Jan 1 2013

The Shadow Congress

Larry Jones

It’s hard to imagine there’s anyone in the United States who does not know that Congress has been screwing around with the nation’s finances.

Over and over for the past couple of years, legislation has been proposed, talked about in the press, debated in the Capitol, and then dropped, usually without a vote. The extreme right wing of the Republican party doesn’t want to do anything that looks like a tax increase. As a lifelong taxpayer myself, I applaud the sentiment, but I also live in the real world, and I know that when you are trying to run an operation the size of the United States, you have to fund it.

The right wingers in the House are the ones blamed for (or credited with) repeatedly blocking votes on compromise legislation. Many of them are beginners, having just been elected in 2010. They don’t know that you can’t have things 100% your way on every issue, so they “just say no” to any bill that doesn’t meet all of their ideological criteria. But they don’t vote “no.” They simply let the House leaders know that they will vote “no.” The leadership doesn’t want to risk defeat and public embarrassment, so the bill doesn’t come up for a vote, the pending compromise is scotched and everyone goes back to the drawing table, the problem still unsolved.

This process protects the naysayers, because they remain in the back of the room and never have to go on the record. They get to block whatever bill they don’t like while avoiding responsibility for doing so. They are a shadow Congress, setting the agenda and dictating to the real Congress which laws can pass and which ones can’t.

But who are they?

I’d like to know their names, their districts, their party affiliation, and when they are up for reelection. Most of all I’d like them to explain their reasons. If they don’t want to vote on certain legislation, I’d like to know why. I’d like them to stand up and explain how they think we can cut our way to prosperity, or why so-called investment returns should be taxed at less than half the rate most of us pay, or why people earning eight or nine thousand dollars a week should not step up and contribute a little more when our country is in trouble and millions of citizens are out of work, out of money, and nearly out of time.

Dec 14 2012

Grownups: Please Step Up

Larry Jones

28 people dead in Newtown today, including 20 little kids, shot in their classroom.

It’s such an outrage that there will certainly be calls to restrict gun ownership or ban them altogether. I’d happily go along with that, but thanks to the gun lobby we can’t even speak the word “ban.” We can’t even have a conversation about gun control. The debate is so warped in our country that — and I can guarantee this — there will be those who say that teachers should be armed, and that would prevent these types of murderous rampages. See the logic? More guns=less shooting. Me neither.Pistols

Few civilized societies in the world today tolerate the kind of firearm profusion that we do in the United States. As of 2009 there were 310 million non-military guns in the U.S., one for every man, woman and child, including newborns. That year there were 17,000 homicides in the U.S., 12,000 of them by firearm. In fact, with that many guns floating around, you could say that there is no solution to the problem of folks going crazy and shooting up their schools, their workplaces, theaters, malls and neighborhoods.

Maybe you’d be right.

I won’t try to fight the NRA, the gun manufacturers or the cranks who think they need guns to protect themselves against being herded by the federal government into concentration camps in the Mojave desert. Their twisted logic has so permeated the culture that there’s no percentage in debating it. But I’m ready for our government — city, state and federal — to take some action.

I propose a ban on assault weapons and big ammunition clips. Much heavier penalties for possession or modification of fully automatic rifles. Deep background checks (paid for by the prospective purchaser) on anyone who wants to buy a gun of any kind, and a good long waiting period. Licensing of gun owners. Serious penalties on gun owners whose negligence allows their weapons to fall into the hands of unauthorized or unlicensed others. And a high enough tax on gun purchases to create a fund to help rebuild the lives of the inevitable victims and their families, as we have done with cigarette taxes.

There are so many guns already out there, legal and unregistered, that anything we do to curb their proliferation will not begin to be effective for generations. But in 85 years it will be the turn of the century again, whether or not we start now trying to fix this problem. Most of us won’t be around by then. I wonder if those who are will thank us for our foresight, or curse us for our stupidity.

Dec 4 2012

Please Come Home For Christmas

Larry Jones

I’m a sap for all things Christmas.

The commercial trappings notwithstanding, I get all warm and affectionate toward my fellow man, and I suspect a lot of folks feel the same way. So Christmas is all right with me.

Here’s my Christmas song for this year. I spent about a week recording it, playing and singing all the parts, and I took the pictures myself, strolling around my neighborhood at Christmas time. The pix were taken last year, but all my neighbors are using pretty much the same decorations this year, so I think we’re cool.

Nov 6 2012

Four More Years

Larry Jones

So we have given the President a second term in office.

Serious political observers have known for some time that the election would turn out this way. For the past two weeks supporters of Mitt Romney have been talking optimistically about his chances. Dick Morris and Karl Rove, for example, were “predicting” a sizable Republican victory. But it felt hollow, as if they were only trying to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. By yesterday reality had set in and the happy talk (and the trash talk) had died.

I’m relieved that Obama won reelection, but I’m not elated. Generally, I believe the Democrats are on the side of regular folks like me, while the Republicans are on the side of transnational corporations, arms dealers and big-money donors. There are exceptions, of course, but in the big picture the two parties do break down like that.

In 2008 I thought that President-elect Obama might find a way to change the way things are done in this country. I thought he had enough support from a war-weary, skeptical nation battered by a brutal economic downturn. I thought he might parlay that support into a transformational administration. But he did not. He began dealing with our economic problems by appointing as his financial team the very same people who caused the meltdown. He addressed universal health care by handing 50 million new customers to insurance companies, who have long been the problem. WTF? He has become the only Nobel Peace Prize winner with a kill list.

I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have liked a Romney/Tea Party presidency, but I am only cautiously optimistic about a second term for Barack Obama. Now that Mitch McConnell can’t make good on his threat to make him a one-term president, maybe they’ll find a way to compromise and get some work done, and move the country forward, not just economically and militarily, but morally.

Fingers crossed.

Sep 23 2012


Larry Jones

I found the old snapshot in a shoebox in the garage.

The girl is maybe 18 years old, adorable, still showing a little baby fat. Her skin is tanned, except for the pink in her cheeks. She is seated at a kitchen table in front of a window half-covered with dime-store curtains. Her luxurious dark brown hair is a couple of inches longer than shoulder length, parted a little to the right but not “done.” She is holding a spray can of Black Flag House & Garden. Not really holding it, but with her hand around it the way you might have your hand around a drink as it rests on the table, in between sips. She knows this is funny, and she is telling the camera this with a smile that lights her whole face, really the whole room, and still, after all this time, stops my heart.

She is wearing a little sleeveless thing, mostly green with a close white print on it, a little halter top and shorts all of one piece, that might have been called a sunsuit in earlier times. I know this garment. I know how short the shorts are. I know how it can come off with one zipper in the back.

I know this girl.

She dumped me decades ago. Shortly after we met she gave me this picture that had been taken a year or so earlier. I don’t know exactly how old it was or who snapped the shot, but this was before the days of digital cameras and cell phone photography, when you had to buy film and load it into the camera and then you could only take that many pictures and you couldn’t see any of them until you had shot the entire roll and had it developed, back in the days when you had to put some effort into it, when a photograph really meant something. We didn’t know each other very well at the time, and when she gave me this picture I didn’t know she was saying this is important, what I’m giving to you, and I have more to give, if you only ask. Eventually, I got the message.

We were together for — a year? Two? She lived 50 miles away from me and I thought nothing of making the drive in my rickety car, out to the far reaches of the San Fernando Valley. Once we drove together a thousand miles in that old sled, to another state, just to look at the trees and the mountains we found. I can’t think of any reason for that trip, except I wanted to be alone with her, away from everyone else, because I couldn’t get enough of her.

I didn’t do it right, of course. I broke our promise, the one we made to each other in her bedroom that first time in the Valley, and the other times that followed. We never spoke any words about it, but she knew, and I knew. At some point I began pretending that we were sophisticated grownups enjoying each other immensely, nothing more. Of course I didn’t tell her this, but she knew. Women always do, usually before they even have any evidence.

I thought I was getting away with my bad behavior until one night we left a party together, I thought to go outside and make out. I don’t know how long she’d planned it, or even if she’d planned it. But after we got in the car, and before any hanky panky got started, she told me calmly we were finished, that I wouldn’t be seeing her again. She’d come to the party in her own car, and she was going home without me. From then on, she would be going everywhere without me. She wasn’t angry or emotional, but there was nothing I could say to change her mind. I tried.

So it turned out right after all, I guess. I got what I deserved, tossed out with the trash. She got a fresh start, without me, when she still had all the time in the world. Vaguely, I knew there was a lesson to be learned from this episode. I didn’t learn it, but at least I got enrolled in the class.

I hope to graduate some day.

Sep 17 2012

The Edge

Larry Jones

When I was a small boy, I cut my hand with a double-edged razor blade.

It didn’t hurt — at least I don’t remember any pain — but the bright red blood shocked me. It was flowing out of my hand, I couldn’t even see the cut, and it wouldn’t stop. When I touched it, it got all over my other hand, and then all over my T-shirt when I tried to wipe it off. I was paralyzed with fear, and the blood kept pouring out of the invisible cut. I had two thoughts more or less simultaneously: I want my mother, and there is no way I can explain this to her.

I can’t even explain it to myself, looking back at it through the fog of many decades. What was I doing, that breezy Spring day, walking across a baseball field playing with a Gillette Blue Blade? I can see this blade now in my mind, and it was clean and blue and shiny. Not a rusty old blade that you might find under the bleachers, although why would it be under the bleachers at a municipal ballpark? How did I get my hands on it?I don’t remember, but it seems now that there must have been only two ways: Either I took it from my father’s shaving stuff in the bathroom, or somebody out on the baseball field gave it to me.

That type of blade came in a cool dispenser — a flat blue plastic box with a thumb hole on one side and a slot on one end. You could see the center of the top blade through the hole, and you’d put your thumb on that part of the blade, sliding it out through the slot at the end, Blue-Bladesdirectly into the razor. The next blade would then be visible in the hole, ready for the next change, but the main thing is your razor would be loaded and ready to go without you ever touching those dangerous sharp edges.

Maybe after seeing my father perform this procedure I just had to try it myself. Only of course I ended up with the blade in my hands, not in a razor. A safety razor, as they were called.

I remember thinking, out on the field, with the green grass stretching hundreds of yards in all directions and the warm sun and the pleasant breeze, there is no danger here. This blade is not so sinister. See how it bends and flexes, not at all like a dangerous knife. Why is everybody so nervous about these things? Why have I been kept away from them all this time?

I remember walking while I thought these thoughts, and it was somewhere in the bending and flexing and scoffing that the blood started pouring out of my hand. I had almost convinced myself that this was not even a real blade, that it was just a benign plastic replica, a prop. It couldn’t possibly have just cut me. I had felt nothing, and now there was all this blood. I was afraid and confused. Afraid of the frailty of my skin, confused over the treachery of the blade, shiny and blue and smiling and innocent, like the devil. This blade had fooled me, lulled me into carelessness. I’d been laughing at it, and then it had turned on me.

Of course I ran home. I was a small child, and I didn’t know what else to do. I sensed that I would be in some trouble over playing with razor blades, but also I knew my mother would clean the wound and bandage it, and maybe if I played my cards right I wouldn’t get spanked or yelled at.

In any case, I felt it was worth the gamble. Much later I would develop the resources to take care of my own wounds, the better to deceive not just my mother, but everyone.

Jul 12 2012

I Was Looking for a Job When I Started This One

Larry Jones

I didn’t know when I wrote the previous post that I would be fired just three weeks later.

I’d been working at the same place for 19 years, and it ended in a heartbeat. The business was the sale and service of new automobiles, mostly to individuals who didn’t need them or couldn’t afford them. About half way through my time there, the company was acquired by an out of state corporation, newly created for the express purpose of owning several hundred companies like the one I worked at. Since that acquisition, the new parent company (known on this blog as “HugeCorp”) has been calling the shots, growing more and more intrusive as the years passed, despite having no institutional knowledge of the industry it had bought its way into.Vacant Office

After the acquisition, for me, the biggest change was that I was no longer working for people I knew face to face. They were still there, but they were no longer in charge. We were all drones together, management was thousands of miles away, and the goal of HugeCorp was, plain and simple, to increase its stock value. Nothing was more important.

In late 2008, with the U.S. and world economy in a swoon, HugeCorp began laying off workers, a devastating process that struck like an epidemic of malaria. I had been thinking the epidemic was over, but evidently it is still going on. I have the pink slip to prove it. According to the general manager (the seventh one since HugeCorp took over) they had decided to eliminate my position. Naturally, he told me it was not his decision and he felt terrible about it.

That was on a Thursday afternoon. I started cleaning out my office. I kept the news to myself, but apparently the general manager put the word out, because throughout the day, as I tried to tie up all the loose ends that can accumulate in 19 years, coworkers kept calling and coming in and saying how shocked they were. I told all my colleagues I would be fine, although I really didn’t know if that were true. I warned the management types not to call me if they needed my help, unless they were ready to pay me. I said it with a smile, but they knew I meant it. None of them have the authority to authorize paying me, anyway, but I was going to charge them a lot.

I left there for the last time the next day, feeling strangely numb about the whole thing.

To put it mildly, I didn’t like my job. I didn’t like the bureaucracy, the stupid rules and the feeling that I had become a replaceable cog in a giant machine. I signed up to work at a place with a hundred employees, and by the time I left there were over 20,000 of us. The cog syndrome must have been rampant.

No question the operation was “well run.” Everything that happened was measured in terms of the bottom line. Productivity was improved, by firing many employees and shifting their work to those left behind. Those remaining workers didn’t get any more money for doing all the extra work, and it was understood that asking for more money was fruitless at best, dangerous at worst. Periodically another “expendable” employee was cut loose for no apparent reason, adding to the sense of dread.

I felt tainted by the casual cruelty, and guilty like a plane crash survivor who has lived while others died. I should have quit ten years earlier when I started to feel dirty, but I needed the money and the medical insurance. As for the sleazy business we were involved in, I tried to be in it, but not of it. I don’t know if I succeeded at that.

I don’t have to worry about it any more. My issues now involve survival and self image. I am not well prepared. Will anyone hire a cranky old dude like me? Will my money last until then, or until I die? If I accept unemployment benefits am I then a member of the “moocher class?” Is there an honest, decent way to earn enough to take care of myself and my wife?

My new job is finding answers. I have no experience. I hope I can figure things out.

Apr 5 2012


Larry Jones

I posted this as a comment on Narya’s blog today, and since I rarely have the time to write anything new, I thought I’d use it here on my own blog:

In my whole long working life I have never seen as much uncertainty among workers as I see today. At my company, except for the sales staff, who by necessity lead lives of self-delusion, everyone around me is fearful for their jobs. Also, we have half as many people doing five times as much work.

This may not have been the conscious goal of all employers, but it is the end result of the politics of division, the destruction of the labor movement, the redistribution of wealth, economic globalization and the dumbing down of our people. Most of us have now learned to keep our heads down and our mouths shut and take whatever pay our employer wants to give us, along with whatever ration of shit comes our way on the job.

I have found a few things to do at my workplace that seem to be the right combination of “have-to-be-done” and “kind-of-hard-to-do.” In exchange for doing those tasks (and not ever, ever demanding more money) I get to keep my job and my 1976-level salary.

I really think the American worker is demoralized. We have seen our homes taken away, our pensions converted to “retirement accounts” and then wiped out, our friends fired from their jobs, our loved ones get sick and sometimes die for lack of medical insurance and our so-called leaders either clueless or collaborating, while the richest people and corporations continue to get richer and call all the shots, both in business and in public policy.

If you came here to visit me from Mars, you’d think I have a stable, secure life. It may look that way, but I am very uncertain about the future, and that includes tomorrow morning.

So, if you’re a little spooked these days, or going through the motions in a state of shock, you’re not alone.

Mar 30 2012

Health Care Act on Trial

Larry Jones

I was not happy about the Affordable Care Act when it was finally passed in 2010, after nearly two years of wrangling in Congress.

I thought President Obama had sold out, that he should have at least urged a discussion of single-payer or a public option. In the end I felt like the insurance companies had won a great victory, and I still think that. Since then I’ve tried to soothe my outrage by looking at the good points of the finished legislation: Insurance companies can’t refuse coverage because of preexisting conditions or drop you when you get sick; the “lifetime limit” on coverage is banned; kids can stay on the family health plan until age 26; seniors get help paying for their prescriptions. I told myself that, after a hundred years of inaction it was a start, and it could be improved over time.

I should have known better.

I still don’t know why there was a popular outcry against the bill. I assume it was uninformed cranks or people who just hated Obama. Why would you not want affordable health care for everybody? But then the state attorneys general got into the act, and now the Supreme Court is deliberating. Once the court challenges began I knew it would end up with the Supremes, and I was sure they would uphold it. I still think they will, but I’m no longer certain, and neither are most court watchers.

Here are two reasons why I think the law will be substantially upheld:

  • There are four right-wing extremists on the court, plus Justice Kennedy, who is pretty conservative. Their questioning during the arguments this week indicates that they are viewing this case through the most partisan of lenses. They seem to have made up their minds, and are looking for a way to strike down the law. But… like most extreme right wing politicians, they are controlled by rich people and corporate interests. They know their job: Make life better for Exxon, Halliburton and United Heath Care. Right now, this bill feeds 40 million new customers to the U.S. insurance industry. Strike down this bill and the industry would have to spend untold millions of dollars over several decades to gain that much new business, and it’s possible that they never would. I don’t think the corporatists on the court will let that happen.
  • The right wingers on the court are worried about the requirement in the bill that everyone must purchase insurance. They think it’s too much government intrusion. Fair enough, but if they invalidate the health care bill and put the nation right back where it was — near the bottom among developed nations in medical outcomes and near the top in medical spending — there will still be a health care crisis and a desperate need for reform. And version 2.0 of that reform will very likely be a single-payer system administered by the government and paid for with taxes. This would be unarguably constitutional, but a nightmare scenario for the right. I believe that someone will mention this to the conservatives on the court in the next few weeks, and that it will make them stop short of striking down the bill.

That’s what I think, anyway. But lately the right wing has become sort of unhinged. They do things based on a perceived ideological mandate rather than practical considerations of moving the nation forward. We can’t always predict what they will do. So they might shoot this down.

In the chaos that will ensue, I hope none of them sprains a wrist high-fiving each other, because there will be a long wait to get treatment at the emergency room.

Oct 9 2011

Love And Dice

Larry Jones

With the media frenzy surrounding the death of Steve Jobs, I have been contemplating life and death.

They are playing clips in heavy rotation on TV and radio from his commencement speech at Stanford a few years ago, after he’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and had already had a liver transplant. He must have known he didn’t have much more time, and he told the graduates something like this:

“Death is an important part of life, because it clears away the old to make way for the new. You are new today, but don’t forget that someday you’ll be old, and death will come to clear you away. Your time is limited. Don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Whatever you do, make sure you do what you love.”

I’ve heard this advice in various forms from various people my whole life, and I have come to the conclusion that it’s not the way the world works. It’s that “do what you love” thing that has caused an entire generation to believe they (we) are special, and that the world owes them (us) a living, that we are entitled to experiment all our lives, try this career, sample that lifestyle, and somehow everything will work out.

After many years of study, I can tell you that everything does not necessarily work out. Sometimes you lose your job, your wife, even your home. Sometimes there are powerful reasons why you have to stay in a dead-end job — for example, you need the paycheck, you have responsibilities, people who depend on you for food and health care. You “live someone else’s life” because that someone supplies the paycheck, and no matter how difficult or demeaning the work may be, you suck it up, because you have to. You don’t go chasing dreams, because you have to survive.

Here’s how I think life works: You roll the dice, and you see what happens. Whatever happens, you have to deal with it. You might become a billionaire, like Steve Jobs, or you might lose your shirt. The good news is you can roll the dice as many times as you want, chase various dreams, take many lovers, try different vocations. The bad news is, each roll takes something out of you: your money, your time, your heart. There’s no hard limit, but after a certain number of rolls, you will run out of resources to roll again. You may not have any more money, or enough time. In my case, I don’t have the heart any more.

I went through many years of confusion and denial about this, because I believed that if I followed my dreams, things would work out, and in that context it didn’t make sense that things weren’t working out, at least not the way I’d hoped. Now I know that life happens the way it happens, and you can bend the arc a little bit, but you can’t make it turn out exactly the way you envisioned it. Steve Jobs took a bunch of technology that had been invented by others, packaged it attractively and dropped it into a market that was ripe to take off. It was probably difficult for him, 25 years later, to think back and see it happening any other way, but of course it might have happened differently. How many millions were following their dreams at that same moment in time, and how many of them achieved phenomenal success?

Not very freakin’ many.

We don’t want to admit it, because we want to put Steve Jobs up on a pedestal and believe that he represents the inevitable result of perseverance, hard work, and doing what we love. If he can do it, so can we, because that’s the way it works, right? The more likely truth is that he was in the right place at the right time, and along with the love and the hard work and the perseverance, he was damned lucky.

The funny thing is, when I try to imagine what I would do with my life if I had it to do over, I think I would take pretty much the same path. I’d like to think I’d do it better, make better decisions at the important junctures, but maybe that’s just the experience talking, experience I wouldn’t have if I were really “starting over.” Maybe I’d be luckier the second time around, and maybe not. But if I had a second chance at my life, I guess that’s what I’d do: Do it over.