Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Control or Chaos

We generally fly Southwest Airlines. We like them for a bunch of reasons. If you can't make your flight, they issue you a full credit applicable toward any future flight. All you have to do is use the credit within one year of the original purchase date. If you miss that deadline, they'll re-issue the credit for only $50. They don't charge you extra to check your luggage or sit by a window. And often the cabin crew will sing to you. There's a very funny SWA rap on YouTube: check it out here.

Another way that SWA is different is that they don't have assigned seating. Instead, they put you in a boarding group, A, B, or C which is determined mostly by when you pick up your boarding pass. They board in that order, and you are free to take any open seat. There are some problems with the system. Sometimes they run out of overhead bin space, and you have to either cram your carry-on under the seat in front of you or you have to check it. Also, since everybody wants to sit close to the front of the plane, a logjam occurs as people take the first available seat. But the atmosphere is generally friendly and they have one of the best on-time records in the industry.

I didn't realize how chaotic this system is until we boarded the first leg of our American Airlines flight this morning. They assign seating and after taking care of the first class passengers they board from the back to the front of the plane. This made for a much more controlled situation. Everything quite orderly, thank you.

I've often thought that SWA could operate more efficiently if they boarded the C group first and made them stow their luggage and sit in the back third of the plane. It would even offer them a perk: on partially full flights singles would have a much better chance of nabbing a three-row and stretching out. Our experience this morning made me realize just how right I am.

I recently talked to an SWA customer service rep about my idea and she just laughed. I guess they've tried it. The problem is that the C people won't move the back of the plane. They just stake out the prime real estate at the front of the plane. Well, I still think it could be accomplished. But then the cabin crew would have to play Cop and that would take all the fun out flying Southwest.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Better World?

Well, I seem to have gotten myself stalled out again. Drat.

Not that I haven’t been writing a little. It’s just that for some reason I've felt averse to sharing.

I’ve been working on what is either a very long entry or sequence of entries about shopping, which seems to be one of my favorite (and most self-defeating) activities.

Perhaps my latest shopping expedition got in the way of finishing/publishing?

Ironically enough, what I bought was a new computer. No, not the MacBook Air I’ve eyed again and again in the sale section of the Apple Store. I bought an eee 901 Linux from Amazon, an entirely different kind of computer.

I bought it because it looked like the perfect travel companion: light-weight with excellent battery life and exactly the features I want on the road: internet, word-processing, music, movies and photo storage. We'll take it with us next week to Hawaii, and I'll try to write a bit from there about how well it works out.

Already I see that I got more, way more, than I bargained for. I imagined the linux operating system, in this case Xandros, would be something like a Mac. I’ll try to write later about how Xandros is and is not Mac-like. For here and now let me say that part of what makes linux cool is the anti-shopping dimension. By that I don’t mean that linux users don’t buy stuff. Obviously, they do. In fact, they must, just like everyone else. But my brief forays into the wonderful world of linux persuades me that this global community is creating a space outside of the corporate ownership model that has turned us all into a bunch of zombie consumers.

Of course, lots of people share that commitment and pursue it through a variety of means: cooperative business models, local economies, do-it-yourself and back-to-the earth movements come to mind as obvious examples.

The linux way involves figuring out how your machine works, making it work differently, and sharing the results. This is much more than a metaphor for figuring out how the Machine works in order to make it work better (or make it stop working). All this tinkering throws a monkey wrench--or rather, lots of them--into the Corporate Machine. It creates choices outside of those offered by the Corporate World (Microsoft vs Apple) and it does so in a community dedicated to deconstructing the false dichotomy of those "choices."

I doubt that linux and linux users alone can save us. But maybe community is the key to building a better world.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Bi-partisanship--and So Much More

I read that Obama doesn’t want to prosecute anyone for torture because he wants to avoid a “partisan” fight.

That seems disingenuous. First, partisanship is here to stay. We have a two-party systems and folks can, do and will stand with their party. Actually, it is beginning to seem like every time President Obama invokes “partisanship,” he is signaling his willingness to bend over backwards to make the Republicans feel good about themselves. But nobody should feel good about torture. Strangely enough, many Republicans do.

And isn’t it interesting that the debate over investigating and prosecuting those involved with the torture is shaping up along, if not exactly party lines, then certainly along the broad political ideologies that underwrite party politics. Liberals (Democrats) want to prosecute those involved; Conservatives (Republicans) want to congratulate them because they (ostensibly) saved American lives.

I wonder what they think an American life is worth, not in terms of dollars and cents, but in relationship to other lives. Ten other lives? A thousand? A million, billion, trillion? Where do the advocates of torture draw the line?

More importantly, where do you draw the line? How many human beings would you torture (or allow to be tortured) to save your own life?

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Millions of Stories to Break Your Heart

Here’s a story to break your heart: the father of Rubina Ali, one of the child actors from Slumdog Millionaire, is trying to sell his daughter for £200,000.

The comments that follow the story are also disturbing. Everyone is looking for someone to blame. It’s the father. No, wait, it’s the government of India. No, no, it’s Danny Boyle for casting her in the film and not making her a millionaire.

But no one is to blame. Rather, we all are to blame. Why? Because we only pretend to value human life. Most of us value our own lives and those of the people we love and perhaps our neighbors, but only the ones who look and think like us. The rest of the time? We value our ideas about how good and wise and useful we are.

If we really valued human life—and by “we” I mean all human beings—we would not have war or slavery or rape or hundreds of millions of people dying slowly of starvation or dehydration.

Actually, I’m not too worried about Rubina. She is such a special child. Someone will help her. But I am very worried about all the other Rubinas, the ones whose names we don’t know:

The 25 million children displaced annually by war

The untold numbers of child soldiers

The 5.8 million children who die everyday from hunger related causes.

The 2 – 13.5 million who have been stolen or purchased--often from their parents--and who labor in factories and fields and private homes and brothels. (2007 Trafficking in Persons Report by the United States State Department, p 10)

Who will save them?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Susan Boyle & the Ugly Truth About Beauty

Like millions of others, I am entranced watching Susan Boyle soar over the shaming (and shameful) mockery to which the Britain’s Got Talent crew and audience subjected her before her performance. I just listened to an older recording, “Cry Me a River.” The woman’s got chops, no doubt, and I am hoping that she has a great career to match her great talent.

I’ve also been intrigued by the outpouring of complaints about how quick human beings are to judge individuals based on their appearance. Some comments suggest that the fault lies with the media or the entertainment industry (pop quiz: are they any different?), or with men or the young. But there’s some research out there that suggests we are hardwired to respond to beauty: we think it's more, well, attractive.

Here is a summary of some experiments I read about long ago and far away (but researched a bit in order to write this entry).

Experiment #1: a woman made up to be deliberately unattractive stages a seizure on a crowded train at rush hour. Not a single person stops to help her. In fact, everyone walks right over her. A second woman, quite beautiful, stages a seizure on a crowded train at rush hour. She is instantly surrounded by people who express concern and desire to help.

(I’ve been unable to track down any citation for this, but there’s an interesting discussion of similar experiments in Elaine Hatfield’s book, Mirror, Mirror: The Importance of Looks in Everyday Life.)

Experiment #2: this one was trying to figure out if our reactions to beauty are innate or conditioned. The experimenters gathered up photographs of women they collectively agreed were quite beautiful and others they felt were unattractive. They made an effort to include representatives from all of the so-called races in both groups. Then they showed them to infants. Time and again the infants showed far more interest in looking at the photos of women the researchers deemed beautiful and turning away from the photos of women deemed unattractive. Thus, it would seem that we have some kind of instinctive sense of what constitutes female human beauty.

Subsequent researchers have shown that the innate preference for beauty is not gender specific or even species specific. According to these researchers even very young infants would prefer to look at the faces of pretty cats or tigers rather than ugly ones. They conclude that the preference is part of our perceptual hardware. Fortunately, our judgments can and do change under environmental influence (which explains how really ugly skinny plastic glasses suddenly look, you know, very cool).

So we can admonish ourselves to never ever judge a book by its cover, but it seems that’s exactly what we've been doing forever and what we’ll keep on doing in spite of our collective admiration for Susan Boyle. Mark my words. The next time some overweight or extremely geeky person stands up in front of Simon Cowell and waggles his or her hips and promises to wow him, he and we will roll our eyes and sneer.

So, yeah, the beautiful people get a leg up from day one. Fair? Nope, but I guess that evolution never did care about what’s fair.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Blogger's Crisis

Suddenly, I'm having a blogger's crisis. I started Tall Grass Zen as a way of keeping our sangha informed of events and inviting members to talk to each other across the spatial distances that mostly keep us from practicing together. Then I started Cave of Poison Grass as a place to think about the relationships between Zen meditation and everyday life. A bit later I started this blog, Professor Hauck, as an outlet for my sarcasm, which is the step-child of anger and powerlessness and could maybe someday dissolve if I practice hard enough. I even started a blog called Tea in Kansas in order to reflect on my tea tasting practice, which alas has devolved into getting the most flavor and caffeine with the least bitterness out of hong cha.

JW's suicide has blurred those carefully drawn lines. I'm posting here, I'm posting there, I'm posting everywhere. As I told my nephew this morning, I promised myself I would post to my blog everyday but I'm not sure which blog I'm supposed to post to or if it even counts as a daily practice if I don't post everyday to the same blog.

For now, I'm going to concentrate on this one because I'm not that fucking enlightened and trying to post to the Cave everyday would feel like falsifying the Buddhadharma.

That said, I did post something at the Cave this morning, in case you are interested.

Thursday, April 16, 2009


JW’s wife spoke at the Memorial Service on Tuesday. It was very generous of her. She helped me to understand why JW killed himself.

Jayne said that for the past several years, JW immersed himself more and more in his job. He would go to work everyday, come home, eat dinner, turn on the computer and go back to work. That’s not much of a life. When he became unable to work, he had nothing to fall back on—or he felt he had nothing to fall back on.

Jayne also said that the man we were remembering was not the man she had been living with for the past four months, the man who killed himself. Unable to work, JW disintegrated into greater and greater agony.

I have an image of JW crossing a bridge. He can’t go back and he can’t imagine going forward. So finally he jumped.

Jayne says that she has felt JW’s presence on several occasions. He is in a place of peace and light now.

Thank you, Jayne.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Calling You Back

This is what I said at JW's Memorial Ceremony last night:

I guess I knew JW the way most people in the school did. First, he was a conduit for the many requests for chanting in our world wide sangha. I saw his name in my inbox quite often. I also talked to him on the phone from time to time, usually when I was panicking over something. Where were the kasas and certificates? Would our ceremony happen? And I met him a couple of times, most recently when I did office work for him during my week of kyol che a few years ago. So we weren’t close. Nonetheless I loved him.

When we got Bobby’s email saying he had killed himself, it was like a knife in my heart. How could this kind, gentle, patient, compassionate man have slipped so far away from us?

For me today, this is JW’s great teaching: we need to keep one another close. You know, we are all in this together. We need each other. When one of us leaves, it’s so painful.

So if you know someone who seems to be pretty far out there, please reach out and call them back. And if anyone here tonight happens to have drifted far from us, please come back. We need you.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Of Ignorance and Gratitude

I learned something surprising about JW over the past few days: he was actually a practicing Catholic, not a Zen Buddhist. He took five precepts and practiced for some time—I don’t know how long—but felt more at home in the Church than in the Zendo.

Margaret says that he was doing what true Christians do, turning the face of Christ toward everyone he met without any kind of fanfare.

This does not mean that JW was not a Bodhisatva (or kind of Buddhist saint) because clearly he was motivated by a spirit of selflessness and a desire to help everyone who crossed his path, without judgment or distinction.

The priest yesterday affirmed his hope and his belief that JW was living in peace with Jesus. That’s a very comforting thought.

From a Buddhist doctrinal point of view JW is in bardo, a kind of purgatorial state which he will pass through for forty-nine days. The bardo, as I understand it, is confusing, sometimes blissful, sometimes terrifying. It offers opportunities for enlightenment and into Nirvana or re-birth. I suppose that’s comforting, too, in a different kind of way.

In truth, nobody knows where JW is. We can speculate. We can deny one point of view and affirm another. But no amount of thinking or writing or arguing can change the fundamental fact of everyone’s ignorance. All we can is continue to try to put everything down—our opinions, condition, situation, as Zen Master Seung Sahn used to say—and be present moment to moment, offering to help when we can, accepting what help is offered. This is how JW seems to have lived most of his life. For that, I am grateful.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Everything Has Changed, But We're Still Alive

This is one of the lovely things the priest said at JW's funeral mass here in Providence, RI.

He also made a lovely analogy between redwood trees and human life. Redwood trees grow hundreds of feet into the air, but their roots are very shallow. However, they develop highly tangled root systems, which help them to survive strong winds. JW's death was like a strong wind, which we will survive by depending on one another.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Stupid Airplane Tricks #1

So we get to 30,000 feet, and the pilot turns off the fasten seat belt sign, and Margaret and I get out our iPods. I decide I’ll put some eye drops in before I start listening to music. The fluid’s a little slow coming out, and I start to wonder what’s wrong. It hits my eye, and I KNOW what’s wrong: I’m putting ear drops in my eye.

Which now feels like it's on fire.

I jump up almost hitting Margaret in the face with my stainless steel thermos as I crawl over her. Lots of turbulence has me lurching wildly, bouncing off of seats, as I try to run toward the back of the plane. Judging from the expressions on the other passengers' faces, I looked incredibly stoned.

I tell the attendant what’s wrong, and she pours water over my eye, flushing it out. This stage lasts about five minutes. Water is running down my face, inside my shirt. I don't care. We get most of the bad stuff out.

I called my eye doc when we landed in Chicago. Itt seems that I'm going continue seeing in three-D for a while.

Margaret says, at least you got all that wax out of your eye.

Friday, April 10, 2009

No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

I love this show! Of course, I’ve only seen two episodes, but the writing is good, the acting is great and the setting, Botswana, opens a window to a part of the world I’ve never been and know practically nothing about.

I was alerted to its premier on HBO by Aaron Barnhart’s review in the Kansas City Star. Here’s a letter I wrote to him after I watched the first episode:

I sure do share your delight in this show. It's quite heartwarming. I'm writing to point out a couple of things you might have missed.

It is true that the show probably gives us a false sense of life in Botswana. Doesn't TV give us a false sense of life everywhere? But it's not true that it ignores the HIV crisis. Rather, it places HIV in the background of the characters' lives. For example, the slick lawyer (“Friendly”) compares the large turnout for the funeral of Precious's father with the scanty attendance at those who die of “disease,” a reference I think to AIDS and social ostracism. More overtly, the fellow running the insurance scam has been giving the money to an orphanage, home to many children who have lost their parents to "a terrible disease." Obviously, HIV is on everyone’s mind.

I congratulate you on (finally) realizing that the show’s focus on male sexual infidelity encodes the threat of HIV because unfaithful husbands transmit the virus. But you missed the importance of the case about the woman who was caring for a man pretending to be her father. Women throughout Africa perform much of the work, but are not able to build wealth because what they earn is so often taken by their husbands and other male relatives. Their poverty may part of what makes them so vulnerable to sexually predatory men.

Finally, the show's darkest shadow was cast by repeated references to child slavery and organized crime, two grim and not unrelated topics. The show's charm, for me, lies in its ability to show us both the sunshine and the shadows of present-day Botswana.

(Barnhart wrote an email thanking me for my comments. But I was really hoping to start a conversation. Oh, well. I’ll just have to talk to you, gentle readers:

The second episode continued to approach serious topics with a light, sometimes comic touch. There’s a case involving a dentist that hinges on economic predation and another case about an unfaithful husband who meets a gruesome end. The part I found most moving was the gentle way that the script deepens our sense of the plight of Grace Makutsi, No. 1 secretary to the No. 1 Lady Detective. Grace not only feels humiliated as she watches less qualified but more sexually attractive women land better paying, more prestigious jobs, she is also supporting her brother, Richard, who is dying from AIDS. But don't worry. Grace is no sad faced victim, just a well-rounded, slightly comic figure.

I can hardly wait for episode three.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

And Now For Something Completely Trivial

Yes, that’s right. I’m talking about American Idol.

What I love about the show is that it gives ordinary people with great voices a shot at something bigger. Well, maybe the people who win aren’t exactly ordinary. But show biz is tough, and AI opens some doors to people who lack connections and hence access.

What I hate about the show is the way it trades in humiliation, from replaying videos of really bad singers insisting they are brilliant to Simon’s blistering dismissals to the way the show makes the weakest contestants sweat it out, week after week.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a fanatic. I watched faithfully the first year, fitfully the second year and hardly at all since then. Until now. Suddenly, I’m hooked. Maybe it’s because the overall professionalism of the contestants has shot up. Maybe it’s because the overall professionalism of the judges has shot up, mostly because the new judge, Kara DioGuardia, helps balance out the Simon Cowell / Paula Abdul weirdness. (What’s with those two anyway? Simon always critiques Paula’s critique before issuing his own. Snipe, snipe, snipe).

A no-brainer: Adam Lambert will win. He’s got voice, style, versatility, drive and originality. Plus, he’s ten years older than my personal pick for second place, sixteen-year-old Allison Iraheta, who has it all except the edge that comes from experience (and maybe good fashion sense). I’m guessing that Kris Allen will hang on for third place—and that he’s the one the judges will give a second chance to.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009


Yesterday a friend of mine, JW Harrington, jumped from a bridge and died. He was the Executive Director of the Kwan Um School of Zen. He had been seriously ill for several months, unable to work. He was fifty years old.

We weren’t close friends. Most of our conversations were about business or the weather or the health and well-being of other sangha members. But I have the warmest feelings for him. He was incredibly efficient, but never officious or impersonal. His efficiency seemed very Zen-like, a by-product of complete attention and deep compassion. He was always patient and kind. And now he is gone, and I understand from the manner of his death that there was something about JW I never saw, something sad and lonely and desperate.

Several months ago I found myself briefly, but seriously, considering suicide. I felt that my life had no purpose, that I might as well kill myself. I instantly perceived what that would do to Margaret, how it would shatter her for a very long time, perhaps the rest of her life, and I knew that I could not cause her such pain. And there arose in my mind the faces of the people I love and who love me, all of whom would be devastated should I take my own life. At first I was only thinking about people who live near-by, people I see often, but by the time my imagination had rippled out east and west to both coasts and south to the Gulf and flown over the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans, I understood: love gives life purpose and meaning.

How could JW not have known that? He had been a student of Zen for thirty years. He had a wife and a mother and literally thousands of friends. On Saturday, JW came to the Buddha’s Birthday celebration at the Providence Zen Center--just four days before he jumped from that bridge. Everybody was so happy to see him. And yet somehow he could not feel our love, our profound connection. He could not experience himself as part of the vast human network. This must be what every suicide feels, completely and hopelessly alone.

I read somewhere that every person who has survived jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge reports the same thing: once they were falling they realized they had made a terrible mistake. I can’t help but suppose that successful suicides also experience that urgent regret as they hurtle through space. And I can’t stop wondering about JW: in the seconds before he hit the water did he get it? Did he understand that his life had meaning no matter how sick he felt or depressed or discouraged?

We all die alone, but the solitude of the suicide is almost beyond imagination.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009


I did not believe that the Democrats would ever nominate a Black man for President--but they did.

I did not believe that America would elect a Black man President--but we did.

I did not believe that American would inaugurate Obama--but we did.

On inauguration day, Margaret and I flew an American flag. It was the first time I raised a flag as an adult. I felt so proud.

I don't agree with everything he says or does, but I trust him. I feel more secure knowing he's on the job.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Made in America

I wonder if Americans are more violent than people of other nations? It probably depends on how you define violence. We certainly have a history of state-sponsored or -supported violence on a pretty grand scale. I’m thinking of slavery; of the attempted extermination of the Indigenous Peoples; of our post-WW2 military actions, overt and covert; of our extensive use of incarceration, especially against the poor; and of our high murder rate relative to other industrialized nations.

I’m wondering too if the recent spate of murders here—three cops and one parolee in Oakland, California; eight people in a nursing home in Carthage, North Carolina; thirteen at an immigrant center in Binghamton, New York; three cops in Pittsburg, PA; five children by their father in Graham, WA; and countless others that did not make national headlines—are just business as usual here in the USofA or if the recent stresses have pushed us to some kind of collective breaking point?

I’m tending to the latter opinion. True, the NC and the WA murders are acts of domestic violence, committed by men who were acting out their frustration with their wives, which occurs with depressing frequency. And it’s not unusual for men in fear of their government to act out against the police, which is what happened in CA and PA. Even the staging of the PA murders is precedented. But the attack on the immigrant center seems especially ominous because the perpetrator did not act out against people with actual power, like the police, or people with perceived power, like a wife, but against people whose situations were remarkably similar to his.

I am particularly struck by the fact that he barricaded his victims in the building before attacking them. I imagine that he himself was feeling trapped and obviously, quite desperate. In psychoanalytic parlance, he made the passive active.

Actually, as I think about it, three of these murders play out some feeling of entrapment: Robert Stewart shot people confined to their wheel chairs and Richard Poplawski barricaded himself in his house.

I don’t think that this could possibly be a uniquely American phenomenon. But it is happening right now in America.

What I fear is that we are just on the beginning of massive violence as more and more Americans feel the walls closing in—as the jobs evaporate and their houses are repossessed and their marriages disintegrate in the face of social and economic stresses.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Iowa Rocks

I am so happy that Iowa is the third state to legalize gay marriage. Margaret, a daughter of Iowa and singer of praise for all things Iowan, never doubted the outcome. I was skeptical.

Now our marriage is recognized in five states (I think I'm counting right: Iowa, Massachusetts, Connecticutt, Rhode Island and New York) and at least as many countries. Let's hope the California Supreme Court shows as much judicial wisdom Iowa's. 

Go Iowa!

Friday, April 3, 2009

Money for Nothing, Kicks for Free

I’ve been reading the very interesting NY Times series about Workers’ Compensation in the state of New York. The general consensus is that the system is broken, but nobody can agree on how to fix it. My sense is that Workers' Compensation is not the problem. Rather, a widespread dislike of and scorn for workers is the problem. Consider, for example, how readily the courts and insurance companies and business owners and doctors assign blame to the injured workers themselves, who are widely perceived as wanting to get their money for free. One doctor was quoted as saying that 75% of the people on Workers’ Comp didn’t deserve it.

What’s really bizarre about this point of view is how many of those holding it profit from Workers’ Comp without doing much, if any, meaningful work. For instance, many of the fifteen Commissioners, whose job it is to review cases, work at home for a just a few hours a week. For this onerous task, they are paid $90,000 a year. At 10 hours a week, that comes out to about $180 per hour. Not bad when you consider that most are political appointees with no relevant experience in medicine or the law.

Even trained licensed professionals are in on the scam. One semi-retired doctor, hired to give independent medical assessments, performed as many as fifty examinations in a single afternoon. This means that he saw each patient for perhaps five minutes. He did not write down his findings. Rather, he ticked off boxes on a form and sent the form to an agency that turned his "findings" into a narrative which he then signed. He says he was paid about $100 per exam. That means that he was pulling in about $1,000 an hour. Of course his "work" was virtually useless. He cheerfully acknowledged that he couldn’t remember any detail of any case. And he admitted that he signed the narratives without reviewing them for accuracy as required by law. Apparently, he’d rather spend time with his wife.

I say his work was “virtually useless.” I’m guessing that it was extremely useful to the entity that paid for the exams, the insurance company, which used his “reports” as an excuse to deny claims and drag claimants through the courts sometimes for years.

Perhaps what is at work here (pun intended) is a psychological process called projection, in which an individual ascribes his or her own negative qualities to another person or group of people. If the reportage in these articles is correct, many of the people affiliated with the Workers’ Comp system in New York (and doubtless elsewhere), actively ascribe their own laziness, greed and dishonesty to the injured workers they are supposed to help.

I think that the dead give-away to this projection is the profound lack of compassion for, even hostility toward, the claimants, many of whom are suffering enormously, first because of their physical pain, second because of the emotional stress of being kicked around by the system, and third because of the social stress of not being able to work or have any money. One insurance company lawyer said that if he notices a claimant quietly sobbing in the courtroom, he automatically hires an investigator to follow him or her around, because he “knows” s/he is only trying to garner sympathy for a non-existent injury. And a doctor—a medical doctor—said that people should just go back to work in spite of their pain.

This scorn for workers seems to underlie the strategies that many employers have adopted to try to contain costs and discourage malfeasance. Some offer “bonus bucks” paid to all employees for a certain number of injury-free days. Other employers run a “bingo” game in which workers compete for a pot of money that grows with every injury-free day. According to one factory owner, the pots are large enough to be meaningful: up to $150. I think that's paltry. And I think that signifies scorn in a world that measures worth according to wealth.

By now, the solution to this mess should be obvious: long-term psychotherapy for everyone. Sure, it's not very practical, and it would take a long time. But wouldn't it be a healthier, happier world if the people with most of the money and most of the power owned up to their demons?

In the meantime, let's raise the minimum wage to something like $50 an hour. With no overtime and two weeks vacation, that comes out to about 100K a year, enough to elevate most Americans into the middle class. The opportunity to make that kind of money might even reduce the number of frivolous claims. Of course, to make such a massive wage increase mean something (and to avoid triggering inflation), we'd have to reduce wages and salaries everywhere else in the system. Let's start by capping executive compensation in all industries at about 250K and work our way down the ladder.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

What Those Executives Deserve

Here is a letter to the editor of the New York Times that responds to AIG executive Jake DeSantis's letter of resignation published ten or so days ago. The Times didn't pick it up. But you can read it here:

Regarding Jake DeSantis’s letter of resignation:

Mr DeSantis is confused.

He says he agreed to work for a salary of $1. But really, he agreed to work for $1M deferred compensation.

He “doesn’t disagree” that members of his profession have been overpaid, yet he insists that he’s “earned” most recent paycheck, not to mention the considerable wealth he's accumulated as an employee of AIG.

He says he was never paid for CDO trading, but discloses that he had substantial amounts of money invested in AGI-F.P. Clearly, he expected to and perhaps for a time did profit from that disastrous enterprise.

Personally, I think that Mr DeSantis and his cohorts (not simply in the banking “industry” but throughout corporate America) should learn to think of themselves as public servants. As such, they should all work for minimum wage with no benefits and expectation of any additional compensation, at least until a full and sustainable recovery has been secured.

If they are as good as they say they are, it shouldn’t take more than two or three years.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Capitalism's Shadow

I found this interesting little quote appended to the end of a BBC article about the Conficker worm, which so far has failed to generate the kinds of cyber-chaos predicted:

"Verisign, one of the guardians of the networked world, believe these bugs exist because the general level of security is just not high enough."

Apparently, a level of security sufficient to stop these hackers in their tracks would make it harder for consumers to do what we do: buy more stuff. And that would make it harder for businesses to do what they do: sell more stuff. 

It makes a kind of sense. You can't lock everything down. Imagine if every time you wanted to buy groceries you had to be buzzed into the store. And what if they kept all the food in those little boxes that lock? 

Of course, we're not talking about criminals who steal stuff, like food or computers or jewels. We're talking about criminals who have the PiN to everyone's bank account and the key to the safe deposit box. 

Uh oh. It almost sounds like I'm talking about the banks themselves. I don't mean to. But still, at the back of my mind, I can't help seeing criminals behind every legitimate  business transaction. In Jungian terms, the criminals are our shadows, the part of ourselves that we can't tolerate knowing about. Following those shadows leads to the conclusion that there is something innately corrupt about our financial transactions, about capitalism itself. 

Oh, go ahead. Put your fingers in your ears. Or better yet, point your fingers and drown those words out by chanting "communist" over and over, loudly. It won't change a thing. And that's the really big question, isn't it. Do we want a better world or do we want to go shopping?