Retraining for the New Economy

One of the things that most infuriates me about President Obama’s so-called recovery plan (the current one) is that he has really drunk the kool-aid on worker retraining. Statistics do not support the idea that what we have is workers who are prepared for the wrong job set; the problem is employers who do not intend to pay Americans to do these jobs.

Instead of retraining workers, I would retrain management and politicians.

First up, one month, seven days a week at the local food shelf or a public kitchen, checking people in and balancing the budget. Here’s a clip on the way things are going up here in Burlington, Vermont.

Next up, a month in the local court system or jail, watching the toll recession takes on formerly well-behaved families and individuals.

Third, a month with the local community college career counselors.

Fourth, back to the food shelf. Same people are still there, except there are more of them.

Fifth, a month of working retail full time (lots of folks rotate in and out of these jobs) to get some sense of what it would be like to do it for an extra six years, into your late sixties or seventies. This is especially recommended for older decision makers.

Sixth, a month with a family whose single parent works three jobs, tending and feeding the kids without a car or enough money for taxis. Bus system and walking shoes only.

Have fun.

The American Dream and the Debts It Has to Pay First

There has been a militant part of our religious organization insisting that distinguishing between legal and illegal residents constitutes above all else a racist commitment to some kind of national purity. Maybe it’s about language, maybe it’s about color, whatever: people like me, who believe in having and protecting national borders are being written out of the faith community without an open-minded consideration of what we have to say. Our words are considered “rationalizations of prejudice” and that’s the end of it.

Note to UUA: my current pledge level reflects the attitude you are showing toward my reflections.

But, for any who may wish to hear what I have to say, here it is:

I believe in a government which provides fair and meaningful assistance to its citizens in times of need. Some of those times of need are very long and without any way to redress the problem. There are longterm disabilities, there are people with low earning potential, there are people who simply don’t know how to function in society.  All of them have a right to live and to live reasonably well.

In believing these supports to be the job of government, I accept the right of government to demand the means of providing these supports from those who are in a position to hand over some surplus. Twenty years behind a cash register has shown me that not all economic self-interest is rational or large-minded.  You can spot the person who’s going to fight hardest for the sale price because “I just couldn’t get here yesterday,” or who left their coupons at home and wants you to risk your job by giving a price reduction. You can spot them because they are better dressed and have more packages. In short, they are greedy folks and they don’t care who they steamroll to be their own Santa Claus.  So I want the Congress and IRS to stand up to these folks exactly like my store manager does: “Ma’am (or Sir), if I made exceptions for everyone, I’d be out of business.”

But the government has its rights, and so do those from whom these taxes are levied.  We have a right to see the coupon at the cash register before we apply the double discount.  We have a right to favor store credit card holders because they guarantee the bank loans for next season’s inventory.  In government, those coupons and cards are called “citizenship.”

Every now and then, at my cash register, when I know there’s a good coupon out there, and the customer says they forgot their coupon, I will ask to see their store card. Since coupons and card color are both calibrated to the customer’s overall spending rate, I know that the person with certain color cards really did leave coupons at home, and I’ll give them the discount if they ask.  It’s the same way with refugee status. I know there are certain situations, such as being an out GLBT person, or a woman who has been accused of adultery, likewise some religious minorities, that in some countries poses an immediate prospect of death by sanctioned mob violence.  For these people I propose refugee status, regardless of  family reunion or country of origin criteria.

But I’m hard on economic migrants. That’s because I have lived most of my life in cities which suck down their residents like quicksand.  The laziness of the poor has always been a myth, going back to the days when slaveowners hated the way their hostages made a rational calculation of how little unpaid labor they could get away with churning out.  Social capital was denied to slaves, who were not allowed family ties or family time.  This deprivation then moved into the industrial system, for the benefit of owners who wished to live as if labor was free and freely given.

It is this population, the folks who have one hand on the ladder and both feet in the quicksand, which has been put upon by the myth that America is a country where anyone can get rich. It is this population which fought back with the union movement, answering violence with violence when the greedy tried to get away with yet another generation of theft.

From Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush, in the name of the greedy, US presidents and Congresses sold this population the filthy lie that if they would use personal debt to build up some social capital then somehow the robber bosses would suddenly want to give you better jobs. No one needed to unionize, because the bosses would just be more comfortable with you when you owned your own house, wore better clothes and gambled the same way they do in Las Vegas.  Your debts would somehow evaporate, just like it says in Leviticus and the Lord’s Prayer, because look how much those rich folks go to church and give to philanthropy. But it turns out that endowing a new building at the Business School is not the same as ponying up for Food Stamps. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. They’re not giving for what you need, they’re giving for what impresses their friends; they give just like they spend.

And so a population of Americans who once were stuck are now actively moving downward. It is not because they have less ambition, talent or social skills than they did in the past. Rather, it’s because their bosses found other easily-identifiable people who would do the same jobs for less, moving those bosses a little closer to THEIR American Dream of infinite advancement through the efforts of unpaid labor. First the unions were busted, and now the folks who worked at scab rates are being laid off in favor of folks whose countries have absolutely no means of  supporting anything like the fairness, equality and prosperity which constitute the American Dream.

It is worth noting that the international elite has put us into a new era of weak nation-states. Did Switzerland open too many bank accounts? You’ve still got a home in the Caymans. Do EPA and OSHA have too many rules for your company’s comfort and profit? You can always obtain dirty pieces offshore and assemble them here, for that precious “Made in USA” label.  There’s no one around who can leverage a boycott of “Assembled in USA of Foreign Materials” and make the manufacturers come back to the land of rules and rights. The Congressis bought and paid for, and so, apparently, does our president wish to be.

But enforcing strong national borders in receiving nations is one of the best things we can do for sending nations. Every brain drain nation ought to be front and center insisting that the US and other developed nations enforce our immigration laws from top to bottom. In return, they ought to insist on rules for quality of life that equal our own, so that their best and brightest can look forward to such pleasures as clean water and breathable air. Most economic migrants want to be at home, often go home, and often return home for their sunset years.  We need to make sure their nations are suitable homes in their earning years as well.

But to close out the best and brightest of other nations would be, in effect, to force our government to invest in our downwardly mobile at a level that would amounts to foreign aid.  Actually, foreign aid is pretty much what it is.  If you live in a gated community, fly in timeshare jets and recreate at a country club, you never see the children and parents of your cleaners and servers and even the safety crew of your airplane.  It isn’t language but greed which has made so many of our neighborhoods unpalatable to our greedy.

That’s why I do not see “Standing on the Side of Love” as a synonym for open borders. We don’t even have equal marriage in all fifty states yet, much less at the federal level.  And how do we say we are supporting the formerly-unionized when we aren’t standing up for federalization of the benefits and protections for which their fathers and mothers fought so hard? Forget expanding federal benefits to the level the unions have enjoyed: at this point, we’re trying to prevent our politicians of both parties from taking away the safety net you used to rely on if you didn’t have a union.

So here’s the quick summary: people already here are losing what they worked for and thought they were handing on to their children. Other folks are coming here to undercut the wage levels that might give first and last jobs to citizens for whom times are hard.  The president wants us all to go back to school, as if that somehow make the greedy want to give us great sums of their money.

“Americans first” does not sound very Universalist.  But in a world of finite resources, we have to think locally, act locally, and enforce laws which require everyone else to take care of their own as well.  It’s not one world, it’s a big quilt of habitats that each group of inhabitants has to take care of.

The Heart Retains its Clock

One of my best friends here in Vermont is Alice. When I lived across the street from her, the age gap didn’t matter: she in her eighties and I in my fifties; it might even have helped, as she had only sons and my mother was far away (although alive and well, thank God). For years when I probably should have been trawling internet dating sites or writing in one of Burlington’s fine cafes, I settled into Alice’s living room to watch whatever sport was in season, care for the black stray cat that divided his time between our two homes, and chat about life in general. How I loved her stories of growing up in our neighborhood, a one-woman historical society whose father had been the ward councilor with an open front door for more than thirty years. I gardened her huge back yard because my 2nd floor apartment had no land rights, and weeded around the roses along her fence.

But the arrangement was not financially viable for me. Thanks in large measure to what I had learned from having an elderly best friend with serious physical afflictions and growing dementia, I moved in with a friend who happens to have a fatal syndrome whose symptoms can include dementia. I saw Alice less and less. She weakened and grew to need a more and more numerous care-giving team of her own. Visiting her was now more complicated by their presence, although I struck up a quick accord with her live-in.

She no longer recognizes her sons and grandchildren, but she’s clear on her care-giving team.  I go over now and then, when her live-in caregiver needs a night off and the family can’t be there.  Last night was one of those nights, an unexpected opportunity that I was delighted to make available for him. It was short notice, so Alice didn’t know I was coming. Happy to see me, yes, but surprised and a little disgruntled.

She started asking about my absences. It came up in a strange way.  She asked if I was staying long, as if I were a visitor to Vermont. I reminded her about my new home a few blocks away (which she often remembers about), so she paused, pondered, and opened another line of questioning.

What was I doing this winter?

Winter! Why would she ask about that? And then I remembered that when you’re ninety-four, years roll past much more quickly than when you’re young. Plus, since her local son goes away for many of the cold months, as many Vermonters do (her other son lives in Florida), it seems like the snowbirds are packing before you know it after solstice.

But why would she ask that of me? I never go away for the winter, except for the occasional one or two weeks with family in other states.

“It seems like I didn’t see you much last winter,” she said.

Zing! Guilt button! How true that was! Week after week, I stayed in with Lynne.  For several months, when we were setting records for snowfall, my car twice got deeply snowbound at the end of Alice’s driveway as I was leaving, and I finally gave up visiting until her ice thawed. That is not an excuse, I drove by and checked pretty regularly.  My visits were separated first by three days, then by seven, then by fourteen days at least. When Lynne was in the hospital in February, and then coming home and needing extra support, I’m sure I didn’t get to Alice for a month (although I must have done once or twice going into March, because that’s when my car got stuck).

When her live-in came home , he reviewed the list of ways Alice troubles her team.

Did she try to go visit her long-dead parents in the house she sold so long ago after their deaths, but which can be clearly seen from her living room window?

No.

Did she quarrel about food or anything?

No.

Did she sleep deep and long, meaning she’s going to be at risk all night of getting up and falling or walking down the street to see her parents, possibly falling on the cracked and uneven sidewalks?

Not, not that either. A couple of tiny head drops, nothing more.

What did you guys do?

We did what we always do in summer: watched the Red Sox (win) and during commercials flipped to cute kitten videos on Animal Planet.

But then I sat for awhile to visit with the pair of them. As the hour grew late, something began to bother her dreadfully. I had arrived at six, and she had not offered me supper. Could she get me anything now”? If she had known I was coming, she would have cooked.

Don’t worry, I said, I ate before I came over.  She asked again, and then said, “But you’ve been here a long time.”

No denying that.  Sometimes when I come early, I pack a dinner and she sits with me while I eat.  So her sense of time was spot on: I had taken something out of our routine and she wanted to put it back.

So that’s her dementia: her mind no longer understands months, days and years, but her heart knows the rhythm of the way she and I spend time together.

From this I take these lessons about “loss of intelligence”:

1) Intelligence lives in many parts of the body, and

2) it appears that the heart can last longer than the brain; IF

3) the heart has been properly nourished, tended and disciplined over the decades. The patterns of healthy and satisfying lifestyle do more than reduce cardio-vascular stress at the time we pursue them. They also are putting down roots, sowing seeds of calm for the years in which we don’t know people’s’ names, but we still know deeply what we expect of them and they expect of us.  It seems that instilling covenant goes beyond words and paper, even ceremony; it seems also that establishing a pattern of companionship comes to imply a commitment you’d better anticipate.

I can’t think of any better reason for setting a sacred life pattern and sticking to its basics, no matter the temptations, vacations and interruptions that inevitably arise. Some day you will know these occasions, and from them derive security of time and place… just by seeing the face of someone you love, and doing with them the things you have done together so many times, so many years.

When you do, I hope your joy is as great as mine was, when she turned and grinned at those videos of the kittens on her tv.