Sunday, November 25, 2007

Comment on the Economy

This is a general-purpose commentary on the economy. I have not edited it for precise focus on a single topic. Indeed, my purpose in writing it is to bring this blog more up to date on several themes that seem to be emerging in recent articles on the state of the American and global economies.

That said, it seems to me that those several themes are related, and to some extent I have sketched out what I see as that relationship. My decision, in writing this piece, was to use the available time to present several ideas in imperfect form; it was not to present one idea in highly coherent fashion. It is, in short, consistent with this blog’s effort to offer ideas for further thought and development.

* * * * *

When times change, assumptions get tested. Sometimes the tested assumptions are small ones – that e.g., tomorrow will be sunny, or that I will not catch cold and spend the day in bed. Sometimes the assumptions are larger – that the President won’t be assassinated, or that electricity will reliably come through my outlet to this computer.

We have been assuming that real estate prices would always go up. They are still going up, in some locations. But they are going down in others, sometimes dramatically so. This seems especially likely to occur, not only in markets that got overheated, but also in places where the people doing most of the buying were able to get mortgages only because mortgages were available to virtually anyone.

The rules are now changing. That sort of mortgage is increasingly a thing of the past. So there will be some units – quite a few, I gather – that were built for people on the economic margin, who now will not be buying them. Those people will instead be renting, and as a result will not be taking out home equity loans (as they may well have done, had housing prices continued to rise) with which to purchase things. So that part of business as usual is changing; and the portion of our economy’s planning and investing that depended on it will be hurt.

Of course, as those people become unable to afford their mortgages, their units – again, quite a few, as I understand, amounting to (if I remember correctly) as many as 20% of all mortgages in the United States – will be foreclosed upon. That will not happen if their lenders or the government or somebody gets on top of the problem and figures out some way to keep them in their houses. Which is what should happen, since foreclosed and vacant units are at serious risk of being looted for their wiring and plumbing, and/or may become refuges for drug dealers.

None of these things is good for a neighborhood’s property values. But at present, it seems that foreclosures and vacancies continue to be the dominant theme, among those who cannot keep up with the terms of their mortgages. Apparently quite a few mortgage terms will be reset within the next three to six months, so this should be a highly informative time period on the question of what will be happening to the financial health of banks, neighborhoods, and homeowners.

The tightening of credit, and the slowing growth in paper wealth of homeowners, will combine to reduce the ability and/or the inclination of other homeowners to take out home equity loans that they can then spend. We can no longer assume that the American consumer will continue to drive the world economy. In practical terms, this means that people may not be willing or able to buy whatever they need, whenever they need it.

Already, of course, we cannot buy whatever we want; that is a privilege for the wealthy. We cannot even buy what we need, if need is defined as including health care or a home. Even before the subprime mortgage crisis, few people could afford to own their homes outright. Invariably, they took out mortgages that gave the bank the final say over whether they could remain there if they suddenly became unable to make their monthly payments. But now, as we see, not even the 30-year mortgage is available to a substantial number of would-be homeowners.

People will continue to be able to buy a great number of things they need, along with some they want, as long as they have jobs that pay a decent wage. As the U.S. dollar declines precipitously (and appears likely to continue to do so), there should be a lot of hiring in export-oriented businesses. American goods will become more affordable for people in the rest of the world, so to some extent we will reduce or hopefully even reverse our present enormous trade deficit. It is not clear how much this will occur, however: as long as China continues to peg its currency to the dollar, its exports will continue to be cheaper than ours, for buyers elsewhere in the world.

Moreover, wages paid to those who have jobs may not be sufficient to let them keep buying what they want and need. The decline of the dollar means that things from elsewhere (other than China, at present) continue to become more expensive. That includes oil, a major component in the things that the world makes and in how the world makes them. There is concern that inflation may begin to rise again. I would say it will rise dramatically, over time, as the world’s cautious financial players gradually steer their ponderous institutions toward a new scheme in which the dollar is not the reigning currency. So you may still be making $1,000 a month, or $10,000; but the rising cost of oil and other inputs may mean that other things in your life will follow health care and housing into the realm of unaffordability.

There is hope, among global-scale financiers, that people in other countries (e.g., China and India) will step up and take the place of the American consumer, to buy all sorts of things and keep the world’s people working and making a living. No doubt that will happen, at least for those who are better-off in those places. Consumers in developing nations face limitations, however, that consumers in America did not face during their own heyday. Our sort of consumption may not be able to occur in those places within the foreseeable future.

There are many such limitations. For one, commodities (e.g., gold, copper, oil, iron) are scarcer and more expensive now. It is not clear that those countries will be able to afford, as we could, to run iron (or even plastic) pipes and copper (or even aluminum) power lines as we have done. They are also nowhere near having enough clean water. The acceleration of global warming makes it unlikely that the average Chinese or Indian town will ever enjoy the green lawns and running water now found in almost every American town. If anything, the pace of dirty industrialization in China makes it more likely that that nation will become known, around the world, as a center for cancers, birth defects, respiratory diseases, and toxic foods -- as China lurches, once again, to a collectivist and self-destructive extreme in pursuit of an ideal. Developing countries generally will also tend to suffer increased rates of infectious disease as global warming facilitates the growth and spread of harmful bacteria.

There are other potential shocks whose impact can barely be guessed at present. Terrorism – especially, but not only, Islamic terrorism – has become international, and as such has found unprecedented access to funding and materiél. Criminal gangs now have sufficient wealth and firepower, not only in Latin America but also in some places within the United States, to stand and fight it out with the police. In these and other ways, people with grievances are better equipped, now, to inflict serious damage upon the smooth machinery of government and finance. Equally important, through the Internet they have acquired means of unification and mutual support. In many regards, their movements are intrinsically (even if not expressly) opposed to much of the foundation upon which business as usual rests.

The hope seems to be, not that developing nations will become knock-offs of the United States, but rather just that a growing middle class within those nations will come to have spending power comparable to that which has been wielded by the middle class in the U.S. – that, collectively, there will continue to be growth in the numbers of millions, around the world, who will have spare money to spend on gizmos and modest luxuries. This could happen. But in China, at least, the prospects for such growth will be hampered if, as seems likely, the overpriced Chinese stock market crashes, wiping out the savings of millions of would-be members of the middle class.

Generally, a middle class does not grow in a vacuum. To the extent permitted by law and culture, or mandated by necessity, the rich will feed off of it, and the needs of the poor – the multitudinous poor, in China and India – will drain it. Of course, China and India are booming. But they are starting from an extremely low level. As they move closer toward developing a genuine middle class, they will also see – they are presently seeing – that the benefits are not equitably distributed among the many. Over the long term, nations of haves and have-nots tend, not toward dynamic long-term growth and increased consumption, but rather toward the relative economic stagnation and political instability for which many Latin America countries have typically been notorious.

What seems to be unfolding is a sort of theater, in which people in other countries succeed in developing their own gated communities for their own nouveaux riches, as if to prove that they, too, can be like America. But a story loses its impact on the second telling. China can recreate American lifestyles for some, but at the risk of enormous damage and upheaval for most. It would be interesting to construct an index linking concrete production (China is now responsible for half of all the world’s concrete) and population density to upheaval (China experiences thousands of protests each year). India can try its hand at the same game, as long as it is willing to endure nightmare gridlocks – of traffic and otherwise – as the masses reconstruct the chaos of ordinary American life within a much more densely populated setting. But this does not seem to be a tenable long-term strategy.

Like most smooth-running machines, the global financial machine is vulnerable to slight upsets. It is resilient, in the sense that there will always be people who conduct trade and facilitate business; but its enjoyment of profit rather than loss frequently depends upon small margins and minuscule adjustments. All the calculations go out the window when serious upheaval unbalances the scales; and at present, upheaval is in the offing. Terrorism, the environment, the subprime crisis, the sudden fall of the dollar – these and other sources of radical change can easily alter the calculation to such an extent that many business people will pull in their horns and wait.

What seems increasingly likely, at present, is that the United States will experience what we will call a recession, but what will actually be part of a global readjustment that brings the circumstances of American consumers more in line with the circumstances of other people around the world. That is, we continue to move toward a situation in which we will have our haves, and we will have our have-nots; and except as alleviated by political intervention (e.g., socialized medicine), the have-nots will increasingly experience the living conditions and opportunities of have-nots elsewhere. Seen in this light, the financiers’ hope could be construed as a sense that, in this country as elsewhere, some will be saved for continued participation in the middle-class lifestyle, even if many must be lost. That is not at all a newly accepted sentiment on the financiers' part, but it may be more obvious in the future.

Global finance has been very good for many people for the short term. Over the longer term, however, more is taken than is given in the bargain. People should have homes, period, without regard to who profits from the arrangement. They should not be held under the 30-year threat of a mortgage, much less of a foreclosure. People should have health care. They should retain unspoiled access to the natural environment that has been with us for all of human existence. They should have clean water, period – even if that means that some businesspeople will not be able to create factories and to give all community residents daily exposure to carcinogens (along with the jobs that may be available, until economic circumstances change, to a fraction of the community’s residents). People should live in communities, period – not in isolated collections of competing residences designed and located so as to facilitate profits for homeowners, realtors, bankers, or employers.

Those, anyway, are the sorts of sentiments that tend to matter to people – especially to the have-nots, who are acutely aware of what they lack, and who do their best to reconstruct it in other terms as circumstances permit. A growing economy can be seen as a movement in its own right, one that succeeds as long as it resonates with enough people to keep it on track, and as long as it does not so seriously offend those whom it excludes as to inspire them to sabotage it. Beyond a certain point, however – as attested by the rise of armed criminal gangs and Iraqi suicide bombers – the human search for hope will drive people to seek out their own routes, authorized or not, toward something that they can consider an achievement.

It seems, in short, that we may be entering a period in which all sorts of financial assumptions – including some that have not been so good for us – are tested by many rapid changes around the world. It is entirely possible that increasing numbers of people will become, and remain, convinced of the superiority of business as usual. In that case, the testing of financial assumptions may yield only a relatively mild continuation of adjustment to new circumstances within the next several years.

It is also possible, however, that we are just at the start of an epochal transition, out of the American century into one that will be almost unrecognizably different, where the assumptions underlying American consumerism become radically rethought and retooled. Of course, business will (and should) seek to keep up with such changes. The point here is just that economic and consumerist forces (as we know them) may not be capable of accepting and adapting to the remarkably different attitudes that people of the future may have toward economic matters. To the extent that occurs, it may well develop that politics, religion, or other sources of power come to eclipse money as the guiding source of ideals by which people live their lives and direct their energies -- in which event "recession" will be an understatement and/or a misstatement of what develops.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Next Jewish Diaspora: Another Approach to Eretz Yisrael

Like other pieces posted in this blog, this is a speculative piece, based upon general reading, and offered for purposes of thought and discussion. The important thing, for me, is not so much to be right or wrong, as to express a viewpoint that seems to arise from my learning to date. As always, I welcome constructive comments.

* * * * *

The Jews were dispersed, we are told, in the first century A.D. Sometimes, in the following centuries, they enjoyed relatively comfortable and accepting circumstances in one or another of the countries of Europe; at other times, it was actually safer and more congenial for them to live in certain Muslim countries, or elsewhere.

The state of Israel was founded after World War II, to provide a home to which the people of the Jewish diaspora might return. There, those who did return planted and built. They revived their ancient language. They achieved many amazing successes, not least of which was the creation of a safe place in which, they hoped, they would never again have to fear an experience like that of the Nazi Holocaust.

For decades, based upon its own achievements, and with substantial aid from Jewish and Gentile sources in America and elsewhere, Israel vastly overmatched its neighbors in military and financial terms. To varying degrees, those neighbors seem to have resented the existence of Israel for assorted reasons, including general-purpose racial, cultural, socioeconomic, and/or religious hostility and specific anger at the taking of land on which Arab people had made their homes for a period of nearly two thousand years.

The effort to hold that land, and to safeguard the people, compelled governments and individuals, in Israel, to take steps that some found distasteful – that some even considered incompatible with the founding purposes of the state. There was arrogance and cruelty; there was callous disregard for the lives and fortunes of Arabs. There were stealings and displacements; there were murders and massacres. Israel became a nuclear power, surely not united in a desire to kill hundreds of thousands with the push of a button, but preferring and intending that outcome, if necessary, to maintain security.

Yet wolves remained at the door. Indeed, it seems the wolves have become stronger and more numerous. The Israeli soldier who would shoot a kid for throwing a stone at him may now find that someone out there is shooting back. As the years pass, Israel’s military opponents in the region continue to develop increasingly destructive capabilities. Technology continues its march. Regardless of what happens with Iran’s apparent efforts to develop nuclear weaponry, it does not appear possible to preclude forever the effective use of similar weapons. Ultimately, it seems likely that someone will find a way to employ a weapon of mass destruction in Tel Aviv.

There is a saying about putting all of your eggs in one basket. Paradoxically, it would seem unwise for Israel’s supporters to pour all of their resources into the preservation and enhancement of Israel, as that term is presently construed. Capital, once spent, cannot be retrieved and re-spent elsewhere, and that is as true of political and social capital as it is of the financial kind.

It would be unfortunate if, for example, numerous prominent world leaders and opinionmakers came to equate the cause of Israel, or its best ideals, and the historical circumstances and values of the Jewish people, with the worst excesses of a particular Israeli government. Usually, it seems, managers of famous brands recognize that those brands retain their value, not by cheapening them through wholehearted association with the worst of atrocities, but rather through distancing them from the occasional, inevitable excesses of having too much power, or of using one's power poorly.

That is, at some point it may seem prudent to convey the message that the land of Israel is but the manifestation of something more valuable and enduring. Such a message would facilitate continued support of the idea, even while the manifestation mutates or is revised to meet contingencies.

Obviously, millions of Israelis, and their supporters, are not just going to wake up one morning and say to themselves, “Hey, let’s forget this and try something else.” They will surely continue to insist upon putting on their brightest uniforms and marching in lockstep, like 18th-century British troops confronting ragged, relatively camouflaged American revolutionaries. Some lessons are learned and relearned the hard way.

But there may be some who are willing to consider that strategies of the diaspora, learned in the Middle Ages (and before) and still practiced by some non-Israeli Jews today, may represent the more practical long-term approach, in a world that may never fully accept them and that is, at present, not sufficiently dedicated to their possession of a homeland of their own. There surely are some, that is, who believe that the ideal time to make an investment is not when you want it to be the right time, nor even when it seems like it could possibly be the right time, but when you have reliable information that it definitely is the right time. And that is simply not an apt description of how things lie at present.

In this world, some achievements come about through perseverence and determination. Sometimes you have to push. But in other instances, the harder you push, the worse the problem becomes.

If I recall correctly, there was a lot of talk about Eretz Yisrael – about recreating or recovering the entire Kingdom of David, in a modern-day Greater Israel – around the time when Menachem Begin was in power. My impression is that the tide has gone out. I don’t hear so much talk along those lines anymore. It seems to be more broadly recognized that, within our lifetimes, the state of Israel is not going to control much more territory than it does now.

But there may be another way. For example, it is commonly noted that many Jewish people have achieved statuses of wealth, power, and success in the United States. They did not achieve this by coming here and fighting a war against the Christian majority. It does not seem likely that they will ever develop and achieve a plan for making this a Jewish nation; then again, perhaps that is not necessary. Without the assistance of any such plan, millions of American Christians have voluntarily gravitated toward the idea that theirs is a Judeo-Christian heritage. And I have to guess that the acreage owned by Jews in the U.S. surely exceeds that owned by those in Israel.

In response to the Holocaust, the postwar generation of Jews vowed, “Never again.” There was a certain naivete in that, insofar as it implied that they would succeed where their ancestors had failed. Of course there will again be persecutions of Jews, just as there will be persecutions of other minorities – more so in the case of Jews, perhaps, because often they manage to stand out.

A future generation of Jews – responding in less knee-jerk fashion to the experiences of the Holocaust and of other persecutions, past and prospective – may reflect that they can best contribute to a Greater Israel, wherever located and however constituted, by taking an approach that is not military, not geopolitical, not racist, and otherwise not such a visible and (to many) objectionable target. Why create enemies, and why persuade them to band together against you? It makes no sense, not when you have alternatives.

It seems that there could be alternatives, at least for purposes of speculative discussion. If aboriginal peoples of North America are able to obtain recognition as legitimate tribes and nations in their own right, for instance, then native semites of the Middle East may someday be able to petition for meaningful recognition of their own right to govern themselves. Granted, the Navajos are not permitted to own nuclear weapons; but they do not seem to need them. Their reconquest by the United States Army is virtually unthinkable now. Or, in a different scenario, there may someday be general public acceptance, throughout the United States of Arabia, of one’s Judeo-Islamic heritage. Or if nobody knows or cares whether people of Norwegian extraction may have quietly acquired large contiguous landholdings in the north-central U.S., then perhaps someday nobody will really care if a bunch of Jews have bought up a chunk of the Mediterranean coastline, in the interests of creating their own version of a cultural theme park.

Such speculative developments could take centuries. Again, though, which is better: to invest all of one’s fortune right away, acquiring vast lowland holdings just before the hurricane, or to bide one’s time and make the very best of one’s resources toward a sustainable outcome?

Again, many are committed to Israel as they presently conceive it. To the extent that they get around to reading these words, they may hate me for saying them. One hopes, though, that some policymakers think long and hard about where this road leads. Things look rather scary for Israel now, and trends in weaponry are not favorable.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

I Will Never Visit My Parents Again

This item has been moved to another blog.

We Birds of Autumn Must Fly Together

In July 2002, my ex-wife told me she wanted a divorce. The following months were the hardest time of my life. But in those months, as I was attempting to regroup and to start a new life, I noticed an interesting dynamic among my friends. Starting almost immediately, I had the support of three friends in particular. One was a roommate. He and I would have these conversations about the whole thing, standing in the kitchen or hanging out in the living room, that would go on for an hour or more. The other two were in touch by e-mail -- one, all the way from New Zealand. I leaned on them, and they were there for me. And then, after two or three weeks, they were done. They had processed the thing; they had worked through my divorce with me, in their minds. They saw how it was going to work out, and that was pretty much the end of it, as far as they were concerned. Now they were ready for me to be done with it too; and when I did not work through it as quickly as they did, they lost patience with me. Within a few more weeks, our conversations had pretty much petered out. There just didn't seem to be anything more to talk about, that we hadn't already exhausted. Those three, incidentally, were all born in the summer months. Two were born in June, and one was born in July. That doesn't exactly coincide with the sign of Gemini, the twin, but they sure did act like Gemini. The switch was thrown; the change was made. What's noteworthy about that was that then I moved into the range of interest of three other friends. The more I analyzed and examined the whys and wherefores of what had gone into my divorce, and what was coming out of it, the more interesting the whole thing became to these three other people. For them, patience was not an issue. Things like, we understood, need time to ferment. One must turn them over, again and again, before one can claim to have real knowledge of them. The birthdays of these three people were all between mid-September and late October. Again, this does not precisely coincide with the sign of Libra (my own birthday is October 12). But that's OK with me. I am not too interested in proving that astrology is valid. I would say it's probably not. But then, and on other occasions, I had noticed these remarkable coincidences in birthdates, and had thought that there probably were worthwhile similarities of some sort, somewhere in the mix. Thus, the birthday of the woman who was possibly my best match ever, whom I dated for more than two years in the mid-1980s, was October 15; but the birthdays of my two ex-wives both fall in the second week of April, five days apart from one another and almost exactly one-half year away from mine. Moreover, almost everyone acquainted with or related to the second ex-wife (the one who divorced me in 2002) was born between late January and June, while almost everyone on my side of the family was born between September and January. The main exceptions: her father was born in July, very nearly a half-year away from her mother's December 31 birthday. I don't really know what, if any, combinations of climate, nurture, or whatever would account for such patterns. I'm sure the matter has been studied. At some point, I would like to look into that. It is interesting. I would like to know whether, when I meet someone who just doesn't get it, just doesn't understand a perspective I am trying to present -- I would like to know whether that person was born in late winter or early spring. What raises the thought today is that, as in autumn 2002, I am going through a major change experience. Now, as then, I have lost someone who was a central member of my family. I don't know if these things are somehow destined to happen to me in autumn. Nor do I know whether these things, when they do happen in autumn, are especially likely to intrigue people with autumn birthdays. But what I am experiencing, once again, is that the three people in my daily life who are presently most supportive -- no, I should say, the three who seem most oriented toward engagement with the details and nuances of the experience -- are persons who have birthdays between mid-September and late October. This, as I say, is a matter of curiosity. I cannot help wondering, though, what it would be like to be a member of a club, or a neighborhood, or a political party, where everyone was born about the same time. Can you imagine? "When? Oh, February. No, you can't rent here. We don't have too much space for your kind here. You'll have to go over by 14th and Walnut and see what's available over there. Sorry!" We would have block parties, and everyone would be so very much in tune with one another. But we would always make sure to invite a few people from, like, May and July, and they would really tend to stand out. We would notice how they walked, how they conversed, what they thought was funny or interesting. They would be like the token black guy who becomes the center of attention -- the comedian, or the musician, or the cool & reserved sophisticate -- at an otherwise all-white party. Until I get around to finding the scientific research behind this, it will remain a matter of mere curiosity. There seems to be some commonality, of some sort, between me and other babes of fall. Or at least among some of us. What that commonality might be, or why, I cannot say. But I am glad for that sense of unity nonetheless. It is edifying.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Anticipating the Funeral: How Should I Feel?

I have been a bit at a loss, wondering how I am supposed to feel and what I am supposed to do these days, in response to the news that Dad has died. In these days – really, in the months since I first recognized that his demise was imminent – I’ve been considering different possibilities. Some of my thinking has been conscious and directed; and some, as I now realize, has been going on more surreptitiously, without my complete awareness.

There are some social boundaries. I would not be welcomed to whoop and cheer Dad’s death in public, even if I were so inclined; and on the other extreme, it would raise eyebrows (especially among those who are familiar with the facts) if I erupted into uncontrollable weeping. Likewise, in my role as a son of the deceased, it behooves me to be present at the funeral, but it might be unseemly for me to convert it into an event about myself, or about something other than Dad – if, for instance, I were to deliver a Mark Antony-style funeral oration: “Friends, Romans, countrymen ...”

I rarely saw Dad mix well in an environment like that of the funeral home, so it’s not easy for me to say what role he would prefer for me if he were alive. Often, in his photos at important events (including joyous ones, such as weddings), his face bears a remarkably serious expression. I think he was always afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing – which, if that’s accurate, was a fear hard-earned, as I can testify in the wake of his ”Sieg Heil!” greeting to the parents of my Jewish ex-wife. He really could be remarkably inept in social settings, and I have to guess that, at some point, he became aware of that and lurched to the opposite extreme; hence the somber mien in those photos.

If it weren’t such a serious occasion – if, say, you took those same people in roughly those same Sunday-best clothes and transported them to someone’s parlor for a little after-church get-together – then maybe he would relax somewhat, though I’m still not sure he would be at his ease in anything other than normal everyday duds. I don’t know for a fact that he would actually prefer me to walk into the funeral home, proceed quietly to the casket, and then take a seat and, at most, exchange a few words sotto voce with someone seated at my elbow; but that is surely what he would do, at least until given clear license to loosen up.

The gist of those observations, I guess, is that Dad considered a funeral to be a place where one would have one’s thoughts about the deceased, whether positive, negative, or mixed, and perhaps would share those thoughts at most with a few people at the time, and perhaps more freely with others later. But I did not personally observe Dad in any instances in which he occupied a special position vis-à-vis the deceased, where he would be more than just one among the many who had come to pay their respects. Thus, as in so many things, Dad’s example here leaves a lot of latitude for me to try to figure it out on my own.

Much of the matter, of course, will be decided by those around me. If people at the funeral home, or afterwards, happen to segue into a festive mood of recollection, banter, and story-telling, then I will likely join in on that to some extent. But I don’t know that I have ever seen such a thing at an Indiana funeral, never mind a Lutheran Indiana funeral. So I think we are probably doomed, at least at the event itself, to recreate the very kind of setting that would have made Dad himself most uncomfortable.

All of this, so far, has had to do merely with the way in which I conduct myself at the funeral. That, I am concluding, seems to be almost set in stone.

There are also some larger and more enduring questions of how I will think and have thought about Dad, and how I will live and have lived my life in response to his. Those are too complex to trace out here. There is, however, the remaining question of what my thoughts should be, at least during the next couple of days; and I now see that, while I began this post with the intent of contemplating that question, I was perhaps necessarily subverted into the relatively tedious question of demeanor on the occasion.

Or maybe that is a reflection of how Dad raised me to think of death; maybe I am drawn to its formalities because I learned, to some extent, to underestimate its immensity. My mentor in this matter was the kind of man who would essentially discard a son – sons, I should say – who were inconvenient to him. He would shoot a bird or wring an animal’s neck without a second thought. It was Dad – speaking of his wartime experience, I assume – who casually commented that it bothers you, the first time you kill someone, but then it's not as bad after that.

It was not that he liked to kill. He took care to distinguish those who, in his observation from the military, were of that type, and I think the distinction was genuine. It was just that death was a casual fact for him. He was always prepared for it – I am sure he was always among the most life-insured, will-witnessed, power-of-attorney-signed people in his entire neighborhood. There was, I think, a certain depressing awareness of mortality in our household, greater than in most, owing partly to this outlook of his (and Mom’s), and partly to our proximity to the cemetery, which we mowed and maintained in various ways over the years. Life was not cheap for us, as if we had lived in the Wild West; but death was certainly a known companion throughout.

As I ponder it in this light, it seems to me that Dad must be in the top five percent of those who manage a nearly seamless transition from life into death. He lived a remarkably long time, and he phased almost imperceptibly from the sometimes unintelligible bluster of his younger years to the growingly inscrutable babble of his decrepitude. I would have to say that he ceased to be clearly and vitally alive some months or years before his medical caretakers finally wrung the last breath out of him. Notwithstanding the sterile limits of what one can achieve in writing, he will be more alive in the minds of those who knew him, as they read his book in the months and years to come, than he has been, in the flesh, for quite some time.

I, myself, have been talking and thinking of Dad as a sort of zombie for a long while now. I have been proceeding, that is, as though I were referring to someone who had already died, given how completely irrelevant and removed from the world he had become. It has seemed to be a reasonable mindset. When your father no longer recognizes you, nor remembers places that were dearest to his heart, then you have to realize that something has changed forever.

So I have long since shed some tears about it. For Dad, opportunity – of the familial kind, especially, but of other kinds as well – was a light-footed adversary, capable of spitting in his eye and then dancing away before he could grasp it. He just never seemed to see it coming. Not to say that he did not have some important successes; he did. And often enough, he knew a bargain when he saw it. But the big-ticket items, the things that make a great life or family or fortune, these were forever the property of someone else. So, as I say, it has been a while since I cried out and dealt with frustration and surrender, with acknowledgment that the game was pretty much up and that there was not going to be a lot more progress in important things, as far as he was concerned.

What I conclude, at the end of this hour of contemplation, is that Dad’s funeral comes at the most natural and yet unnatural time. Naturally, he was winding down and finally expired. If he could have been embalmed and put on a shelf somewhere, though, I think I would have appreciated six months, maybe, or two or three years, before coming to a reckoning in the company of so many who knew him.

At the moment, it seems to me, our perspectives are distorted by the immediacy of his recent incapacity. We are not thinking clearly of Roger Woodcock as the man that he was for six or seven decades. If we had a year to get over that short-term impression of an old man, falling apart in a wheelchair, and to rediscover our more enduring conception of him, I think we would likely have had a more edifying and instructive funereal experience.

Since that is not an option – since we are obliged to stick him in the ground and begin to forget him almost immediately – I guess my conclusion has to be that there is no clear thing I should be thinking or feeling, and no definitive way in which I should be acting, between now and Friday. It is all too much, too soon. I will show up; I will probably see some people whom I have not seen in some years; I will hear many kind words. Most likely, I will spend some time thereafter juggling thoughts of gratitude and recollection, and also of hypocrisy and irony in some of those kind words, given the ways in which Dad inspired or provoked people and vice versa. Certainly it could be interesting.

What I should seek from this hasty and relatively brief processing of a man’s entire life, I guess, is just to gather information, in a researcher’s sense: to keep my own personality out of it, to the extent possible, and to acquire additional perspectives on the person whose day this funeral day will be. The conclusion, then, may be that it would be somewhat presumptuous for me to think that my own mental and emotional baggage, this Friday, will be important or even particularly relevant. This is Dad’s day. It is one of his biggest, even if he is not experiencing it as a living soul, and it will also be, for most of those present, his last.

And now, as I consider it a bit more, there is one more angle worth articulating. If this were my day, I would hope my friends and family would make it a great one for me. Like a politician at a rally, I would want to be pumped up and energized by the cheers and hopes of those who are looking to me for clues. This is not a day for dealing with all the dirt I have swept under the rug. It will have to be dealt with, I know; and I know, too, that there will be some present at the event who will not be able to resist dragging it out on the spot. As an overarching theme, though, without going to the extremes of exaggeration and outright distortion, I would think that this is a time for my best foot to be forward. I would want people to come away from this event with a feeling of hope, with a sense that something important has been achieved.

Roger Woodcock undeniably achieved important things. I know about some of them. Without waiving my right to revisit the full tally of debits and credits, in detail, at a later time, possibly I had better err, this Friday, on the side of blowing a trumpet on his behalf. He was a terribly flawed yet, in many ways, a terribly good man, and I should say so. Or so it seems to me now.

Transitions in Death

This item has been moved to my ideas blog.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Veterans Day

I have never been too interested in Veterans Day. I think we can blame some of that on the state of affairs in our household when I was a teenager. Dad was among the worst right-wing idiots on the subject of the Vietnam War. He never did quite catch on that the hippies, peaceniks, and protesters were right – that we were wasting tens of thousands of American lives on a struggle that would not have begun if the French had not colonized Southeast Asia, which they had no right to do; if President Johnson had not lied to the American people about the events of Tonkin Gulf; if corporate money in America had not been so terrified of anything resembling socialism. We got a horrendous backlash on all points – in the socialistic steps of LBJ’s Great Society, for instance, and in riots and the growth of factions promoting violent overthrow of our government.

If we were going to fight in Vietnam, we should have fought to win. Otherwise, we should never have started. Same thing in Iraq. I see these generals making a hash of things – not counting Petraeus, who seems to be playing a bad hand very well – and I think Veterans Day is one more occasion when those who send kids (but not their own!) to die can pretend that they really do realize it is a matter of life and death. So when Dad would hold forth on his ideas (e.g., that we should just line up the peace protesters and shoot them), I think it was understandable that I would not merely reject his views, but would to some extent reject the American military too. It seemed to me that he did not understand what America was all about. I wanted no part of him and his Army, and I had some justification for that attitude.

But today, on this Veterans Day 2007, I am willing to make an exception. The immediate reason is that I just watched a tear-jerking Veterans Day commemoration video. A related reason is that Dad died two days ago, and he was a dad for whom few things in life were as important as the years that he spent in the military.

There is no denying that the miliary is what keeps the country safe. The military has been the vehicle of horrible and atrocious behavior, from the war with Mexico to My Lai to Abu Ghraib; but this is what you get – it is what all armies get, at some point or other – when you train people to kill and destroy. It’s awful stuff to learn how to do, and it needs to cease as soon as there is no longer a threat that other people want to do the same to you. The military’s excesses may stoke that desire on their part, and that prospect needs intensive attention; but there are always going to be freeloaders, abusers, and megalomaniacs who will think that subjugating the people of another country is a fine idea.

This morning, I went for a run in the park. I felt wonderful. It’s because I got eight or nine hours of sleep; and I did that, I think, because I was just worn out at the end of the day yesterday. I can’t say that Dad’s death was the sole reason, but it was clearly a weight that I carried with me for the day. Today, some things seemed to have fallen into place.

It was fitting that I went on that run, and that I felt wonderful doing so, because the Army was not Dad’s only preoccupation. His book, which I have been annotating for some time, is a testament to his years in World War II, but also to his years in the Civilian Conservation Corps. As a CCCer, he planted trees and, as I was thinking on my run this morning, he helped to build a state park somewhat like the place I was running in. He loved trees; and while his taste in books did tend toward warfare and historical battles, his behavior over the past 50 years was much rather in the direction of CCCish trees, stonework, and parks.

Dad fought in a war. The Army impressed him because, I think, it told him exactly where he stood. There were (to him, anyway) none of the picayune, Byzantine politics and innuendoes that would so often ensnare him in civilian life; he was free just to be a man, as he understood the term: to destroy things, to run over things that got in the way, to replace them with the things he preferred, and to build on that basis. In that sense, for him the best of civilian life (both in the CCC and after the war) was that which allowed him to just bust in, ram ahead, and get it done.

So he built a park; he cut trees; he grew and trimmed trees; he took the family on vacations, predominantly to national parks; and he built a home, insofar as he was able to construct a sense of what that might mean, that was surrounded on all sides by sawdust, wood blocks, gardens, trees, bees, stonework, raspberry vines, flowers, and grass, laid out in the way he wished. There, he found a refuge from the outside world, for which he shared a passion with his wife for some 55 years, until they finally gave it up as requiring more work than they could manage in their old age.

In those regards, the house and the war against Japan ran together. There were these outside forces that needed to be repelled, mostly by blood and steel, and there was a vision of better things, done in the American way, that could be constructed on a new beginning. For while I fault Dad’s book as focusing overmuch on his wartime years, as though that were the main thing in his life, I also recognize, within that focus, a preference for telling about the positive, helpful things that one can do within the hell of war. One can pour sulpha into the wound on the leg of a prisoner of war; one can have a conversation with a Japanese person, even though one will be unable to stomach dinner in a Japanese restaurant a half-century later.

Those GIs who gave chewing gum to kids in WWII, who are now embarked on armed social work in Afghanistan and elsewhere, were not originally there to be nice. But they discovered, as Dad did, that the larger purpose behind war is peace. You can train your soldiers to kill, but you cannot necessarily prevent them from crossing the lines to join the Germans in singing hymns on Christmas Eve. I saw some research, recently, in which they seemed to have found that an unbelievable number of soldiers will not be able to make themselves shoot straight at the enemy, even when their failure to do so leads to their own death. We may have an image of what war is, but it ain’t always what it’s supposed to be, and it wasn’t with Dad either.

So my dad built a park, fought a war, built a home, and nursed his trees. I resisted against a war, left that home, and, this morning, ran in a park that someone, probably someone like him, built. I can’t quite piece together all the threads that run in and out, among such observations. But I can tell you that I felt great on my run; that I am aware it is Veterans Day; and that I am sorry for what the world’s veterans have had to experience, and am glad for what they have been able to achieve nonetheless. I am sorry they have had to shoot at each other, and I am glad for all the times when their shots have missed. That may not be a suitably morose reaction from someone whose father has died, nor is it a very rah-rah kind of Veterans Day sentiment. But I can’t help that. That's just the way it seems to me.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Speculation on Mass Relocation in the U.S.

This is another speculative piece. I haven't researched it. It's based on general reading. It may be entirely mistaken. The purpose of posting it is to advance thinking on the subject, for me and for anyone else who may read it. * * * * * Water is becoming increasingly scarce in large sections of the country. There are no immediately obvious signs that this trend will reverse in the foreseeable future. Desalination of ocean water could make a substantial difference at some point, but I understand that process is energy-intensive, the plants have not yet begun to be constructed, it is not clear how much that water would cost or how much would be available, and generally that solution is years away. The U.S. population continues to grow, from births and from immigration. Much of that growth occurs in places like Los Angeles. The present impression is that, at some point, water supply will fall short of water demand. There will be some hardships. Those will tend to fall especially on those who cannot arrange filtration, bottling, or other sources of water. Hurricane Katrina seemed to say that poor people will stay where they are, to some large extent, even if doing so will cost them their lives. It is not likely that the entire populations of L.A. slums, barrios, and ghettos will pack up and leave town. But for some lower-income families, greener parts of the country will seem very, very appealing, just as they do for a Chinese friend who views this greenery with eyes that have seen large quantities of barrenness and environmental degradation in her home country. L.A. generally is said to be due for a substantial correction in real estate prices. It is not clear what will happen to those who then find themselves upside down, financially speaking. Some of them will become renters and, as such, will be more mobile. Given the growing odds of a recession, it is not clear whether, or when, large numbers of these people will once again be buying real estate in southern California. They, too -- these members of the middle class -- may find themselves going elsewhere. In short, these forces -- water shortage, real estate price correction, recession -- may augur some migration of lower- and middle-income workers away from previous high-growth places like southern California (along with other western cities, e.g., Phoenix, Las Vegas). It appears possible, then, that other cities will import some of the problems that places like L.A. have experienced in recent years. Cities to the north and east may increasingly experience a different and more shocking kind of crime, for example, and a corresponding increase in police brutality. Population pressures already exist in those other places: many already have their own water concerns, for example, and many will be struggling to find jobs for the people who are already there. A large migration is possible, though of course not certain; and if it did occur, one could expect some locals to put up legal and informal barriers against out-of-towners. As an example of an informal barrier, some communities (in e.g., the Midwest) could witness a revival of the Ku Klux Klan, based upon fear of a perceived threat posed by incoming black or Hispanic people. There was something of an exodus from southern California in the 1980s, based (if memory serves) upon a reversal in the housing market. In that instance, it seemed that transplants went especially to the Pacific Northwest and to Denver, though they also populated previously remote patches in places like Idaho and Montana. That exodus may predict, to some extent, what would happen this time around. But prices are not as low (in some of those northern locations) and water supplies are not as reliable (in e.g., Denver) as they were a quarter-century ago. Sooner or later, if trends continue, water (and perhaps financial) pressures may scoot people along, either to the Northwest or to the Midwest. People who have been burned by real estate investments, and who perhaps bear the scars on their credit ratings, may not be in a position to bid up real estate to its former levels for quite some time. Even if they were so inclined, they may lack the means. In the present time of tightening credit, it appears that it will be many years before lenders return to their previous liberal attitude toward supplying mortgages. Again, water is an issue, and as I commented previously, so is the ability of municipalities to keep the basic services coming. So it appears that there may be more demand for rental property than for ownership, for some time. That demand may be increased if people become more concerned about retaining mobility -- about not being financially trapped again in, say, a house in San Diego or a condo in Tucson. The concept of home ownership could thus, conceivably, be entering a period of long-term revision. Depending on how things shake out, it could be decades before the general public re-embraces the notion that it is normal, natural, sensible, and affordable to buy a house. That notion is still very much rooted in our culture, and it would take a lot to shake it; but the forces in motion now are so monumental as to pose that kind of possibility. You really cannot have the American Dream without water. And if that notion does get shaken, then some fundamental assumptions about life in the U.S. will be in flux. Do I expect this? Eventually, yes, of course, in some form. India is a case study in how far population growth can go, and how far the people of a nation can go in endorsing extremes of wealth and poverty. The U.S. is not India, obviously. But it presently appears that extremes of wealth are accepted in the United States, and that they are influential in manipulating the government and the media, and generally in creating conditions for their own expansion. We will have substantially more people in the future, and we will keep on having them. We will have them at an accelerating rate, I would expect, if the affordabilty of a good education becomes increasingly problematic for the people who live here -- if, that is, education in the future serves less of its traditional role in mitigating birth rates. There is just not enough water. (And, eventually, there will not be enough affordable food, for all these people. If we are able to convert food to fuel while people in Africa are starving, eventually we will be able to do something of that nature while people in the U.S. are starving -- as, indeed, some already are). It will surely not all turn out precisely this way. This has been a merely speculative piece. Its gist is that there are forces at work, pertaining to the economy and also to resources like water, that seem likely to encourage migration of large numbers of people away from some cities toward others; and that if such migrations do occur, they will have their own consequences on such things as attitudes toward race (in some places, at least) and on the sort of dwelling that a sensible person will be inclined to seek.