally named — drumroll — Achilles, promised to fork over a generous fee to get put into the Iliad as the main character.

Perhaps this Achilles promised more than he ended up paying. Never cross a poet!

Medicare for all: too expensive?

In a word, not even close.

Let’s check this out, using some of the same figures that have been bouncing around lately.  Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All (MFA) proposal, reported CNN in 2017, would cost $1.3 trillion per year.

Wow, that’s a lot! Isn’t it? Let’s break it down.  There are approximately 157,288,000 Americans in the work force in 2019. $1.3 trillion, then, comes to roughly $8,900 per taxpayer, assuming that the entire cost of MFA will be borne by working people paying taxes.

About 55.4% of employed Americans are covered by health insurance provided by their employers, which accounts for 8.5% of wages for these people. The national average annual income, excluding benefits,is $46,800.  That’s a cost to the employer of $4,212 per year per employee.

If you’re a working American that’s a part of your compensation that you don’t normally see, but you can bet your employer does.

So, let’s get back to the cost of MFA, $8,900. If the money your employer pays for your health insurance were simply shifted to financing MFA, it would cover almost half of the cost.

So, what about the rest of it?  Well, the rest of it can be covered by the 44.6% of working people whose employers do not pay for their health insurance, and who therefore must pay for their own insurance, and you can bet that they pay a hell of a lot more for the same coverage than do employers.  The average cost of all private health insurance in 2019 is about $7,000.  Even accounting for the free spirits who would rather risk going broke than buy insurance, it’s more than enough to offset the remaining cost of MFA in increased taxes.

Of course, the entire cost could be offset by simply rescinding the recent Republican tax cuts, which benefit primarily the ultra rich, amounting to $2.3 trillion. But that’s off the table.

Or is it?

 

The new Puritans: like the old Puritans, but without the excuse of religion

“The difference between a Republican and a Democrat,” according to Will Rogers, “is the Democrat is a cannibal. They have to live off each other, while the Republicans, why, they live off the Democrats.”

Here’s the great irony of our political age: fundamentalist conservatives are willing to overlook almost any moral transgression in the interest of advancing their agenda, while we in the opposition gleefully kill our darlings for the slightest whiff of incorrectness.  The Right may be hypocritical, but the Left is downright prudish, conflating the most minor peccadillos and verbal gaffes with Trump/Epstein scale abomination.  How on earth did this happen?

It happened because we, the left and leftish, have poured disdain on the right for the sin of hypocrisy. We have, in fact, made hypocrisy our favored attack, second only to accusations of moral transgression, and, since we’ve been harping on this ad nauseum instead of arguing the merits of our positions, we can hardly ignore transgressions among ourselves. This is especially true since a favorite tactic of the Trumpist variant of the right is to accuse its enemies of its own failings. In effect, we’ve created a moral standard, burnished it with a zero-tolerance ethic, and handed it to the right to use as a primary weapon against us. Lost in all of this tu quoque badinage is any discussion of the real world merits of our policy differences.

Brilliant.

 

 

 

 

Our poor, tainted political system

I’m not a huge fan of Elizabeth Warren. In fact, I think that just the idea of being a “fan” of hers or not is symptomatic of our deeply disturbed political system at the moment.

I think she’s a perfectly acceptable candidate among the 20-odd choices, and I will vote for her if she ends up the official nominee of the Democratic Party. Until such time I will withhold further support. I want to wait and see how the issues unfold.

However, she already seems to be the choice of the political disruptors. I’m seeing more and more gratuitous mentions of her Native American heritage fiasco (on which, see Snopes.com). It has become a trope, bordering on the magnitude of Clinton’s emails, and just as irrelevant to her qualifications for the job of President.

I said as much in a comment on a Tweet recently, in (I thought) a reasonable tone. I got two or three responses telling me why I was wrong, again, in a more or less reasonable (for Twitter) tone.

Then, all at once, dozens of comments popped up, and I mean all at once. Some of the comments could be construed as in my favor, and others against, almost all much more insulting in tone that the original exchanges. I’m not a big Twitter user. I rarely get a thread going with more than about six or seven comments, and never over about 20, even when I’ve been getting piled on, and even then, they have accumulated gradually, as you’d expect.

Nowhere in all of this fusillade was there a mention of her ideas on policy, her other qualifications, or even a suggestion of an alternative candidate.

This tells me three things:
1. at this point, the opposition considers Warren the most likely to survive the nominating process,
2. they consider her the most dangerous in terms of running against Trump, and
3. the bot network (Russian or homegrown) is up and running already.

As they say, buckle up.

City boy

I grew up in a close society of immigrants, clannish, insular, distrustful of their new country and the people in it, all the while reciting its praises. Everyone knew everyone else’s business. Every adult was allowed to, and did, monitor and even punish every child, though generally they only reported misbehavior to parents. As a teen, my time was strictly regulated, with one curious exception: while any time spent with my American friends was subjected to the minutest scrutiny, when I was with Latvian friends, the gates were flung open and no questions asked. Naturally, I exploited this loophole at every opportunity, drinking at laxly run taverns well before coming of age, and getting into trouble in general, always forgiven, as long as no Americans were involved.

Still, it was stifling. The social strictures, and, above all, the religious impositions, might as well have been physical chains. I longed for something outside these limits. I devoured Kerouac and Baldwin, read Ferlinghetti and Corso as if they were Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. I spent hours staring out the front door window, imagining a completely different life.

But I lived in the city, and the city was my escape, my safety valve. For 27 cents, I could hop on a bus a half block from my house, and within minutes be in another world, one of libraries, book stores, and coffee shops, and above all, anonymity.

Years later I would find myself living in a sleepy little town, a county seat with a high opinion of itself, and all the insularity of my immigrant community. Right next to it was a company coal town, and the miners and their families provided the underclass that seems so necessary to maintain that peculiar superiority of big fish in small ponds.

The heartland, they called it, but someone had built a university where the favorite hunting grounds used to be. Some of the locals cashed in big as they sold off farmland, and others were bitter in the self-righteous way of those who had missed the big payoff. Either way, it was the beginning of the end for the inbred insularity the town was known for. With the university came a preference for urbanism, and connections to the nearby city, long resisted by the locals, began forming and strengthening.

Nowadays, we’re a suburb, and the older residents pine for bygone days. But there are restaurants, several grocery stores to choose from, coffee shops to sit in, and the feeling that everyone knows your business and disapproves of it has all but disappeared.

People talk about the failure of small-town America, but I see another story, that of the transition from ruralism to urbanism. Lots of small towns have emptied out, to be sure, but many others either joined larger nearby metroplexes or grew into cities in their own right. Along with that inevitably came the cosmopolitanism beloved of the city-bred like me, and despised by the unrecostructed rural. And both, as so often happens, for the same reason: the decline of big-fish smugness.