Monday, June 27, 2011

The New Normal: Pessimism Is the Last Taboo

Editor's Note:   While we to distract ourselves with Anthony Weiner or Wimbledon or even upcoming Presidential politics, none of these offer any remedy to what increasingly looks like the "new normal"for America.  The facts are cold and hard.  And relentless. 

Here, Professor Martin Kaplan of the Annenberg School at USC, says what politicians dare not, ticks off the negative underpinnings in Year 4 of this Depression and is hard-pressed to find assets for America on the positive side of the ledger.

By Prof. Martin Kaplan

It gets worse. 

If you pay attention to the news, the prospects for the future look grim. The new normal of high unemployment and stagnant wages will likely not turn out to be just a phase. The next generations may indeed do worse than the ones before them. Thanks to the Supreme Court, big money will keep tightening its stranglehold on elections and lawmaking. Financial reform and consumer protection will never survive the onslaught of lobbyists. Reckless bankers will go on making out like bandits, and the public will always be forced to rescue them. The Internet, along with cable and wireless, will be controlled by fewer and more-powerful companies. The world will keep staggering from one economic crisis to another. We will not have the leadership and citizenship we need to kick our dependence on oil. We will not even keep up with the Kardashians.

Add your own items to the list. Whatever global threats scare you -- climate change, the Middle East, loose nukes, pandemics -- and whatever domestic issues haunt you -- failing schools, crumbling infrastructure, rising poverty, obesity -- the odds are that the honesty, discipline, resources and burden-sharing required for a happy ending will not, like Elijah, show up at our door.

Sure, there's some good news around, and there are advances ahead. Gay marriage is legal in New York, and perhaps one day the resistance to it will seem as unfathomable as the opposition to women's suffrage. Technology is growing exponentially, and today's iGizmos will doubtlessly seem like steam engines tomorrow. We will some day actually be gone from Afghanistan. Justices Scalia and Thomas will eventually retire. French fries or salami will turn out to be good for us, at least for a while. Some Wall Street slimeballs will be nailed, some good guys will win elections and some little girl will be rescued from a well. 

But it would pretty much take a miracle for our intractable problems to become tractable. Without one, political polarization is not about to give way to kumbaya. Cultural coarsening is not going to reverse course. The middle class will not be resurgent; the gap between rich and poor will not start closing; the plutocrats calling the shots will not cede their power. No warning on its way to us -- no new BP, no next shooting, no future default -- will bring us to our senses about the environment, assault weapons or derivatives for any longer than it takes for the next Casey Anthony or Anthony Weiner comes along. 

Politicians, of course, can never say something like this. They're selling progress, greatness, can-do. The only place for pessimism in the public sphere is as a handy foil. "There are those who say that we can't solve our problems, that our best days are behind us, that China is the future. But I say...." It's a surefire applause line. But it's also a straw man. There aren't "those who say" that. Americans hate pessimism. We get discouraged, our hope flags, but predicting defeat is inconceivable. The comeback kids, the triumphant underdogs, the resilient fighters rising to the challenge: that's who we see in the mirror.
We place fatalism beyond the pale. To give up on the possibility of change, to doubt that we're up to the task, is socially aberrant. You may fear that we are doomed to be a nation of big babies: we claim to want leaders who'll face tough choices, but we punish them for actually making them. You may despair that the rationality required to face up to reality will never overcome the fundamentalism, know-nothingism and magic thinking that has a hammerlock on our national psyche. You may believe that big money and big media have become so powerful that our sclerotic democratic institutions are inherently incapable of checking them. 

But you can't admit any of that. In public, we never let such darkness prevail. Instead, we work to improve things. We organize, rally, blog, join movements, work phone banks, ring doorbells, write checks, sign petitions. 

We are not a tragic nation. If a leader disappoints us, or breaks our hearts, we say it's just a setback, not a sign that the system itself manufactures impotence and capitulation. If a problem festers, we cling to the belief that money, know-how and perhaps some sobering wake-up call are all we need to solve it; we don't dare entertain the notion that there's something in human nature that's causing and protracting it. If social conflict splits us, we diagnose a communication problem, a semantic setback on the road to common ground, a gap that can be bridged by consensus on facts and deliberation on goals; it's just too painful to think that tribal values impervious to rationality and insusceptible to compromise are the ineluctable driver of our divisions.

I wish I could declare my confidence in our ability to solve our problems without sounding like some candidate who just wants my vote. But ironic optimism won't do. I'm desperate for evidence that we're prepared to pay for the services we demand, or to subordinate our desires in order to meet our obligations to one another, or to reform our governance so that special interest money, filibusters and the other Washington diseases didn't sicken the system. I just wish it didn't take drinking the can-do Kool Aid to see the glass as half full.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A New Dawn for the University? Part 2

Professor Claudia Ricci

Editor's Note: Professor of Journalism Claudia Ricci is a noted educator, novelist and journalist. Her latest novel is  "Seeing Red" ( She is also a founding partner in the Wordsmith Wars  blog. In the past year she has put together a custom academic curriculum at the State University of New York. It addresses a subject very much needed by students and society as we grind through the current Depression. The subject: Happiness.

Below is a piece inspired by this course work: 

How I Learned to Eat A Raisin, and How it's Helping Me Learn to Do NO Thing

Not to sound too dramatic or anything, but this is a rather dangerous time of year for me. The middle of May -- when the school year comes to a screeching halt -- is usually a time when life turns into a slick wet deck and I go skating over the edge. I land in a deep dark pool and thrash around in the murky black water feeling like I'm drowning.

Nothing too dramatic about that.

It's been 13 years that I've been working as a college teacher, and for many of those years, after classes ended, I have been so depressed that I haven't known where to turn.

I am not particularly proud of this situation. People who are lucky enough to have jobs these days (and I regularly count my blessings in that regard) are generally lucky enough only to get two weeks off in the summer. Most of these people count the days until summer vacation arrives, and then they savor each of their days off, hour by hour. Most of them would kill to have a long summer vacation.

So what kind of a loser am I that I can't seem to enjoy my extended summer break? Why can't I just kick back and have fun? Why is it that the prospect of four "empty" months makes me so anxious that I often need to turn to one or more prescription drugs?

The answer to that question is complex, but simple too: I have a very very hard time doing nothing. (I can hear people screaming at their screens right about now, HEY LADY JUST GO GET A SUMMER JOB AND STOP WHINING. To all of you who are sitting at a desk at work, screaming at me, ready to smack your computer, I want to apologize and say, yes, I do realize that getting a second job is an option!)

But the issue here really is why can't I just enjoy doing nothing in particular? Why I have such difficulty with summer break is itself a long story, having to do with deep dark childhood neuroses that I won't bore you with here (never fear, though, there is always another post.)

In the past, after my May Nosedive, I've usually managed to cobble something together. I have volunteered for worthy causes, and once I ran a really cool program for a couple dozen kids down in DC. I absolutely loved that job but I haven't been able to get another program up and running here.

Generally, I busy myself with this and that in the summer: gardening and guitar, writing and painting. And of course, preparing for the upcoming fall semester. Through much of these summer weeks, I have struggled to stay ... happy. I have struggled with boredom. I have felt lost and low and hopeless. It's just rotten feeling that way.

OK, so it's that time of year again. But this year is different.

This year, I taught the happiness class and I found myself learning some amazing lessons. I think I learned as much as the students (hopefully) did.

Many of the readings for that class were life-changing. So too was the mindfulness workshop that I took, along with the students, with a wonderful teacher named Lenore Flynn. These experiences have given me enormous insight into something very basic:

how to live, each day, moment by moment, staying present and aware.

For those of you who already know what mindfulness is all about, and how it can really turn your head in a wonderful new direction-- you understand. And for those of you who are skeptical, I want to say that I truly do understand your skepticism. How can something as simple as paying attention to your breathing, and to the mundane minutia of everyday activities, possibly turn you into a very happy camper?

If I hadn't also seen it happen to many of the students, I too might be skeptical. But the fact is, paying very very close attention to the seemingly minor and unimportant matters of life is a rather revolutionary activity.

It is not an exaggeration to say that mindfulness teaches you to SEE and FEEL life and your role in it in a whole new way.

In the first mindfulness class, for example, Lenore led us in a meditation exercise as she frequently did during the workshop. But she also handed to each of us a couple of raisins. It was our challenge to NOT eat those raisins, at least right away. The task we were given was simply to appreciate those wrinkled little dried grapes in a way that we had never done before. Holding them in our hands, we had to stare at all their whitish folds. We had to study very carefully their appearance: their plump, or not so plump shapes, their size, color and fullness. We had to roll them around, feeling the squishy way they felt on our fingertips. We had to inhale the sweet fragrance of those raisins.

In short, it was our job to consider the "raisin-ness" of raisins, the very essence and nature of them. Sitting in the palm of our hand, those raisins were very tempting. But more importantly, they turned into rather profound little teachers, or at least I found that they did for me. Instead of just popping them into our mouths, we had to anticipate the pleasure that those raisins would give us. (Of course there were a few students who hate raisins, but that's another matter.)

When we were finally, after several long and drawn out minutes, allowed to place the raisins in our mouth, we still were not allowed to eat them. Instead, we had to TASTE them. We let them roll around our tongues. We savored the way those little withered grapes felt up against our cheeks. We salivated all over those raisins.

And finally, FINALLY, Lenore gave us the go-ahead and let us eat them.

You bet we tasted those raisins. You bet we enjoyed them more than we'd ever enjoyed a raisin before. I mean how many times has it taken five whole minutes to eat a raisin?

The point is, most of us rarely taste any of our food. We don't eat mindfully. We don't slow down enough to really pay attention to the look of our food. To the texture of it. To the smell of it. We don't think about the fact that many many people worked many many hours to grow that food, and to harvest it. We don't think about what it takes to prepare the meal.

Most of the time, we gobble down our meals faster than it takes for someone to boil a pot of water. I know I do, or at least, I used to.

Now, I have begun to eat more mindfully. I try to remember to say a small prayer before I eat each meal (my husband has joined me in this ritual.) I try to take a few moments to stare at the food in an appreciative way, giving thanks for the fact that I am fortunate enough to have food.

Mindful eating was just one lesson. Mindful walking was another. All 15 of us spent most of one class walking very very slowly back and forth across the classroom, thinking about walking. Paying attention to the micro movements of our leg muscles, our foot muscles. We paid attention to the way we lifted our legs, and how we set our feet down on the floor. We paid attention to the way that the floor supported us.

Mindfulness is all about paying very very close attention: paying attention when you breathe. When you eat, when you see, when you walk, when you talk, whenever you do anything. It involves taking time out to be grateful for every one of our blessings, the things we normally take for granted. Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says that each morning we wake up without a toothache is a day we should be grateful. How many of us say thanks for things like:

Having a bed to sleep in each night.
Having a roof over our heads.
Having clean water to drink.
Having a brain to think whatever we want to think.
Being able to walk.
Being able to chew and digest food.
Being able to hear birds singing.
Being able to hear lovely music.
Being able to see a gorgeous flower, or a stunning rainbow or a special sunset.

Even the so-called dirty chores of our life are, if we alter our perspective, something we can enjoy doing. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is responsible for inventing the incredibly effective Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program at the UMass Medical Center in 1979 in order to help people deal with chronic illness and pain (stress is a big factor in most chronic disease) writes very poignantly about how to clean a stove in a mindful way. Thich Nhat Hanh describes the joy of washing dishes, enjoying the warm soapy water on our hands.

Mindfulness isn't very complicated. It's just hard to do. It's hard to stay present. It's hard to stay grateful. It takes energy and sometimes, it takes work. A lot of work.

And so, this summer I do have a job. I have to learn to do nothing. A few days ago, I started to find myself on the edge of that very slippery deck. I started to see the way I could, without much difficulty, go slipping and sliding off the deck into that deep dark pool.

But now I've got a new set of tools, including a book (I didn't use in class) that Lenore Flynn loaned me. It's called Radical Acceptance, by psychologist Tara Brach.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who has, like me, trouble slowing down and doing NO THING.

Brach describes in great detail the value of what she calls the Sacred Pause. Stopping, whether for a moment to check in with how we are feeling, or for a day, to contemplate life, or for a season, to take a sabbatical -- all of these are profoundly important activities.

Pausing is, after all, an edict of God's: the Sabbath is a day of rest, a day to stop DOING, and celebrate BEING. That's why, in the old days, stores would close on Sundays, so people everywhere could just sit and enjoy a big family meal.

Brach also preaches, as the book's title suggests, radical acceptance, that is, she suggests that we accept everything about ourselves, be it our unattractive noses, our straight (or curly) hair, our hips, our aging bodies, all of our shortcomings. That's not to say that we settle for all of our faults. But we have to start by accepting who we are, and embracing everything about ourselves, all the "shadow" parts of our personalities that we would just as soon tuck into the closet. It isn't until we embrace ourselves fully that we can begin to make the transformations that we need to make.

She isn't the first writer to discuss the shadow self. Carl Jung coined the term many years ago. Many have written about it (Deepak Chopra has a great book, The Shadow Effect, on the topic, one of my students did her class presentation on it.)

Brach's approach to the shadow is wonderful and compelling. She suggests that sll of us want so much to be loved and accepted that we try to bury our dark impulses. We try to "ignore our anger until it becomes knots of tension in our body; cover our fears with endless self-judgement and blame." (54)

"Our shadow," Brach writes, "is rooted in shame, bound by our sense of being basically defective."

The solution? Stop running away from the dark side. Brach tells a wonderful tale to illustrate her point: "A traditional folktale tells the story of a man who becomes so frightened by his own shadow that he tries to run away from it. He believes that if only he could leave it behind, he would then be happy. The man grows increasingly distressed as he sees that no matter how fast he runs, his shadow never once falls behind. Not about to give up, he runs faster and faster until he finally drops dead of exhaustion. If only he had stepped into the shade and sat down to rest, his shadow would have vanished."

It is with some shame that I admit to my shadow: I admit that I have a desire to be incessantly busy, staying so fully (and sometimes frantically) occupied that I cannot stop and sit and do NO THING. I keep busy so that I remain distracted from what my husband calls the "existential dilemmas" posed by life.

A big part of my "job" this summer is to step into the shade, and rest in the shadow. And use the mindfulness techniques to embrace the moment and contemplate why the shadow has had such a fierce grip on my life.

Mostly, I am hoping that I can learn to do NO THING and have that be OK. It's not that I won't do stuff. Of course I will (and I'll inevitably write about it, because I can't help myself.)

It's just that I want it to be acceptable, and sufficient, to do nothing at all, and simply enjoy the many beauties of summer.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The US Economy: Everything You Need to Know

By Sandy Prisant

Have you noticed that house prices are the lowest in 9 (nine) years? Do you understand that the American worker's earning power has not risen a jot in a couple of decades?  Do you know there is no record of any politician in the past 4 years who has offered any specific plan or program that would guarantee creation of one single, new American job?  

Are you aware there is at least one Depression each century? And that there are boatloads of economic statistics that demonstrate we are in about the 4th year of what is likely to be a classic 10-year Depression?

If so, you need not waste time following the monthly grind of house prices, jobless claims and GDP numbers, because not very much different or better is going to happen over the next five years.  

History teaches us clearly that government cannot by itself pull us of this slump. It also teaches that the private sector only hires when it needs, because of increased demand and new orders--not because of irrelevant changes in the tax base or accounting rules.  We need a fresh economic engine to drive us forward.  Hitler provided such an engine. Osama did not. The effect: Today one in five Americans are either out of work or can’t find meaningful work right now.

Read Robert L Borosage's analysis of the real issues below and why we need an honest examination.  Of ourselves and our future.

This is a classic "small d" democratic moment. The economy is in deep trouble -- immediate and long term. Washington is oblivious, compromised by moneyed interests, knotted by ideological divides. It will take an angry and aroused citizens' movement to demand the debate worthy of a great nation in deep trouble.
The dismal jobs numbers only punctuate the reality of an economy that isn't producing sufficient jobs. The crisis is both immediate and long-term. The so-called recovery hasn't begun to recover the jobs lost in the Great Recession. 25 million people are in need of full time work. Home values continue to fall. 25 percent of 17- to 25-year-old high school graduates not in college are out of work. Much of a generation is at risk.
The immediate is only an expression of more profound problems. The middle class was losing ground before the Great Recession. Good jobs are being shipped abroad. Wages aren't keeping up with the costs of basics. The broad middle class that made America exceptional is disappearing. The American dream seems ever more like a nostalgic memory. The nation continues to run unsustainable trade deficits, and must dig out of a mountain of debt -- both public and private. For the first time, an increasing majority of Americans fear their kids won't fare as well as they have.
We need action to put people to work. But short term fixes aren't enough. Americans are looking for a serious strategy that will get us out of the mess we are in.

The Beltway Bloviating
But inside the beltway, Washington is clueless. It's the only major city in the country where housing prices are going up. A flood of corporate lobby money insures that the tables are full at the high end restaurants. Entrenched corporate interests buy a lot more than lunches with their dough. They block vital reforms on health care, energy, trade, Wall Street. They feed off taxpayers, protecting their subsidies and tax dodges, avoiding taxes, while deficits rise and essential programs like nutrition for infants get cut.
The politicians prefer posturing to bold action, "message" and "spin" to leadership. Republicans even with the majority in the House are focused on obstruction. They vote for more tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, paid for by ending Medicare and Medicaid, hiking costs for those least able to pay -- seniors, the disabled, the dying. They vow to blow up the economy if they can't get a deal on trillions in domestic spending cuts, accompanied by more tax breaks for the wealthy. They're lining their campaign coffers carrying water for the big banks against even minimal reforms.

The adult Republican presidential candidates like Mitch Romney claim they can get the economy going and create jobs. But they only recycle old and failed nostrums. More tax cuts for corporations who are already sitting on over a trillion in cash waiting for customers. More tax cuts for the wealthiest, who already have the most concentrated income and wealth since the eve of the Great Depression. More corporate trade deals that ship goods jobs abroad, undermine wages at home, and force up to borrow over a billion a day from abroad to balance the deficits. Less regulation when we haven't recovered from the catastrophe caused by the excesses of deregulated Wall Street. They pretend they can balance the budget and put people to work by cutting domestic spending, cutting taxes, increasing spending on the military, and not dismantling basic promises like Medicare and Social Security. They and everyone else knows that is a lie.

The White House offers no clear way out. The president wants to hail the successes of an economy that isn't working for most people. Yes, his policies saved us from free fall -- thanks, but we're worried about what we face, not where we've been. He sensibly calls for "winning the future" -- making investments in areas like education, innovation and infrastructure. But he's locked himself into austerity, focused on cuts, and offering no big vision of how we move forward. He's more sensible than the tea party zealots, but remains unwilling to tell Americans what needs to be done and that fight for it.

The Democrats in the Senate are a babble, too divided to deliver a message. The House Democrats are cowed by the losses in 2010, too worried about being accused of being "big spenders" to lay out a course to get the economy going and put people to work.

And few seem ready to put out a strategy that necessarily will take on the interests that are strangling the dream. A national trade strategy that isn't controlled by multinationals. Affordable health care not catering to private insurance and drug companies. Fair taxes that shut down the tax havens, the dodges, the obscene subsidies that drain our resources. An investment strategy that generates vital public and private investment, not more Wall Street speculation, or CEO incentives for laying off workers and plundering their own companies.

It will take a popular uprising to get Washington even to begin to focus seriously on jobs and the economy. We've seen this before. There was a bipartisan consensus on the Iraq War until a growing movement forced first Democrats and then the Bush White House to face reality. The Washington establishment was drunk on slashing Social Security and Medicare to address deficits, and Republicans embraced gutting Medicare, until popular disapproval expressed both in the polls and in the special election in upstate New York sobered them up a bit. The anger expressed by the Tea Party minority still has Republicans in Washington reeling.
Now we need the people to speak again. This time for the American majority. We aren't buying the old conservative elixirs. The New Dem-Republican lite embrace of half measures and conservative cross dressing isn't acceptable.

Washington has to hear a clear message. We elected you to get this economy going, not gut Medicare. We want to know how you will create jobs. We don't want to be served the old tired babble. We know we can't simply cut our way to prosperity. We know we need a major change in our global strategy. We know we've got to make investments vital to the future -- in education and in innovation. We know this economy needs major reforms. Anyone not willing to challenge the corporate interests that are strangling change isn't serious. We know it is hard to focus on creating jobs when deficits are this high. We know we'll have to sacrifice, but we're not broke -- we don't have to break promises to our kids or our parents. And don't ask the victims of this economy to sacrifice when those making out like bandits are given a pass. We know once the economy is moving, taxes have to go up and spending has to be brought under control. So stop the nonsense of no tax hikes. Tell us what you will cut and why. Don't pretend choices don't have to be made.

So lay it out. How do you put people to work, change our economic strategy so we begin once more to make things in America and create good jobs, not poverty wage jobs? How does that relate to getting our books in order and our priorities straight? Give us a debate worthy of a great nation in deep trouble.
In August, after Washington reaches an inevitable deal on lifting the debt limit after weeks of posturing and bluster, of an idiotic debate focused on what to cut rather than how to get the economy going, legislators will return home for recess. They need to hear from us.

Robert L Borosage is President of the Institute for America's Future.