Posts by D

An Analysis of Where We Are

June 26th, 2013
posted by

On the nature of the current American economic crisis

According to basic observations, the American economy is currently– and has been for some time– in a state of absolute crisis. And this despite all the natural resources the U.S. has been burning through, and a constantly growing stock of technologies. Here are a few data points that give a good sense of our current situation:

– 13% of American households have a net worth (assets minus liabilities) below 0.[1]
– Only about 20% of American households live in a home they own.[2]
– well over 20% of American households had incomes below the poverty line in 2010.[3]
– 1% of Americans experience homelessness in a given year.[4]
– 16% of Americans do not have health insurance.[5]
– 47.8 Million Americans (~15%) are enrolled in food stamps.[6] (and there are also many non-governmental food programs)
– Over 2/3 of American college students graduate with student loans, totaling over 1 trillion dollars (greater than total credit card debt, surpassed only by total mortgages).[7][8]
– over 1 million Americans filed bankruptcy in each of the last 5 years.[9]

These data show the utter impoverishment of the people, and their lack of access to the most essential services.
The most popular explanation for the economic problems of the 00’s is that there was a “bubble” (=overvaluation) in the housing market, which then had repercussions in the financial industry (since properties, mortgages, “packaged” mortgages, etc. are traded as financial “instruments,” and then the deals involving them are further insured). Blame is apportioned in varying degrees either to greedy bankers (“a few bad apples”) or to poor people choosing to live beyond their means. The solution then marketed to us is some mix of
– take a few bad people out of the banks;
– restrict a few banking practices;
– create stricter guidelines on who can get a mortgage.

But if you have payed attention so far, you’ve surely noticed that over-easy access to housing is certainly not one of this nation’s greatest problems. In fact, in general, this is a very shallow analysis that leads to no solution at all. We must ask ourselves questions like:
1) Why is housing so prohibitively expensive? (the median sale price in Feb 2013 was 246,800,[10] compared with a median household income of 52,762[11]) Why do prices not fall to an affordable level in the face of abundance (nationwide, 19 out of 130 Million housing units are unoccupied[12]) and decreased purchasing power?
2) Why are we as a society not taking dramatic action to ensure that our housing, food, health, and educational resources reach those in need?
3) Why are highly-educated people, suffering no privations, making so many socially hurtful selfish decisions? Why are these particular people in a position to make such important decisions?

Try to answer all these questions for yourself– I don’t want to overwhelm you, nor to make this essay too long.

Let us return to my general explanation for the crisis:
There has been an “over-accumulation of capital”– meaning rich entities (be they people, corporations, university endowment funds…) have extracted so many assets (money, land, intellectual property, machinery, debts, resources…) and concentrated it in so few hands, that they have nothing to do with it. Not only could they never consume billions of dollars, but they can not find good places to stick that money so that it grows at an acceptable rate for them (investments).

Not only do investments need to make a profit under capitalism, but they need to make an increasing profit year over year. But the number of good investments is more limited even as the concentration of wealth is greater: for less and less people have money to be squeezed out of them– theoretically the only true goal of most American corporations.

Yet this accumulated money must go somewhere, and it insists on finding a profit. Thus one major possibility is to bid up the value on various assets. Since other people also have to invest their money, you may buy a $100,000 house (or piece of jewelery, artwork, etc.) for $600,000, and a month later find someone willing to pay you $700,000 for it. (Incidentally, treating food, fuel, land, shelter, etc. as investments pushes up their price in a way that makes them unattainable for consumers). The value of an investment will appear to increase as long as others continue to buy into it. But throughout this process, no new value is being created. Eventually, more and more investors will begin to doubt in the value of what they are buying. As it becomes all just a game of false values, the opportunity and even necessity for fraud increases, and a series of collapses are inevitable.

These collapses also present the opportunity for one final way to wring some money out of the nearly-dry common woman. With various financial interests collapsing, there is a choice to either admit that the profits have been lost, or to take money from basic social service programs to make good on the money the financiers wanted. In the public discourse, this choice is presented as between “total collapse of the economy” or “austerity.” (Think how different this sounds than a choice between the “elimination of useless economic parasites” or the “looting of the national treasury”). Total collapse sounds like no choice at all– and anyway, the decision-makers have already been payed by the financiers– and so the already-thin public services are cut: insane people are released from unfunded institutions, medical benefits are decreased leaving people to die, schools are closed and teachers fired thus stuffing students into fewer classrooms with fewer teachers, and retirees’ pensions disappear leaving their families to scramble for ways to care for them.

Evidently, there are limits to how far this can be pushed– at some point the people will be too dry to wring any further. Historically, there has only been one example of a similar crisis of capitalism, the Great Depression. And the only way capitalism “got out of it” was via World War 2: destroying things, and then investing (and making money) in rebuilding. Luckily, we can imagine a better and more lasting escape!

If you are left baffled as to who could be making such poor decisions, and how they could have wound up in the position to be making them, please look forward to my forthcoming essay on that topic.


  1. []
  2. 67% of Americans “own” the house or apartment they live in ( ; ); as of 2009, only 32% of those “owning” their homes actually owned them without a mortgage ( .67x .32 = .21. []
  3., page 8 []
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Country Rock from Concord Carolina

June 3rd, 2013
posted by

San Francisco, 10/31/10

A couple weeks ago, I went to the “hardly strictly bluegrass” festival in SF. It’s a yearly outdoor musical extravaganza, with five stages sheltered from each other in little neighboring valleys in Golden Gate Park, such that you can quickly hop between performances, but don’t hear one act while at the next stage. Quick warning of potential negatives for some: you have to stand a lot as it’s crowded, and there’s also a lot of drinking and smoking. There’s also a lot of really excellent music. We heard several nice acts, but I wanted to share our favorite with you.

The Avett Brothers really brought it. They had beautiful music, great energy, and terrific stage presence. The whole crowd loved it, and we danced within the space we had.

The Avett Brothers are from Concord, North Carolina. The nucleus is Seth and Scott Avett, actual brothers. They are joined by Bob Crawford (bass and vocals) and Joe Kwon (cello). Seth and Scott trade off between guitars, banjos, piano, drums, and lead vocals… maybe more. So basically, they’ve spent a lot of time practicing a lot of music.

Family Above All

I have not done all that much research, but I know they are from a musical family: their dad has two albums released, and their sister sings on one of them. I saw one anecdote that a reporter went over to interview their dad about them and parenting, as they were starting to make it big. And he found the brothers over helping out around the house, chasing down the chickens: what he drew from that is that they genuinely like their parents and family, to be choosing to hang around with them. I love hanging around my parents too!

So, here’s the first song of theirs I’ll share with you, it appears to me to be about the primacy of family:


And here are the lyrics:

Murder in the City

If I get murdered in the city

Don’t go revengin’ in my name

One person dead from such is plenty

No need to go get locked away

When I leave your arms

The things that I think of

No need to get over alarmed

I’m comin’ home

I wonder which brother is better

Which one our parents love the most

I sure did get in lots of trouble

They seemed to let the other go

A tear fell from my father’s eyes

I wondered what my dad would say

He said I love you

And I’m proud of you both, in so many different ways

If I get murdered in the city

Go read the letter in my desk

Don’t worry with all my belongings

But pay attention to the list

Make sure my sister knows I loved her

Make sure my mother knows the same

Always remember, there is nothing worth sharing

Like the love that let us share our name

Always remember, there is nothing worth sharing

Like the love that let us share our name

/end lyrics

I think it’s a pretty simple song, just emphasizing the power of familial love. The singing is really beautiful. The lyrics have a couple little nice details to them: “dont worry with all my belongings” emphasizing what in particular is less important than love (things). I get a kick out of the part in the music video where he says “I sure did get in lots of trouble, they seemed to let the other go” and in the background his brother is going nonono and they’re kind of chuckling a little. Reminiscent of a strain from a discussion in our living room a couple weeks ago, between Michael and I about how parents are stricter with the eldest sibling and are often “broken” when the younger ones come through the same ages.

Finally, the backdrop of the whole song is “murder in the city–” why does the speaker choose that as the cause for expressing their feelings to their family? It’s just a reference to what cities have been in human history– not just a meeting place, but also an engine that has churned up the people coming to it. I’m pretty sure the Avett Brothers grew up in the countryside, and that when they started going to cities to spread their music, it was somewhat scary. Cities are scary, and the rural–>urban migration has had incredible casualties. Also note the lack of anger towards whoever does the murdering.

Popularity and Art

The Avetts actually started out in a rock band, then became interested in acoustic music, started a side project, then their rock band broke up, they were already investing more and more time and effort into their acoustic music. And then they met and teamed up with Crawford and Kwon. Their music to me is a blend of folk and rock, though you could add on lots of extra little genres: country, bluegrass, ragtime… and pop. Though these extra descriptors to me don’t seem to add that much meaning. It’s natural that at this point in human interconnectedness, they would have access to music from all genres and draw on many things. The band started to get relatively big in 2007-2008, making their first TV appearances, and moving to larger venues when they tour. As their music becomes more popular the question of whether it is “pop” looms.

On internet bulletin boards I have found many comments such as

[I went and tracked down some actual comments, rather than paraphrasing]

“they are kick a*s! especially in concert. but since they have gotten more famous it sucks.”

To which you can also find replies such as: [this is the very next in that thread]

“I hate it when people say it sucks when a band gets famous. First, I’m pretty sure the band wants to get famous or they wouldn’t be working so hard at it. Plus, I would never have heard of them if they had stayed a small, local band. Why should only a small group of people, who consider themselves special, be the only ones to enjoy the band? I’m thrilled they’re famous as I’m sure they are, too.”

Those who mourn the success of this or other bands are probably in fact snobby. Personally, I tend to prefer “underground social rap” over “mainstream clubbing rap.” But I certainly don’t hope that people will continue listening to “let’s get retarded” and “bounce, bounce, bounce” so that I can feel superior for listening to “Golpe de Estado.” (choice of a song in Spanish deliberate to make the point about feeling superior) I really, really hope that all the music I listen to would be mainstream and get listened to more. So just because the Avett Brothers have started to become known, I don’t like their music any less. I’m sure they do want to spread it, and I hope they do. This next song is about exactly that topic:

(note: yes, this is a music video, and yes it has 2 minutes before the song starts, but it’s well worth watching!)


A Slight Figure of Speech

They say “you’ve got to lose a couple fights to win”

It’s hard to tell from where I’m sitting

They say that “this is where the fun begins”

I guess it’s time that I was quitting

A slight figure of speech

I cut my chest wide open

They come and watch us bleed

Is it art like I was hoping now?

They said “I hope that you will never change”

I went and cut my hair

They say “Don’t take your business to the big time”

I bought us tickets there

A slight figure of speech

I cut my chest wide open

They come and watch us bleed

Is it art like I was hoping now?

What did you expect

And what did you forget

That to live you let go of me with each step

It becomes a progression I won’t let regret manifest

To aggression

Are you to assess what I’ve been? What I am? Or become?

Did you stop to accept how pathetically dumb

It can be to

Attack those around ’cause you’re

True to color, a town, a time, or a place?

It’s not yours, it’s not mine

And besides it is gone

And you never will find it again

But I don’t want to fight

I just ask let me be

I won’t give the chance to be my enemy

So go home

Think it through

A jet plane and a big idea

I jump over the sea

“What if”s hot on my trail

But that can’t catch me, no-o

A slight figure of speech

I cut my chest wide open

They come and watch us bleed

Is it art like I was hoping now?

/end lyrics

A really upbeat-sounding song! But dealing with some real issues. I think one thing they are clearly challenging is conventional wisdom, by offering up these figures of speech and directly rejecting them in the next line. One of the main concerns is the potential to be criticized by their own fans for 1) getting big 2) developing as musicians. The whole concept of the music video for this song is an over-the-top parody of selling out and commodification of art. They look so unhappy, as if they have been completely disconnected from their art. But I think they are claiming that they are aware of that issue, and are going to continue on developing anyway.

In the quickly spoken part, they directly address fans, challenging them on the question of what ability they have to judge others “Are you to assess what I’ve been? What I am? Or become?” I think they are suggesting that you may not know their true essence better than they do, that’s why it says “what i’ve been,” “what i am” and “become.” i think also “true to color, a town, a time or a place” is also talking about authenticity. Because the claim will be they have gone from being the “authentic them–” the version of themselves faithful to their color, town, time, place, to a new sold-out them, a version true to a cynical analysis of what the masses will consume. Then I think the lines “it’s not yours, it’s not mine, and besides it is gone, and you never will find it again” is the concept that you can never step in the same river twice. In other words, that the “authentic” is not a monolithic, unchanging quantity that can be pinned down with a simple definition. Developing *is* authentic.

Most of these points of theirs are a little bit on the philosophical side, open-ended questions designed to increase the awareness of the imagined audience, rather than provide a direct logical refutation. And so they ask at the end (“so go home think it through”) that you give what they’ve said some thought– rather than that you just admit they are right.

At the same time as they provide a pretty inspired/deep defense of their choice to popularize their music, they are also considering the other side of the argument in the refrain. Again and again they ask themselves “is it art like I was hoping now?” which I take to be questioning themselves as to whether they are making the art they intended to make out. The inclusion of “now” in this line indicates that it is in response to changing times. Also “i cut my chest wide open, they come and watch us bleed” could imply that they are partly doing something for the sake of those who will come watch. The tight link between cutting themselves and others watching indicates that they may have a conscious link between what they produce, and what people will show up for. So I think they also have some concern that the above-argued accusations could have some grounding in the truth.

All in all, however, they seem to be successful: for one this is a song which tackles some interesting issues of art, and is a success as a piece of art itself. The music video is also artful, enjoyable and successful, with the classic tv marketing slime (whose low quality skills make him kind of likable rather than revilable). So they should continue asking themselves about authenticity, but they should also not hermetically seal their music in a small country town to preserve it.

Serious and Energetic

The Avett Brothers have some nice soft songs, with a delicate beauty to the music. If you liked Murder in the City, you’d probably like this one the title track from their latest release. For me personally, I think I prefer their lively music. Maybe it’s because I saw them in a live show, and their infectious energy was one of the upsides. And when you’re standing in the SF mist/fog/rain at night, a song that makes you dance is preferred. But I like that they can tackle serious and emotional topics with upbeat songs like A Slight Figure of Speech and Tin Man (next up). In fact, the first draft of Tin Man was a very soft folk song that one of the two brothers came up with with one acoustic guitar on a drive. But when he shared it with the rest of the band, they worked on it and it evolved into a pretty energetic song, despite maintaining the same lyrics and emotional content. It’s an interesting finished product– meditating on a loss of energy in a piece which itself has a lot of energy. Is it a contradiction?


Tin Man

You can’t be like me

But be happy that you can’t

I see pain but I don’t feel it I am like the old tin man

I’m as worn as a stone

I keep it steady as I can

I see pain but I don’t feel it I am like the old tin man

I miss it

I miss it

Oh, I miss that feeling of feeling

I used to fill the sky around with happiness and joy

I had news to give the wind to keep myself and heart employed

I felt people move around me

I felt loneliness and shame

Back then every day was different now each moment is the same

I miss it

I miss it

Oh, I miss that feeling of feeling (X2)

The feeling of feeling

The wind upon my face

And caring what it brings this way

The feeling of feeling

The minutes pass away

And caring what I do with them

Maybe bring me love or something else

And so it goes a man grows cold

Some would say a man grows strong

They tell me life grows short

I say the road only grows long

But as long as there’s a road

My feet will never touch the ground

And if you won’t give my heart back I’ve no need to stick around

I miss it

I miss it

Oh, I miss that feeling of feeling (X2)

/end lyrics

Well, the concept is pretty simple, I’m pretty sure, it’s about becoming jaded and numb. But i think it’s really nicely expressed, succinct and poignant. to me, this song has a mix of: interesting topic, beauty, and upbeat. A lot of songs only have two of those three things.


One more song from among my favorites for you to check out. This song brought the house down at the live show. During the kick drum part the crowd clapped in unison. Everyone was *SO* pumped up; and even listening to the recording quietly in your own room, you probably will be too.


One short note about it: a lot of people will conclude that it’s about the thrill of young love. They’ve included some lyrics that definitely open that interpretation, and I can’t see how that is not deliberate on their parts. However, I heard them say in an interview that actually the inspiration for the song is the feeling they get at the moment when a piece of music suddenly comes together. That’s what really gets their hearts racing. There’s a common trope in song-writing where love and music are used as parallels; and I think this is a song that can fall into that category, and be given a double-interpretation.

This is an extremely positive song, that should make you want to live and want to dance!

I trust you’ll enjoy the Avett Brothers. I’ve only just begun to discover them, so if you find any other great songs, please let me know.


May 26th, 2013
posted by

On May 20th, the following email came into my inbox:

UCSF email

It actually seems extremely innocuous– I see no judgment positive or negative about the strike, the workers, or the employer– and I would imagine most people deleted this email without any further thought; but my interest in the relationship between workers and employers caused me to hesitate with my mouse over “delete,” and then click on the “for more information” link. Which brought me to:




What do you see in this posting? Note that the address of this site is but also /news. The one suggests that it could be a site with the opinions and official messages of the UCSF organization; the other suggests that it might include some form of journalism and information. The article itself proves to be entirely in the camp of UCSF propaganda.

The first four paragraphs actually do offer some basic facts, which is either laudable or very tricky, setting a tone that may cause a reader not to notice when the piece switches to offering a bunch of UCSF public relations messaging of dubious honesty. Starting with the fifth paragraph, you can notice many phrases such as “UC officials say” and “the University said” and “UC believes” as well as an extensive quote from the Chancellor and the CEO. Further down we are treated to two more direct quotes from the CEO. Meanwhile the entire two pages have not a single quote, sentence, contention, or statement of the position or thoughts of any of the striking workers or their union. This in itself should be enough to make it clear that this article was created by someone in the UCSF public relations department, not a journalist.

Now that we’ve understood that, let’s quickly look at the level of honesty of these folks.
“UC has proposed a total compensation package that includes competitive wages, excellent medical and retirement benefits, and good working conditions.” This sentence is given without any “someone says” to it– as if this were a statement of fact itself. I am certain that the workers involved would disagree, and I am equally certain that the workers would be correct. They would not be striking if this statement were true; and also there are almost no organizations in the U.S. that offer such a package to their workers.

Now let’s get to a very important verbiage, the claim about the sticking point of the negotiations: “[AFSCME’s] refusal to agree to urgently needed pension reform” in the face of “UC is enacting substantive pension reforms to help the University address a 24 billion pension fund liability.” Look at that language: “help” and “liability” are designed to create an ‘oh, poor University’ feeling. The University has this horrible problem visited upon it, and its workers are refusing to help in its hour of need. But liability is just a fancy word for the fact that a certain amount of money has already been promised– as part of the workers’ compensation for work they have already been doing for years!! Imagine someone buys a $10,000 car from you and says they will pay 2, 500 each quarter over the next year; after paying you $2,500, they then inform you that their “liability needs to be relieved” and suggests that you reduce payments to $1,000 for the ensuing three quarters. Would you feel bad for them, and see what you could do to help them? Or would you call them a thief, and demand they pay you what they promised? No wonder AFSCME “refuses to agree to any changes.” These “changes” are taking away money that they have already been promised for work they have already performed! And reading through this entire piece, the claim appears to be that the only dispute is over these pension reforms. So if you were thinking that the workers were greedy and lazy or that the Union was using its power to lord it over UC, be disillusioned: this labor dispute appears not to even have started with the workers asking for better wages, but with UC unilaterally demanding a lowering of their compensation.

In this light, a lot of the other statements in this piece come into question: “UC strives to treat all its employees fairly” and “UC believes AFSCME has not, in good faith, explored all options through bargaining.” UC wants to lower people’s agreed upon compensation, which should be a bizarre and unheard-of idea (though it’s unfortunately not), during a time of inflation, and for no good reason (none is given other than that they owe the workers money and don’t want to pay it); this hardly seems ‘fair.’ And what ‘options’ other than blank refusal would you want a union to explore in the face of an employer trying to renege on their agreement?

There are many other little quibbles you can discover in the language, uncovering truths, such as “the University of California has been working to negotiate a fair contract […] since June 2012.” This phrase suggests that only UC has been putting effort into it, while the other side has apparently not; or that UC strives for something fair while the other side does not. Anyone with even a passing acquaintance of negotiations and capitalism will suspect that UC’s goal was not a “fair contract” but rather the “cheapest contract.” But along with every little chance taken to valorize UC (always meant as a compliment to its top administrators and not to its employees), to laud its values, and to denigrate the Union, there is one major rhetorical concept: that AFSCME and the employees are threatening public health.

This is deliberately selected as a very grave charge against them; and of course for that charge to stick it has to be a contrast: the UC administration cares about patient outcomes as a top priority, while anyone considering a strike does not. This is one of the additional reasons why they keep hammering home “UCSF is a leading university,” “UCSF’s medical center ranks among the nation’s best hospitals,” etc.: to make the case that they care a great deal about the health care they provide. The accusation that stems from this is: “UC officials say a strike […] would pose an imminent threat to public health and safety;” and “UC considers it highly inappropriate for AFSCME to threaten patient care as a tactic in contract negotiations.” I wonder how many of the quoted top members of the administration would show up if their contracts were on hold (which they aren’t since they are in the comfortable position of setting these salaries for themselves)? I guess it would be fine though, as it would not represent a threat to public health and safety since they don’t actually contribute to health and safety in their jobs. Or imagine UC just completely stopped paying these workers: the same argument could be made that if they refused to show up because of that, they were endangering public safety, since we suddenly would not have operational health facilities. Basically, the argument is being advanced that because these particular workers are among those members of society who actually perform a critical function, they lose the most basic of rights to protect their time and labor from the bosses? The safety-blaming also misses the point that an agreement is always between two parties. The UC admins have effectively also been threatening public safety ever since they first started putting pressure on the pensions of health workers, since by threatening those workers’ livelihood they threaten the services they provide.

In another similar piece which I invite you to analyze more fully yourself if interested [Source], senior vice president John Stobo is quoted: “We will do everything possible to ensure the safety of patients at UC hospitals, and that will cost up to $20 million […]. But the real cost is the human one.” If the priority in Stobo’s mind was really patient outcomes, as these several propaganda pieces trumpet, would that not be the first cost he mentions? It seems to me, though this is certainly not proof, that he accidentally betrays the great twist in the plot: that the administrators by and large care more about money than about patient outcomes; while their employees and their union care more about patient outcomes than money. Here are a few fun facts: the 3 quoted administration members in these two articles are chancellor Desmond-Hellman, CEO Laret, and senior vice president Stobo. When she was hired in 2009, Desmond-Hellman’s starting salary was $450,000, plus incentive pay, benefits, relocation, housing, automobile, life insurance (Source). Laret’s base salary was adjusted to $1,222,000 in 2011, rising 100k each year to 1,522,000 in 2014, along with similar benefits and incentive pay (which it is noted may be about 20% of base salary; Source). Stobo started in 2008 with a base salary of $580,000, along with similar benefits, incentive pay, and an incredible $180,000+ to help him relocate (Source). Nowhere in any of the articles I saw on was there any mention of the compensation cuts that any of these three health-lovers had volunteered for in order to help out with UC’s “liabilities;” but I am sure that, before becoming righteously incensed at AFSCME’s patient care employees, who earn a mean salary of $55,000 (Source), for refusing to tackle the problem of these liabilities, they must have taken some pretty drastic cuts themselves.


As it had also in 2008, the last time AFSCME wanted to strike, the California Public Employment Relations Board granted the anti-strike injunction sought by UC.

The whole exercise of this essay is quite important for the reason that almost all “news” you will see widely distributed nowadays is written by and for corporate interests; therefore, being able to ‘read’ them is an important skill.