Monday, January 16, 2012

The system is broken and can’t be fixed

Apparently, I’m not the only person who’s broke.
Late with the rent, I called in a panic to a client who usually pays on time but was about one week tardy with my latest submission.
“Hey, I was wondering if you sent out my check yet. It usually goes out the Friday after my column gets published.”
It had been two Fridays, which made it harder for me to be on time with my rent. I’d already had a couple of conversations with my roommate, who wondered when I’d have the rest of this month’s rent.
“Maybe it’s the postal service,” he suggested kindly when I told him my check hadn’t arrived yet. “We haven’t been getting much of our mail lately. Have you?”
“Well, no. Certainly, no check,” I said, bewildered but doubting that the postal service was at fault.
“Well, they’ve done this before, where they put all of our mail at the right address, but on the wrong street,” he said. “I called the post office today to see if our mail is missing for some reason.”
“What did they say?”
“There shouldn’t be any problem. We should be getting our mail. Will you go down the street, and check the address there, and see if our mail got dropped off there somehow?” He pointed the place out from where we sat on the balcony.
“You know what,” I said, “I’ll call about my check first and see if it’s even gotten into the mail yet.”
I went downstairs to make the call. The check hadn’t gone out, I discovered, held because of a tight cash flow.
“You’re kidding!” I said, surprised that such a reliable client would be having trouble. “It’s that bad, huh?”
“It seems no one can pay their bills,” she said.
I’ve been feeling bad about my lateness, which has been more of a problem in the last three years of economic downturn. I haven’t been able to pay my bills in full for at least that long.
My debts are not off the charts but they’re enough to raise one’s eyebrows.
The sad part, I guess, is the “loser” tag that comes with getting behind on everything: medical bills, auto repairs, new clothes, a trip to the barber, the rent.
“Why don’t you just get a job?” someone has asked more than once.
“Well, I’ve got two jobs and I’m working on a third.” They’re not glam jobs by any measure, and I probably would do better by applying for a position at Home Depot, as recommended, but I like working in the blueberry patch, and I like getting paid to write from home.
My daughter, who recently graduated from college, says I should go back to school. “If you can’t find a job, dad, you could at least learn something new.”
It’s worth considering. Maybe a degree in horticulture? An apprenticeship in permaculture, or in some other related technology that will move us into the future? I’d like to stay as close to the farm as possible. 
I’m convinced that our future rests in local, organically grown produce, in economies built on a smaller, more communal scale, a return to the village lifestyle. It may seem a quaint notion now but not so much when food becomes scarce or beyond the reach of most pocketbooks.
I’m also convinced it will be a very long time before we see the level of prosperity Americans made for themselves in the boom years after World War II, when every gear and factory in the country was cranking away, building the largest middle class the world has ever seen.
Those days are gone, and so are the factories and the middle class. We’ve entered into a new phase of living. What happens next is anyone’s guess. One thing is certain, though, we’ll never see such a lavish lifestyle again, not any time soon, and definitely not until we find an alternative source of energy that can power a global economy the way cheap oil has.
The days of cheap oil are over too. 
Oil is becoming more scarce; by most reliable accounts, we’ve gone past the halfway point of what once was thought of as an endless supply, and entered into the era of depletion, which means costlier and riskier extraction. BP’s oil desecration of the Gulf of Mexico is proof of that. 
It seems so many Americans fail to understand this; and if they do understand, they haven’t figured out what to do next, aside from buying a hybrid car, or screwing in a few energy saving light bulbs. Better solutions are out there, and much more needs to be done. But nothing’s going to happen if we dont admit that the system is broken and can’t be fixed.
The economy, government, corporate America—they’re broken and can’t be fixed. Try fixing them, if you want, but they will never be the same; they will never support you the way they supported your parents and grandparents.
I’m done with thinking the federal government or the corporate world can do anything to help me, or that the state or chamber of commerce will do much to advance the interests of the poor. I don’t need a half-trillion dollar military to protect me. I can protect myself.
I’m looking for people and organizations that build their communities out of mutual trust in supporting one another’s interests. If you live in my village and need some food, and I’m a grower, I might be able to help you. That’s the way it’s going to be.
Forget about outside help. It’s time to get neighborly and smart, such as putting a premium value on small local farms, craftsmen, tinkerers, and people who know how to build, collaborate and get things done.
So many people seem worried about what’s going to happen when they run out of money. Well, we may actually have to find something else besides money to get things done. We may have to barter, share and give something back. We might have to reduce our consumer demands.
In my own reduced circumstances, I feel like the canary living on the edge of danger, the precipice of change, seeking a pathway to safety. My wings are in flight mode, my brain is in a panic. I sense changes ahead that will place a great deal more emphasis on living simply.
The takeaway economy appears to be declining, leaving behind a mess of bankruptcies and foreclosures, broken homes and looted bank accounts. Out of this mess, somehow, we have to rebuild.
The oil economy, with all of its riches and destructive force and power, is coming to an end soon. 
The breakdown in oil-driven systems has already begun to occur. You can see it in the increase of poverty, the rising cost of goods and services, the nation’s crumbling infrastructures, the threats of war. The fundamental breakdown, however, the one that will get everyone’s attention, will be the failure of the system that delivers our food.
We might put more of our attention on that than worry about a full economic “recovery,” or where our next barrel of oil is going to come from. 
Until we develop reliable alternative sources of energy, and perhaps even after we’ve learned (or start to learn) how to power our lives without oil, I doubt we’ll ever see an economy such as the one in which I and other Boomers grew up. 
Meanwhile, I keep hearing tales of woe to come from the progressive left, namely from writers like Chris Hedges, who envision a horrible end to our rich lives as we once knew them. We’re already victims to the wiles of corporate barbarism and it will only get worse, they say, warning of a repressive state security system run by the very same money madmen who run the corporations.
Because the system is broken and can’t be fixed, I see something entirely different: Out of necessity, or out of simple communal interest in survival, the emergence of strong local economies based on barter, not just money; a renewed interest in protecting local fisheries and agricultural land; and a new approach to building homes that produce rather than consume energy.
As I transition from the old way of life into something smaller and newer, I’m discovering literally what it’s like to be hungry again, a sensation that can do wonders for the imagination.
I can live with hunger. It’s a motivator. What’s hard is the feeling that this experience of lack must be a solo virtue, which implies I’m the only one who is suffering, and getting what is deserved. If I wasn’t such a slacker, everything would be better. 
But I’m beginning to see that others who are not slackers may also be slipping through the cracks, letting a few bills go past due, fighting to keep a roof over their heads and put food on the table.
After my call to inquire about my missing paycheck, I learned that there are a lot of people besides me who also can’t seem to pay to their bills.
At first, it alarmed me: “If others can’t pay their bills, how will I ever pay mine?” Then, I realized I’m not alone. I’m not the only person who’s broke. There’s hope yet. There’s security in numbers. 
As more of the impoverished begin to voice their concerns, we might be more likely to find each other and to search for innovative ways to rebuild from the ground up, to place our treasures closer to home, out of reach from the grinding impacts of a failing global economy run by corrupt businessmen protected by an equally corrupt government.

I’d like to look past the horror-filled scenarios drawn by alarmists who see the current economic malaise as the beginning of the end of civil society, a collapse into total anarchy and violence.
Maybe it’s the beginning of the end of greed. I’d like to think so. If not, we’ll all be broke soon. §

Monday, January 9, 2012

Travel light for the revolution

 Zsu Zsi laughs as I make a panicked, last-minute shuffle to stuff one more item into my travel bag, a book on poetry co-authored by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux, a gift from an ex-girlfriend.

I don’t really need the weight but I’ve been feeling poetic, writing lots of poetry, and I’m enjoying “The Poet’s Companion.” So the book’s coming with me.

I had been up late the night before, reading the chapter on “Witnessing.”

It may seem strange to write poetry during dark times, the authors begin, sort of like “fiddling while Rome burns.” But it is “a necessary act, one that allies itself with hope rather than despair.”

This doesn’t mean, of course, that poetry records only the beautiful, or frivolous, but every act, human or otherwise, that touches our lives in some way.

“A poem of witness,” they write, “wants to look at the realities and name them, to retrieve them from the silence.” That’s what I want to do, name things, the beautiful and the absurd, the run-of-the-mill and familiar, the forgotten and the oppressed, and retrieve them from the silence, from the marginal, where an increasing number of Americans now live.

The media don’t often do an adequate job of telling the stories of those who live on the margins—the unemployed, low-wage factory and warehouse workers, the millions who have recently lost their homes, the millions more of American children who suffer from hunger. By most accounts, they’re just numbers.

To really witness such things, to retrieve them from the silence and name them, to make a poem or story out of what’s actually there, takes courage. I’m learning that the act of making of poem, any kind of poem, is not for the faint of heart.

Just the other day, while listening to a friend warn of an impending irreparable breakdown of our economy and government, and of a coming revolution in the U.S., I started to feel a panic until this came to me:
Strengthen your core
listen, watch
and be ready.
Not great or even good American poetry, but it has helped me to feel less fearful of alarming developments in the global economy, the ever-increasing gap and the injustices that follow between rich and poor, the destruction heaped upon ordinary people by a corrupt banking system and hostile government, as witnessed by the thousands of protestors who have occupied their cities and communities across the U.S.; it has helped me to focus more on staying healthy, being strong, observant and ready to act. This “poem” bears witness to what feels to me like a perilous time.

Zsu Zsi has come as a favor at 6 a.m. to take me to the Amtrak station for the first train out of San Luis Obispo, which runs every day to San Diego. It’s Christmas Eve, and I’m going to spend a week with my mother and daughter, a welcome respite from my chores at the farm, and a holiday gift that I’m already treasuring, quality time with the two women I love most.

“I know, it’s ridiculous,” I explain to Zsu Zsi, tightening the pull string on my bag. “I try to travel lighter each time I get on the train,” I say, hoisting the pack over my shoulder, “but my bag always ends up being heavier than I want.”

“Why don’t you get a Kindle?” she asks. “You can put a whole library of books on a Kindle, and it’s light.”

“I will as soon as I can afford one.”

They’re only $80, I’ve been told, which isn’t much but it’s more than I want to spend. I wonder, given my lack of disposable income these last three years, where every dime is like a dollar, how anyone can afford one.

Still, I’d love to travel more lightly, and when I can afford to buy a Kindle, I will.

Were I homeless, which seems as great a possibility now as finding a low-paying slum job, I’d be pushing a shopping cart with all of my belongings spilling over the top, extra shoes and clothing hanging in heavy soiled clumps off the sides, and a box or two full of books on the bottom rack.

I need my creature comforts, which remain adequate at the moment, but I wonder: How much longer will they last? As the gears of the U.S. economy turn clunkier, chewing up the carcasses of minimum wage workers, I’m learning to live with less. I’m traveling lighter.

Like many of my friends, I find myself downsizing, scaling back on unnecessary expenses, growing more of my own food, learning to do my own repairs, thinking about harvesting rainwater and solar energy, building up the local community, preparing for the possibility of a complete breakdown of the system that robs from the poor and gives to the rich.

I’ve been on the tightest budget of my life since the economic meltdown of 2008—where banks made off with billions of taxpayer dollars while taxpayers were left to fend for themselves during a period of record home loan defaults. Money’s tight, people have been saying. And it doesn’t look like it’s going to get better any time soon.

Zsu Zsi and her husband, along with other friends, have kept me from falling through the cracks, providing places to work, rest and eat.

It’s not much easier for them either, I’ve noticed, as friends and family watch their income and savings and retirement dwindle with each passing day. They’re working harder, and longer hours too.

Oil companies, meanwhile, report record profits; and banks, rescued from the brink of disaster, appear to have bounced back, returning much of the capital they borrowed from taxpayers. In some quarters, at least, the system seems to be up and running again. News reports paint a rosier picture of the economy as we head into the New Year. Jobs are increasing, unemployment is down.

The reports, however, come off as false assurances based on projections made from dreams not reality.

The decline in numbers of unemployed doesn’t include the millions of job seekers who no longer qualify for unemployment benefits. The increase in the numbers of jobs is likely the holiday uptick of part-time and seasonal wage slaves. Some economy.

The situation as I view it from our increasingly upscale little beach town on California’s Central Coast, where truly the rich get richer and several of my less privileged neighbors have lost their homes, still appears to be dim.

Job prospects also appear unpromising for many people, unless they’re willing to pour coffee or sling burgers, not that there’s anything wrong with service jobs but not everyone aspires to putting on a Wal-Mart uniform or pushing boxes in million-square-foot warehouses full of cheap goods imported from China.

We’re a warehouse, service economy. Those are the jobs that have most likely increased and which will continue to increase unless we can find ways to rein in our consumer demands, and get more imaginative and creative with our resources.

A little after 6 a.m., Zsu Zsi’s truck winds south along Highway 1 between black open fields under the pitch-dark winter sky. We rumble along comfortably in the late December chill. I feel safe, secure and warm inside the roomy cab.

It’s a big truck that uses a lot of fuel but is necessary for the daily tasks of running a ranch with chickens, and tending a field of blueberries. As oil becomes more costly, however, I wonder, how will she and other farmers and ranchers power their tractors and maintain their fields? How will we get food to market without it becoming too costly for most consumers?

I see a crisis coming, not just for commuters fed up with the high cost of gasoline but for the whole fossil fuel-driven system that brings food to most households throughout the U.S. Mere threats from Iran to choke the supply of oil passing through the Strait of Hormuz last week sent a shiver of predictions of $150 per barrel, a spike that most consumers can ill afford.

Just ask any farmer what he spends on fuel and he’ll probably tell you he’s not sure how much longer he can make it. Subsidies help with many farm expenses, but those appear to be drying up soon.

Zsu Zsi’s big Ford is a much better ride than my beat-up but handy 25-year-old Toyota farm truck that leaks when it rains.

As we cruise down the road, lights glow eerily through the darkness from the National Guard’s Camp San Luis Obispo, a site for high-security operations, followed by the sheriff’s facilities and county jail next door, and finally, just across the highway, the state prison, the California Mens Colony, where Tex Watson, handsome assistant to the murderous Charles Manson, once resided. This whole area of the highway gives off an eery institutional glow in the darkness.

It reminds me of a fictionalized account I read once of a future San Luis Obispo County, which served as the government’s staging area for attacks on citizens, a top secret training site and encampment for a nation built on incarceration and fueled by terror.

When I first encountered the idea, it seemed strange, both plausible and a little fanciful at the same time, but now it’s become a quite possible reality with President Obama’s support of recent legislation that allows the military to indefinitely detain any American citizen it considers a threat to national security. The system for mass incarceration (yes, this was just supposed to be a whacky conspiracy theory) is already on its way to being intact with at least 20 newly built detention centers across the U.S. (see PBS Frontline’s “Lost in Detention”).

The president promised to protect citizens from the legislation’s potential for abuse, but never explained why, with such reservations, he went ahead and signed it any way.

I’m guessing that it will make a convenient excuse to detain Occupy protestors in the next wave of occupations that are likely to take place in huge numbers coming this spring.

In three years, the Obama administration has already detained and deported more illegal immigrants, processed and warehoused in newly built detention centers across the nation than the Bush administration could accomplish in its two full terms of office.

Further up, another cluster of lights present themselves from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where 20,000 of some of the country’s brightest minds and most privileged students pursue technical studies in agriculture, architecture and engineering, all supported through huge corporate injections of funding.

This little corridor of government operations in defense, education and imprisonment provides a pretty good living for a lot of people in this mostly rural county, rich in agriculture and tourism.These are the best-paying jobs.

Austerity budgets at all levels of government, however, have begun to take a bite of out those jobs too. We’re learning of high-paid civil servants who earn hundreds of thousands of dollars for doing little more than push paper.

People are pissed off about that and, with the help of actual and threatening federal, state, and municipal bankruptcies, priorities are shifting, and money’s not available for new hires or much else.

Beyond government-funded industry, there’s not much in the way of high-paying jobs here. Most people get by, sometimes holding down two or three jobs, working in restaurants, contracting services for building and repair, and running mom and pop shops, candy and antique stores, coffee joints and gyms. And, of course, there’s farm labor.

As we cruise along, the darkness to the east begins to turn cobalt above the institutional lighting. I’ve been telling Zsu Zsi my woes of living on the financial razor’s edge, suggesting that I may have to move to another area, yet no matter where I look, things appear bleak.

“I don’t know how much longer I can do this,” I say, thinking of a recent story I’d read about debtors being threatened with jail. I have unpaid debts but none as great as those owed by the government. You don’t see many government officials going to jail for their debts. Yet, to listen to some politicians, you’d think only lowlifes don’t pay their bills.

“Well, at least you have a place to go, if things don’t work out,” Zsu Zsi says as we descend the hill that divides the state prison from San Luis Obispo. “You can go to live with your mother.”

As much as I love my mother, that’s the last thing I want to do, but in this economy, it may be the most practical, at least, for staying off the street.

As we approach the sleepy college town and the Amtrak station, Zsu Zsi, a native of Hungary who helped bring an end to that country’s Soviet occupation in 1991, puts poverty and homelessness into perspective in her accented voice.

“I asked a homeless woman, how can she live on the street with no place to go? No place to be safe, no place to just let go and share a meal with friends or family? You have no one when you’re homeless. It’s so wrong.”

I try to imagine what it would be like to miss spending a week with my mother and daughter because of homelessness. It makes me shudder.

It’s Christmas time, Xmas time, the holidays in America, when friends and families gather and reconnect, and all I can think of is that it’s been hardly a week since the Associated Press reported that one out of two Americans lives in poverty, the highest rate ever.

“We’re fast becoming a third-world nation,” I say to Zsu Zsi. “Half the country lives in poverty.”

“That’s what happens when you cut education,” she snaps. “When you have a country run by a bunch of dumb shits, what can you expect? Poverty!”

Yes, I think, it’s hard to advance as a culture when one of your national goals is to make people dumber. The one advantage to dumbing people down, though, is that they’re easier to manipulate, easier to turn into stooges and henchmen.

Zsu Zsi’s own homeland struggles under a resurgent neofascist movement that seeks more seats in Hungary’s parliament, where they hope to restore the glory days of right-wing violence, racism and bigotry, all outgrowths of poverty and ignorance, and lack of education.

“It’s scary,” she says. “There are places you don’t go in Budapest, if you are Jewish.”

“Are you serious?” Already I feel naive for having asked, yet I can’t help adding, “After what Europe has already been through?”

“I’m dead serious,” she says.

The revolutions for freedom from oppression that have erupted around the globe and continue to spread will meet their fierce resisters; they always do.

It’s no different here in the U.S., where once it was possible for right and left to agree, as conservative stuffed shirt William F. Buckley and Black Panther Huey Newton once agreed, that the success of any revolution will be measured by the degree of its humanity.

The shape of our government is anything but humane; it supplies the world with its most sophisticated and deadly weapons, kills innocent people, barters in violence and mayhem, and uses torture to terrorize its enemies and its citizens.

The revolution that I envision will be a turn away from the inhumane, will be the joining of citizens who seek to rebuild their communities as they see fit, without fear, without corporate influence and government interference, and with the courage to create a world free from violence and terror, a world built on just and humane principals.

Some are saying that we will have to fight for it, maybe even take up arms to defend ourselves against increasing government encroachments upon our rights as a free people. That may be the case but it’s more likely that revolution, if there is one, will occur through the resurgence of strong local communities lessening their dependencies on outside resources and agencies, with homes designed to create rather than consume energy, and people learning to travel more lightly, write more poetry, and name more realities and retrieve them from the silence. §