Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas 2011

We sit in a circle, thirteen of us, pulling little gifts out of stockings on Christmas morning. Every few moments, someone screams with delight about a wonderful, or wonderfully silly, present. A jar of homemade jam, an Adlai Stevenson campaign pin, a necklace of sparkling lights, a bag of Twizzlers. I get a pen made from spalted sycamore and a pair of gardening gloves. My daughter gives a photograph of her and her boyfriend to her grandmother.

We each fill a stocking for a family member, whose likes and dislikes, and sense of humor, we know well. My job is important: doing the stocking of my niece's fiancé Carl, as he becomes a member of the family. He gets some small tools and a plant, along with a batch of Captain America window stickers, with the motto "Peace and Justice".

After some breakfast, the presents start coming out from under the tree. My youngest niece Jane has been distributing for years, although this year she disdains the Santa hat (she is 25). She thinks ahead, so that we all keep opening until the presents are gone. Around the circle we go, one gift at a time, sharing the receiving and admiring the giving.

My sister-in-law Ann gives her husband a Vega Little Wonder banjo, the same model as her grandfather's banjo. He begins plucking it right away, giving us musical accompaniment all day.

Even as the younger members of the family send Twitter messages to each other and tell Siri in their IPhones what to do, more traditional gifts are exchanged. As always, there are many solid, ink-on-paper books: murder mysteries, political treatises, cookbooks, novels new and old. This year pottery is also a theme, with handmade bowls in rainbow colors circling the group.

Many "gifts" are donations to favorite causes: Doctors Without Borders, the Metropolitan Opera, Take Action Minnesota, OutFront Minnesota (promotes equality for people who are not heterosexual), Heifer International, Fisher House Foundation (provides housing for family of wounded soldiers during hospital treatment). This is a liberal family, which believes in equal treatment for everyone.

Ann gives her sisters and mother a book entitled "Loving Someone Who Has Dementia" to help them all deal with their father and husband, who can no longer participate in Christmas.

I get a chain saw from Liz, my wife. I don't have a truck or a riding mower, but now I own my first chain saw. I can go outside, start a gas engine, cut big things down, and make a lot of noise. I give her an antique mixing bowl. She doesn't have to do the cooking because she's a woman, while I do the manly things. But we are very happy with our gifts.

At the end of the day, we light Hanukkah candles and sing the Hebrew blessing, just as it has been sung for centuries.

There are lots of presents, certainly more than necessary, probably more than we should have bought or received. All of us have good jobs and enough money to indulge ourselves and each other. That makes us lucky this year, and any year. Lucky to have enough, lucky to be healthy, lucky to have each other every day to rely upon. The things are nice and we will wear them and read them and use them in memory of this day of family togetherness. Eventually they will break or wear out, be put in a closet or handed down to another generation. The love will be there year after year, encompassing new family members, mourning those who have left us, keeping us together.

Our traditions fit us well, even as they keep changing to fit an evolving family. We gave up the tomato aspic and chipped beef on toast. Most meals are now vegetarian. I look forward to our family Christmas all year, seeking gifts for each relative when I travel, planning with my children what to give to my wife, anticipating sitting in a circle with people I love.

Every family celebrates this holiday season in a different way. I hope that your celebration, whatever your traditions, was joyous and loving. If we respect each other's very different customs while celebrating our own, and spread the love beyond our small circle of family, perhaps the spirit of the season, which is not restricted to one religious observance, but is about universal love and charity, will spread beyond this one day.

Captain America and I wish everyone peace and justice, the greatest gifts of all.

Steve Hochstadt
Minneapolis, MN
December 25, 2011

Monday, December 19, 2011

Someone is Watching You

People say that Santa knows who’s been naughty or nice. I’m not so sure.

I don’t think there’s any rhyme or reason to the goodies that Santa gives out. Lately it seems that the least deserving people, the people who already had a lot and then made a lot more while screwing up the economy for the rest of us, have been getting the biggest Christmas bonuses.

Maybe it’s best that Santa doesn’t know so much about us. Even jolly old St. Nick might be seduced by such knowledge, withholding gifts from some people and playing favorites with others, taking bribes, making threats. Pretty soon the North Pole would be overrun with lobbyists, pursuing their own special interests. The elves might break into political parties: Better Goodies for the Good versus the North Pole Equality Party. Lobbyists plus parties mean corruption.

Any systematic peeking into our daily behavior, combined with collecting data about our personal beliefs and desires, would threaten our freedom. We must always be vigilant that government does not spy on us, as it did so broadly in the 1960s, and as the Patriot Act continues to allow today. But we are worrying about the wrong snoopers. Right now we are being spied upon on a grand scale unimaginable a few years ago. Not by the government, but by the real Big Brother, Big Brother Computing.

Facebook collects information about what its 800 million members are doing on their computers, even when they are not on Facebook. The “like” and “recommend” buttons on countless other websites act like little cameras, even if you don’t click on them, recording what you do and sending that information back to Facebook Central.

Until they were caught doing it about a year ago, Facebook collected information from everyone this way, whether they were a member of Facebook or not. Facebook stopped only when this became public knowledge, saying it was a “bug”. That’s for sure – it was a like a billion bugged phones all over the world, listening in on people’s lives.

Actually the “bugs” of Big Brother Computing are far more sophisticated than the little devices that spies put on each other’s phones. I discovered that the first time I tried to use Windows Media Player (WMP), after the newest version of Microsoft’s operating system was installed on my computer. Microsoft recommended that I “Make Windows Media Player the default program for playing media, automatically download usage rights and media information to update your media files, and send usage data from the Player to Microsoft.”

Here is what that means, according to Microsoft’s own “Privacy Statement”. Under the guise of bringing “you the performance, power and convenience you desire in your personal computing,” WMP records “what you play and how often you play it,” among lots of other personal information. Then information from WMP “may be combined with information obtained through other Microsoft Services.” It is all shared among Microsoft’s “subsidiaries and affiliates”, and stored and processed in “any country in which Microsoft or its affiliates, subsidiaries, or service providers maintain facilities.” Your personal information, collected each time you get online, is spread all over the world. Your computer becomes an extension of the Microsoft Empire. It sends them information about what you do and they put information that they create on your computer.

Facebook is even more clever: it not only knows what you do, but what you look like. Facebook has become adept at recognizing faces. If you post a photograph to your page, Facebook will compare the faces on it to its vast storehouse of data, enabling it to “suggest” identities for the people it recognizes. Depending on what the photographs show, Facebook might well know if you’ve been naughty or nice.

The volume of data that Facebook and Microsoft collect would have been unthinkable before recent advances in computer technology. Unprecedented numbers of computers all over the world rummage through gazillions of data bits at unprecedented speed to figure out what you are playing, who is in your photographs, what you have bought, whom you correspond with.

Google might be the world’s spymaster. Google also has +1 buttons that watch our internet activities. Through its “free” gmail program, Google reads the content of your emails, looking for keywords that it can link to ads which will be displayed on your screen. Through photographs of every street, through control of millions of gmail accounts, through YouTube, and through the new services that are constantly being offered, Google can put together in one dossier your name, address, phone numbers, email traffic, and video watching. Google Health will store all of your medical records, prescriptions, and test results in one convenient place. Convenient for you and convenient for them.

Google and the others are just trying to make money. They use your information to sell you goods more efficiently, or they sell the information to others. They promise not to abuse your privacy. But they already have. “Bugs” in their systems, inadvertent releases of data, the possibility of hacking, and most dangerous of all, their greed, have made privacy a thing of the past.

So you better be good.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, December 20, 2011

Monday, December 12, 2011

Who’s the Scrooge?

I have two friends whose families are going through hard times. Unemployment, illness, and new babies are individually a challenge to any family. Together they can strain a family’s financial and psychological resources past the breaking point.

My friends take their work seriously and consistently put in their best efforts. They do not need lessons in how to work. They need some real help. They could use a safety net.

The economic safety net, to catch families who encounter problems beyond their resources and then to bounce them back on their feet, is a modern invention. European monarchies created property systems to provide cheap labor to wealthy landowners and political systems to protect the rich, in which the poor had no voice. So millions moved to the New World.

American democracy was designed to promote more fairness: “All men are created equal.” But the political democracy of the Founders was not enough. All men and women were not born with equal chances. In 19th-century America, riches and poverty were considered judgments of God and thus the poor were undeserving. Slavery, prejudice against ethnic minorities, child labor in factories, and systematic discrimination against women were all pieces of the more general rigging of the American economic and social system in favor of the rich, against the poor. The minority who escaped poverty proved that the majority deserved it.

In the 20th century, Americans changed our laws to create an economic and social safety net. Social Security and unemployment insurance in the 1930s, and Medicare in the 1960s were elements of an evolving structure, which offered public help to those without resources. The safety net represents an American consensus that the poor deserve systematic public assistance, not just individual charity. This expression of social solidarity is a statement about American values.

Lately prominent political voices argue that we must take apart the safety net. The calls to flatten the income tax, to eliminate welfare payments, and to repeal regulation of industry are about going back to an earlier America, where the rich and powerful could use their advantages without hindrance. Behind these destructive policies lurk the uncharitable beliefs about the poor that all modern nations have left behind: the poor are lazy and shiftless, don’t know the meaning of work, have frivolous ambitions, depend on handouts, will never amount to anything.

These political leaders don’t like the newly compassionate America. They disdain people who have less than they do. They think the riches of our nation belong to them and their well-connected friends. They offer nothing to my friends.

I admire the way my friends keep going, keep smiling, and keep working. Their burdens are neither kept secret nor broadcast in public. They are shouldered, not avoided or passed onto others.

Are their burdens my burdens, too? I can choose my answer. Are they our burdens? We choose our answer together. Those answers are signs of our friendship, our compassion, and our values.

If we take care of our family members, we do no extraordinary thing. We do what Americans rightly expect family to mean in a good society.

If we take on our friends’ burdens, offer some help, even if not much, we do a less common thing. Americans place a high value on such offers, and offer praise to those who give.

What about a stranger’s burden? What about all those people you haven’t met and never will, who suffer more than you know, who happen to have no relatives or friends with the resources to help? Outside of the drug store, the Salvation Army volunteer rings a bell: “Won’t you give a few coins to help people you don’t know?” Our religions powerfully demand that we help those in need near and far, that we not tailor our compassion to our self-interest.

What kind of family member one is, what kind of friend one is, and what kind of society we are all come from our answers to these questions. If our state, the only organization to which we all belong, in which we all have an equal vote, is not compassionate, if it caters to those with wealth and power, but does not care for those with too little, then how can we pose as an exceptional nation? Among wealthy nations we would be exceptionally hard-hearted.

It is ironic that the public defenders of Christmas have waged a war on the moral value of public compassion, have offered so little to those with little, except condescension. They expound theories to prove that those who have much deserve it all, that their good fortune is our collective salvation, and the rest should just work harder. For them, a “bleeding heart” is a weakness.

If your family has run into hard times, if your unemployment insurance has run out, if your baby does not have health insurance, if there’s never quite enough food on the table, the defenders of Christmas have a message for you.

From the Mitt Romney family, the Newt Gingrich family, the John Boehner family, and all their friends, the warmest Christmas wishes for a happy holidays. They made it, and so can you. As a token of their own values, they’ll make sure that Santa leaves a mop under your tree.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, December 13, 2011

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Herman Cain is No More

Herman Cain is no longer a candidate for President. First accusations of serial harassment of women. Then a 13-year affair, involving travel and money and midnight phone calls concealed from his wife. Cain’s claims that people are out to get him, from the left or from the right, convinced nobody. He got himself.

But Herman Cain was never a viable candidate. Even if he had been a model husband, Cain should never have been discussed seriously as a possible President.

Herman Cain worked himself up from poverty to enormous wealth, he was hired by a national organization to lobby their interests, and he became a popular spokesman for conservative causes. Those successes are admirable, but not sufficient qualifications to be President.

An American President must understand business and the economy. The most immediate issues facing our nation right now are macro-economic: increasing poverty and inequality; persistent unemployment; an unwieldy tax system; uncertainties about investing; global competition; a housing crisis. No simple plan will be sufficient to deal with the complex, interrelated issues of our changing world economy.

Cain never showed any ability to oversee a national economy. The utter simplicity of Cain’s “9-9-9” economic plan attracted a lot of attention. But he didn’t understand his own plan. When he talked in October with MSNBC’s Chuck Todd about it, Cain produced nonsense. He said about a family of 4 with an income of $50,000, “Today under the current system, they will pay over $10,000 in taxes assuming standard deductions and standard exemptions.”

In fact, using those assumptions, such a family would pay under $800 in income taxes, and about $3800 in payroll taxes, under normal circumstances. Since the SS withholding tax rate has been temporarily lowered from 6.2% to 4.2%, that family’s payroll taxes would be only $2800. Under Cain’s plan, their federal taxes would be $4500, and their sales tax payments would be additional thousands. This is exactly what economists of the left and right have agreed: most people would pay more taxes and rich people much less.

Cain’s “9-9-9” plan would represent a radical change in our economic system. No more deductions for mortgages, no more exemptions for children, and an unprecedented federal sales tax would fundamentally shift economic policy. Cain never demonstrated that he had any idea what his plan really means. “9-9-9” is not a serious policy; it is an advertising gimmick with untried ideas, a marketing slogan for the brand “Cain”.

If Cain at least looked like he had something to say about the economy, he couldn’t even maintain that pretense when the subject went beyond the US borders. He worried about China developing a nuclear capability, when they have had the bomb since 1964; he couldn’t figure out what to say about the Libyan revolution when interviewed at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, and then a couple of days later, talked about the Taliban in Libya; at the so-called national security debate among the Republican candidates, Cain said nothing about foreign policy that a high school student couldn’t have said.

How did this happen? How could someone so unqualified to lead our country become a front-runner, even for a day, among Republican Presidential candidates? Cain could talk the ideological talk of the right wing. After years of giving motivational speeches for the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, he could say the correct phrases and repeat the correct slogans. He just needed a script, prepared and paid for by others, that he could deliver with enthusiasm, in exchange for a lot of money.

Is that enough to be President? Are the simple ideas that Herman Cain has been offering over the past few months so impressive that anyone who can say them deserves to be President?

We have seen this all before. Sarah Palin made an enormous splash as a national candidate, because she too made an attractive spokeswoman for sound-bite versions of conservative ideas. She could speak the average person’s language. Then it turned out that she couldn’t speak any other language. She didn’t know anything about Russia, which she could see from her porch, much less about Africa, China, or the euro. She didn’t read and didn’t care. She figured, as Cain did, that a couple of months of tutoring by some “experts” would give her everything she needed to know, in case she was faced with a revolution in multiple Arab countries, the possible bankruptcy of European nations, or a nuclear Iran.

Palin and Cain are not foolish. They recognized that the elemental ideas of the Tea Party supporters could be exploited by slick slogans and political gimmicks. And like the other right-wing favorites, Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann, that’s all they had.

The rest of us deserve more than self-promoters and their gimmicks. We need serious candidates.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, December 6, 2011