Friday, January 31, 2014

The Real State Of The Union

By Hugh, who is a long-time commenter at Naked Capitalism. Originally posted at Corrente, and then posted at Naked Capitalism where I found it.

The state of the Union is crap. 20% of the country is doing OK. 1% is doing fantastically. 0.001% is doing so well it’s criminal, literally. They don’t own everything yet but they do own the politicians, judges, regulators, academics, and reporters. So they’re getting there. The other 80%, the rubes, the muppets, the serfs, are mired in an undeclared, ongoing depression.

50 years on I can safely state that the War on Poverty has been won. The poor have been defeated, the middle class conquered. They just don’t know it. Many sense that something is wrong, even drastically wrong, but few realize they have been totally and thoroughly betrayed by those they trusted with the governance of the country and themselves. They cannot admit –they have been admirably taught not to admit — even the possibility of the class war waged against them and which they have definitely and definitively lost.

They continue to look to those who did this to them to fix things and make them better. They may grumble but there is no hint of real opposition or organized rebellion. Theirs is a Union of misery, lost hopes, lesser lives. The Union of the rich and elites is triumphant. So we have two states of the Union because we have two Unions, one of the many and one of the few, the haves and have-nots, the winners and the losers. We have one Union based on reality and hard work and another which feeds off it.

For most Americans, their wages minus inflation have stayed flat every day of their working lives, that is for the last 35 years. College is no longer a passport to a better life but a trap of lifelong debt. Hard work avails nothing as millions of American jobs have been sent abroad in “free” trade agreements. These agreements are not free for those who lost their jobs. And they make all of us among the many poorer because it has all become not about how hard you work but how cheaply.

The meltdown of 5 years ago destroyed much of the wealth of the middle class and virtually all the wealth of the lower classes. But those who drove the economy over the cliff in 2008, the rich, have come roaring back. They have made back the money they lost and more as the government and Fed have thrown trillions at them and encouraged them to blow new and bigger speculative bubbles. Stock markets are at or near historic highs. Statistics have been bent and twisted until they scream. As a consequence, GDP is up. Unemployment is down. Life is good. The numbers prove it. So suck it up, ignore reality, and stop complaining. After 3 years in preparation, Obamacare entered with a pratfall launch which embodied everything about what the program was, corporatism, and what it wasn’t, healthcare.

Class war demands distraction and nothing focuses the mind in the wrong place than war. It has become the central metaphor of our lives. Some of these wars are shams. Some are real. All are terribly destructive. There is the War on Drugs which has put millions of Americans behind bars and turned Mexico into a narco-state, even as the banks which knowingly laundered hundreds of billions in drug cartel profits escape with no one doing jail time and nothing more than some “cost of doing business” fines. Meanwhile the federal government fights a rearguard action as states move to legalize marijuana because, despite its best efforts, no one really cares.

There is the War on Terror with its endless, pointless mini-wars and drone strikes. It is the epitome of self-licking ice cream cones, producing more terrorists and anti-Americanism than it eradicates. On top of this, it has garnered some of the most dubious, “with friends like these who needs enemies” allies imaginable in the form of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. There are the traditional wars. After nearly 8 years in Iraq and every effort made to stay longer, that country remains on the same verge of civil war as when we left.

The war in Afghanistan is lost but, unfortunately, not over. Afghanistan is one of those places where an imperial war, part of the War on Terror, effectively trumped the War on Drugs and snuffed out any mention, or action to change, the fact that Afghanistan has been throughout the American occupation the largest producer of opium and heroin in the world. There is, again, the class war and the war against the middle class. An important theatre in this war is the war against the rule of law and the Constitution.


In our two Unions, the two Americas, there are two rules of law. The rule of law for the rich is that the rule of law does not apply to them. Barack Obama and Eric Holder have investigated no one, prosecuted no one, and sent to prison no one for nearly destroying the economy 6 years ago or for any of their economic crimes since. Jamie Dimon not only isn’t in prison, he’s still head of JPMorgan, and just got a multi-million dollar raise. Financial terrorism is infinitely more destructive than al Qaeda, infinitely better paying, and can be practiced with impunity.

As for ordinary Americans, they face a militarized police and a Dickensian legal system. At the same time, we are seeing our Constitutional rights bulldozed in the construction of a surveillance state, a euphemism for a police state. This is a state, totalitarian in its nature and ambitions, which, on the one hand, operates in the greatest secrecy with zero public accountability and makes war on anyone who seeks to expose its workings and, on the other, tells us we have nothing to worry about if we have nothing to hide. It targets us yet tells us we are not its targets.

This state, or rather those who control it, can know everything about us, but we can know nothing about it or them. Its justification is that it is only after the bad guys, but this state with all its vast spying programs and resources has never actually caught any “bad guys”, certainly none to justify its enormous budgets and unchecked powers. The wealth and the health of this country is based on the people. The value of the dollar is not based on gold or the ability to tax but on us. Yet we have been looted for decades by predatory elites and the rich. Our lives are made poorer, shorter, more pain- and anxiety-filled by them. And our country is made weaker. Education through debt and lack of opportunity is discouraged.

Skills are thrown away as jobs are shipped abroad. On-the-job training has become a dirty word. We are being hollowed out both as a country and a people. Our state is this: We have a cancer. It is feeding on us. It is killing us. Our cancer tells us that without it, we cannot survive. The truth is we have no hope of survival, indeed no hope of anything, unless we cut it out. Liberal, conservative, or indifferent, Tea Party, progressive, or independent, this is the choice we are all faced with, not just for ourselves but each other. If we are to act and if we are to be successful, then we must act together.

That is where we are.

The choice is yours.


A Little Nook Above Duval Street

My wife got it into her head to explore a new-to-her spot off Duval Street. We went for a snack after a movie and we had the place to ourselves, it not yet being happy hour or anything.

There is, it turns out, a terrace in the Pegasus Hotel at the corner of Southard and Duval Streets and you can get a beer and a plate of Indian food under the stars, or under the sun in our case. And it was warm so some shade would have been nice.

We ordered garbanzo wraps and tandoori wings from the cheerful though uncommunicative Eastern European bar tender and we took a seat, in the sun.

Refreshments took the sting out of the heat. At three dollars a bottle I was trying to figure out how cheap the Indian beers would be later in the day.

We sat and watched the world go by below us. It's Duval Street from a different perspective.

And then there's the roofline. Now the bar at The Top has gone this place is the next best perch I suppose.

There in the distance you can see the La Concha Hotel and that cube at the top was where a The Top used to be located, replaced they say by a spa. Key West Diary: The Top

Our food arrived. On the left the garbanzo wraps and on the tight the wings wrapped in tin foil.

We also got a cup of cilantro flavored dressing with the food and I added it to the samosa I also ordered.

In a town with no regular Indian food outlet this place hits a spot but I couldn't help but feel the good was prepared, stuffed in the freezer and zapped yo order. The filings were spicy and suitably Indian but the wraps of the garbanzo and samosa were rather too crunchy to be fresh.

Not gourmet then but given the setting a worthwhile stop for a snack, plus I like Kingfisher Lager. It's not the greatest Indian beer I've tasted but I like it. I really want to try the Indian food at Badboy Burrito but that will have to wait apparently. I think Key West can do better than this, when local taste buds get more adventurous.

You have to be able to figure out how to find this place which is half the adventure. Welcome to hotel life in Key West!

Go in through the Southard Street entrance and say hi to the monoglot Slav at the front desk and climb the Hillary Step up a vertical crevice to summit at the terrace.

An interesting find.
And no one notices you are there.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

A Good Walk, A Bad Ending

Stock Island was the place to walk as there was a bicycle road race blocking Highway One and I had no patience with the stationary traffic approaching the sole bridge into Key West. I turned south and stopped at Bernstein Park, where I found an abandoned bus, Academi - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
In god we trust read their license plate, which seems a rather odd depository for the trust for a bunch of mercenaries but we live in confusing times. The sign below struck a chord in the latent ex-farmer within. The image of bucolic family farming under a clear blue sky was slightly at odds with the reality of suburban light industry that characterizes this corner of Stock Island.
I tried to imagine how many different kinds of conniption fits the entitled millionaire snowbirds in neighboring Key West would have were a dredging company to casually park a few steel barges on the streets of Old Town. One can only assume the residents of the apartment complexes scattered around Stock Island understand the nature of reality and their place in it.
Somehow associating the unimaginative units of this complex with their location north of the a equator struck me as ironic in a light hearted sort of way. I've seen businesses boast of their relative proximity to the Equator as a selling point, but in this case central air seems a more desireable selling point than the bilious shade of paint failing to disguise the industrial design of Latitude 24. Landscaping anyone?
An eminently suitable sentiment expressed above a mud puddle in lieu of a sidewalk.
Returning to Bernstein Park Cheyenne and I found the national sport of Cuba underway to the sounds of sticks and balls whacking each other under the supervision of parents enjoying a weekend with their families. It occurred to me that but for my dog I myself would not be there either and at least Cheyenne most likely has missed her deadline to demand a college education from me, with all attendant expenses. Just as well as I have never framed a career for myself with such burdens in mind.
However dog ownership is not expense free as we discovered shortly after my return home with my hapless hound. She started trembling violently and hung her head in the style of an unmistakably ill dog. The veterinary hospital in Marathon a half hour away recommended we bring her in as soon as possible. She staggered downstairs and clambered into the car shrugging off any feeble attempt I made to help her. She curled up and trembled and panted putting the fear of disaster in our minds. Half way across the Seven Mile Bridge a sound like a blocked drain unclogging announced in no uncertain terms that Cheyenne was no longer holding down her breakfast. My wife, she of the sensitive stomach put her head out of the window like a dog seeking fresh air while I reached behind the passenger seat in an effort to reassure my unhappy hound. In the event I managed to grasp a half pound of warm wet lumpy dog breakfast now spread all over the sheet and towel that constitute Cheyenne's traveling bed. The three of us arrived in some disarray in Marathon, in our individual states of despair.
The vet was brisk and efficient and diagnosed a scorpion or wasp sting, possibly swallowed by my snuffling dog. She gave Cheyenne a giant syringe full of Benadryl which immediately started to calm her trembling. By the time we left my hand was clean and my dog was taking an interest in her surroundings while my wife the family treasurer was eighty nine dollars poorer while still trying to stifle her own reflex desire to throw up on smelling the aroma of vomit.
My wife traveled home with her head out the window while Cheyenne passed from this world to the Land of Nod where loud rolling snores are the passport to a happier state of mind. I kept my hands to myself and we got home in good order, more grateful than usual for the 24 hour emergency pet facility in Marathon. I was also grateful for a powerful hose and an empty washing machine which between them washed dog vomit out of our lives.
I am slightly annoyed at Stock Island especially as I was uncharacteristically fussy about keeping nosey Cheyenne out of puddles and crap as our feeble economy has made the streets less salubrious than ever with garbage liberally distributed and rotting alongside industrial machinery rusting and leaking fluids in the streets. And still Cheyenne got stung. But all is well that ends well and my dog gets better medical care than who knows how many billions of human beings.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Driving My Fiat 500 Convertible

I have been pondering how much I like my wife's Fiat 500 convertible and I guess the short answer is quite a lot. Enough that were I ever to be physically unable to ride a motorcycle I would choose to drive a Fiat 500 over say a CanAm 3-wheeled Spyder or some other not-quite-a-motorcycle solution to the problem of ageing.

My wife is one of the few people I know who likes to commute with her roof open. She will convert her convertible in any weather short of actual precipitation, she loves going roof-less that much. Indeed I never cease to be amazed how many convertibles I see on the road in perfect weather with their roofs firmly closed and I wonder why anyone would go to the extra expense and bother of a convertible if they were not perpetually drawn to the cabriolet driving style. Perhaps they are just driving their spouse's car and are not attracted to the roof down style; and before the arrival of the 500 that was me because I like my car to be an air conditioned cave.

However in this car the business of opening or closing the roof can be done while underway at speeds up to sixty miles per hour and it all happens with the simple press of a button. To open press once and the roof goes most of the way open, press again and hold, then the roof goes flat, lowering the glass rear window in the process folding like neat origami on the back of the car.

To close press the other button and the roof returns to sunroof mode, so then you hold the button and the roof closes completely. Dead simple, no latches, no stopping to open or close and no noise no muss and certainly no fuss. Lovely. Indeed with the side supports fixed in place the car does not squeak or flex and the side windows, the only ones that open are so large you can get all the fresh air and openness you need. With the roof in sunroof mode, ie: partially open, you do get some percussive helicoptering noise which will require you to open the windows a crack. With the roof fully open that hammering sound goes away but there is more turbulence in the cabin. The compromise of convertibles!

On the other hand I have to say this is the first convertible I have actually enjoyed as I am generally no great fan of open touring cars and I don't often use the sunroof on my Ford Fusion for that reason. The Fiat though is a convertible I have come to enjoy and I think the soft roof is definitely worth the money. In our case it was a no brainer, not only because my wife wanted a convertible to replace her aging Sebring convertible but because we found this 2012 at CarMax Tampa with 1130 miles at $16,500, almost ten thousand below brand new list price. There is another one listed now with heated leather seats and twenty thousand miles for $17,600 as though to prove my point. Here is the car with the roof fully open:
The trunk in this small car is perforce not huge but not tiny either. In the original 500cc air cooled twin cylinder Fiat 500, this space was occupied by the boxer style engine (think traditional BMW motorcycle engines) and in summer in Italy you'd see the truly tiny cars buzzing around with the trunk open to vent the over worked little motor.

Nowadays the motor is in the front and comes with a 1.4 liter four cylinder gasoline engine. In Europe they offer a 1.2 liter and also a diesel variant that the boys on Top Gear described as somnolent. Our "Lounge" model convertible comes with a six speed automatic gearbox with an optional manual shifter which I have tried but rate as not terribly helpful, because I find manual shifting without a clutch to be a little off putting. But that's just me. The interior of the car is surprisingly comfortable. As you can see in the picture below the Fiat is a tall two-squash-two seater with a tall roof height only inches lower than the neighboring Ford Escape.

You can squash two people in the back if you want, or you can put a large Labrador there though she prefers the space of the Fusion, and though our model is the up market "Lounge" whatever that means the cheapskate who bought the car new not only did not get leather or heated seats he also declined to get his wife electric seats. Which is actually is not a problem as the seats slide easily and rapidly and they will also return to their original position if moved as illustrated (the manual for this car was written by an English speaker who has never been near a Fiat 500 as it lacks any useful information on how the seats work, the doors lock or the roof opens- all discovered by me poking around). First use the black handle to move the seatback forward.

It's not hugely spacious if you are used to a five ton self propelled cup holder like an Escalade but the back seat does the job on a small zippy car that will yield forty miles to the gallon if you drive like my wife, or 35 if you accelerate like me and enjoy pissing off Escalades by passing them in your little egg car.

Push the seat pan back until it clicks. The seats actually are quite comfortable and I've sat in them for six hours at a stretch so far...

...then press the seatback into place and voila the seat is back where it started and you can sit down and insert the key and turn on the ignition only to be greeted by an ear piercing screech from the seat belt warning noise which turns itself off mercifully, but only after you have lost your sanity as you desperately fumble to insert the belt in its lock.

The flight deck is quite sober in this color choice. Some of the Fiat 500s have bright exterior colors which are carried over to the dashboard while the interior controls are rendered in white plastic which I think looks a bit garish. I suppose you get used to anything but this color combination is brown outside -"espresso" in Fiat sales talk- and black inside which is quite elegant.

The speedometer is styled after the original rather simple instrument in the early 500 models but this modern rendering includes all possible information, with a tachometer inside the speedometer and fuel and temperature gauges. There is an inner menu to scroll through but its not very intuitive and I haven't spent a lot of time trying to figure out all the trip miles and range and instant economy etc etc...The manual is short and as usual makes for pointless reading once again.

I wish the 12 volt socket stayed on even when the key is off, as it does in my Fusion which has spoiled me as I have come to enjoy leaving my phone on charge when I am out of my car. That is kind of picky of me because where it counts the Fiat is a fine car. For instance I wanted to like the Smartfortwo when it arrived in the US. However I never could get behind the square looks and the clunky gearbox that made the Fusion's automatic shifter seem smooth by comparison. Unlike the Smart, the Fiat is a pleasure to drive and is an enjoyable small car to own, whose Italian good looks are appreciated by a lot of passersby, not that I much enjoy fending off questions about my choice of car. The interior is spacious and complete, rather than feeling like a cut off full sized car.

The controls are the upmarket version which I suppose is okay though pressing plus and minus buttons to change temperatures isn't as convenient as twisting knobs in my opinion. The sport button speeds up the gear changes apparently and firms up the steering for mountain driving- fat chance in Florida. The two window switches are either side of the gear knob which is slightly confusing when you are used to them being in the doors but their position makes sense for what is in fact a two door/two window car. I find the hard plastic center console rubs my right knee the wrong way when I am driving and I have to rest my leg in a slightly unnatural posture to sit comfortably. That's probably the most annoying quirk of the car.

The door locks are funny, another Italian quirk, as they don't actually have any visible locks. You are at the mercy of your remote key fob to lock or unlock the two doors and the trunk.

This is a fun car to drive, not only because I can squeeze it through Key West gaps denied other cars, but also because it has firm suspension ("like a truck" a critical friend remarked) and also because it is quite perky for such a small engine. It cruises easily at 80 or more illegal miles per hour on the freeway and I frequently find myself at illegal speeds in the 45 and 55 mph dreary world of the Overseas Highway. I cannot wait to drive this buzz bomb in the Appalachian mountains where my sister in law resides. In one respect it is rather like a scooter in that for some reason modern Americans think that because this is a small car it has to be an act of deprivation to drive it, and boy are they surprised to find out how fast and maneuverable it is. Being passed by a scooter or a small car is an act of defiance in the face of the natural order of things and thus The Fiat satisfies the hooligan in me.

After all one is supposed to lust after this sort of nonsense shown below, which in a world of diminishing resources makes less sense than ever. And besides a hobbit like me can't figure out how to get into a vehicle this high off the ground. I'd probably end up impaling myself on the hub nuts like a bad bloody version of Mr Bean:

I'm not sure who would want to buy a Fiat 500 but I'm guessing its someone looking for a second car, and I think that would work just fine. But this is a complete vehicle, capable of being a sole car in the family. It draws attention wherever it goes which I find to be a little uncomfortable but it is more than a novelty, I think this is the type of car we all know we should be driving in a world of scarce resources. Once you try it you will find you are not at all deprived, that in fact small is fun and greatly worthwhile. And I'd love to drive this car to Alaska at 40 miles per gallon with heat blasting and satellite radio keeping me company. I am now officially jealous of my wife's ride.


Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Summer In Winter

It's been a while since I was last here and not much has changed since August 2008 at 616 Louisa Street...
Key West Diary: Gato Village Pocket Park

However I guess the big difference was the temperature when Cheyenne and I ambled by the other day. We've had a couple of cold fronts almost back to back and temperatures have been below seventy degrees.
We had been walking in a giant circle around Old Town on a gloriously cool afternoon under crude sunshine and I think we were both a bit tired after three hours slow steady tramping. This recreation of a cigar worker's 19th century cottage was just the spot for us to put our feet up. My plan was to use the bench near the entrance, but Cheyenne had other ideas.
As though it were an actual house she took up residence on the porch and when I sat next to her, my back to a roof support pole she rolled back and passed out.
I love having my Kindle on my phone so when she passed out I had my book in my pocket. I have got into the fifth novel in the Aurelio Zen series and I was reading all about his police work in Naples which was a chaotic contrast to my surroundings.
Her rhythmic pulsating snores made me sleepy and my head started to droop as I sprawled in the sun. It felt like a summer afternoon in a more temperate climate. All I missed was the buzzing of bees.
Eventually, perhaps after forty five minutes of reading and napping I jerked myself awake. I was alone at home and had to dinner to prepare for both of us. Which can be stressful trying to sort out who's slop goes into who's bowl.
Reluctantly I swung the gate closed behind us and off we tottered as I tried to clear the sleep from my head and remember where I parked the car. Cheyenne was no help but I figured I could always call 911 if I couldn't find it.