Sunday, January 24, 2010

Democratic Depression

What a week in politics. First there was the upset victory of Scott Brown in the Massachusetts Senate race, ending the Democrat's ability to avoid a filibuster, meaning the Republicans can now stop any health care reform dead in its tracks. And it seems like they are determined to do this, regardless of the consequences for the country, because it makes the Democrats look bad.

Then, just after Obama announced he was getting tough on the banking industry, and wanted to limit how big they could get to avoid future economic disasters and bailouts, there was the outrageous decision of the US Supreme Court to withdraw any limit to corporate funding of election campaigns. That's right. Unlimited. Meaning, unless the Democrats find some way to stop this, through corporate law, our democracy is pretty much dead. Meaning, in the 2010 elections, you can expect the Republicans to sweep up a lot of House and Senate seats and gain a majority. Meaning we can forget about health care reform, economic recovery, or a second term for Obama. Meaning our new de facto government, will, quite literally, become a cartel of the likes of Exxon, ConAgra, and Blackwater.

The Democrats can't seem to manage to accomplish anything even when they have a clear majority. How is it that Bush and Cheney did whatever they liked even when they didn't have a majority in the House and Senate? The whole idea of bi-partisanship doesn't work. The Republicans don't want to cooperate. There is no health care plan that everyone can agree on. The Republicans just want to cause the Democrats to fail at anything they try to achieve, and they want power back as soon as possible so they can continue their agenda of dismantling what's left of democracy and solidify a shadow corporate regime.

Yes it's depressing. I feel even more full of despair than I did during the Bush years. That's because Obama got my hopes up. I tried to resist, as I explained in a post around that time. Like so many Democrats, disillusioned by a disastrous two terms of Republican rule, and waking up to the deregulatory betrayals of the Clinton era, I didn't jump on the bandwagon of hope without reluctance. But he was so charming! Barack Obama managed to revive the idealistic strain in Democrats around the country. We had to stop being cynical and band together, and believe! I did. Now, a year later, it feels like all may be lost.

This is a critical moment in the fate of the United States. If the Democrats don't stop trying to please everybody, and stop trying to compromise with a completely uncompromising GOP, they will lose the mandate that they were given by the American people just one short year ago. They need to stop worrying about alienating conservative voters because of ideological differences and just do something. Results will get votes. Prove to them that left-leaning policies will work. Now's your chance! If the country swings back into the control of the Republicans, the damage may be irrevocable. How much worse can the economy get? How long can we last with our failing infrastructure? How much more can corporate power increase its stranglehold on the rights of Americans to pursue life, liberty, and happiness?

This is scary stuff. It's terrifying and it's depressing. But depression is not going to help us. Democrats need to be as angry, as full of unmovable conviction, and as uncompromising as Republicans are in our vision of where this country needs to go. This is a war we cannot afford to lose. For the love of democracy, Obama, now is the time to martial the party and lead us into battle. That is why we elected you.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

One small change

Hip mountain Mama has a great idea.

Starting the first of January, and continuing each month until April, leading up to earth day- April 22- bloggers are making a change for the greener every month and blogging about it. I try to be environmentally conscious in my daily choices, but there's always room for improvement.

So, January is the month of no plastic bags. And that trend will continue ever after. I definitely try to minimize plastic bags already, but I need to be more organized if I'm really going to kick the habit. So I just bought some portable cloth resuable bags which I'm going to carry with me everywhere. That way I am not only ready for my usual trips to the store, I'm ready for all those impromptu ones too.

These are the bags I ordered. I thought they'd be a fun way to get into the mode. I'm kind of psyched about this project. Anyone else who wants to join in, latecomers are accepted.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Get a job!

Every day on my way to or from work on the F, there are people asking for money. Sometimes it's the startling middle-aged white woman talking about her three children and her lay-off, the note of desperation in her voice when she says "Please! Have a heart!", somehow leaving me unable to look at her, let alone reach for my wallet. Sometimes they are charming three-piece mariachi bands, who clearly aren't living on the street but just need a little extra cash. But mostly it's really poor people, visibly homeless, tired, mentally ill, addicted, or just plain ill. They have various approaches. At Christmas time, one man sang a carol that really left me heartbroken. Others change carriages at every stop and give the same speech to the whole car. "Ladies and gentlemen. Please. If you can find it in your hearts to lend a helping hand to a homeless person in need."

Sometimes, I give a dollar here or there. But usually I don't. Because I can't give every day, and I can't choose who is most worthy. They all are. And I know my dollar isn't going to change their lives anyway.

Today, there was a homeless man outside the subway station. He asked me for change, and I gave my usual lame smile and apology. A graying middle-aged man in a shabby suit approached the subway entrance at the same time, and muttered at the man "Get a job!" As he raced down the stairs next to me, he continued "Get a fucking job! Another lazy American!" This is what I wanted to say to him, but didn't. This is what I thought to myself all the way home, and then posted on some thread somewhere, where someone espoused the same simplistic viewpoint. (I found it when I googled "homeless get a job.")

Can you explain to me how a homeless person should go about getting a job? What kind of job? Where do they go? What if they have no work experience, no high school diploma? No home. No shower, no clothes to wear to an interview. No telephone or internet to do research. How are they supposed to begin? If you don’t know the answer, how do you expect someone living on the street to know?

This is not to say that they can’t change or don’t want to change, but these people need a helping hand to get there. It is not easy to change when your life has fallen apart. Many homeless people struggle with mental health problems and addictions. They need support to put their lives back together. Of course, it’s much easier to just put the blame on them, rather than feeling morally obliged to help people who haven’t had as much luck as you have.

Of course there are stories of people who have overcome amazing obstacles and managed to turn their lives around without help. But does that mean people who don’t feel strong enough, or don’t yet know that they are strong enough to do that, should be left behind? Everyone deserves a helping hand. Most homeless people don’t have the support of family and friends that the rest of us take for granted. How far would we have gotten without it?

I wanted to say this to that man. But he probably wouldn't have listened. And I didn't want to get involved in a conflict with some strange man in a subway station. There are a lot of crazy people in New York. But that's a whole 'nother post.

Our system sucks.

The New York Times "Health" section includes overviews of other nations with universal health care systems:

After the article about France, I found this comment from a reader:

"So much has been said about how good the French (and other countries) healthcare system is and how it is paid for/provide by the government. What has escaped almost every article and conversation on the subject is that most these countries have higher effcetive [sic] personal income tax rates than the USA. So what we in the US pay in healthcare insurance premiums people outside the US pay in higher income taxes.

— RichC"

And an equally uninformed, if more concise, response from another reader:

"Hmm…no mention of how high the tax rates are in France. Poor journalism but great rhetoric.

— NoBama"

This is my response:

"People often cite the higher taxes in countries with universal health coverage, and they seem to believe our lower taxes are an even trade-off, ie. we pay insurance instead. But the overall costs of taxes plus health care costs per individual is higher in the US than in countries with universal care. And they get better care.

Take France, for example. They pay 45.3% of their GDP in tax, in exchange for a great system of universal quality health care, education, sick pay, paid vacation, paid maternity leave, and subsidized child care FOR ALL.

In the USA, we pay 29.6% of our GDP in tax, and on average 15% of our GDP on health care costs. Total cost: 44.6%. And what do we get for that? Not much. That doesn’t even include parental leave and child care, which is another huge cost for Americans.

It’s time people abandon irrational fears about losing ‘choice’ or ‘freedom’, and realize that these things are already in danger, when we live without the basic rights which it is a government’s duty to provide for its citizens- universal health care, sick pay, parental leave, and quality education.

Statistic sources:

So, I wrote my comment in the New York Times. But it didn't make me feel much better. With the democrat's ability to prevent a filibuster now lost- (Massachusetts to the Republicans?! Can this be attributed to global warming?)- and the creeping sense that no matter what Obama wants to accomplish, our permanently log-jammed political system won't allow it, I think it's going to be at least another fifty years before the USA has anything like a functional universal system along the lines of France or Germany. Oh well. The food here really is very good. But it'll kill you. And you can't afford to get sick.

Friday, December 4, 2009

I'm confused

All this time in England, I've been telling people that America is the land of convenience. A land where anything private runs smoothly and where good service is paramount. A land where a public gym is like something out of Dante, yes, but a land where you can refill your prescriptions on the phone or online and pick them up an hour later at your 24 hour pharmacy. In England, I was dismayed at the NHS prescription refill process. I was not only dismayed, I was in disbelief. "I have to BRING a piece of PAPER to the doctor's office, wait TWO days, and then go back and GET the piece of PAPER?" After a while, I came up with the idea of mailing my refill request and enclosing a self addressed stamped envelope, but it still seemed terribly inefficient and backwards, and I never quite accepted it. I was always looking forward to being back in the US when I pondered these matters. In my mind, it remained the land of late-night shopping every night, of 24 hour supermarkets, of supreme customer service and of easy commercial transactions. Now I'm back and I'm confused.

You see, in England, I haven't used my checkbook in years. Everything's online. I've paid my rent by direct debit, which means my money goes straight out of my bank account into my landlord's account. No paper. Nothing in the mail. No fee. I've used the same system to pay all my bills. Even if the bill was different amounts each month. I've even used the same system to pay a friend back when I owed her money. My mother-in-law had used the same system to give me a birthday deposit. No checks. No fee. It's easy and it's efficient.

So my husband and I expected the system to be the same or better when we got here. He expected it because I have been telling him that this is the land of convenience. Me, I guess, because of some kind of romanticized nostalgia for my homeland coupled with a lack of real experience in such things, as I left when I was 20.

I bank with HSBC in the US now, a big international bank which I would expect to be modern, green (at least to pay lip service to the consciences of their customers) and efficient. Instead, I find that paying a bill online merely triggers the bank to mail the company I'm paying a check. I'm sorry, but this is totally stone age as far as I'm concerned. There is also no way to make an online payment to a friend or family member or anyone else. The only system is the above mentioned bill pay system. Which we found out when my husband tried to make an electronic payment to my account (different accounts, same bank). You see, he had the money to pay the rent in his account but no checkbook. I had a checkbook but not enough money. So the payment was made from his account to mine. I received nothing. My rent check bounced. Then I received a bank check in the mail, reading "Please accept payment from our mutual client." What a farce!

I expect public things to be shambolic here. I have experienced bureaucratic nightmares aplenty. But I am really confused as to why the world's most enthusiastic free-market economy is so backwards in its day-to-day financial systems. Or is it because I'm not rich? Maybe it's easier for them- in that either Gold accounts or Business accounts come with special privileges, or in that the fees mean little to them. Or maybe the British banks are too generous and have failed to extract every penny they can from their customers, while their American cousins are taking their customers for everything they've got. Heck, most commercial banks in England abolished their ATM machine fees years ago due to public outcry. Now I'm traipsing all over the place looking for an HSBC branch everytime I want to take out $20, and no one seems to think this is weird. I guess this is the hard lesson of advanced capital. Well maybe not THE hard lesson, I'll leave that to Naomi Klein. But perhaps the US banks figure why make things so easy when you can charge extra for them? Here, if you want to make a truly electronic payment, you have to pay a hefty wire transfer fee. So I guess I've figured it out. But I'm still pissed. Maybe I should re-title this post "The grass is always greener." Maybe getting my prescription refills so easily is more about the drug industry maximizing profit than providing a convenient customer experience... Oh.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

"Your blog is malnourished." -R

So, what's been going on since my last post? I'd like to answer this with a tag cloud. "visa. flight. wedding. find apartment. move. job search. manifest new life where I am very crafty creative industrious and bloggy." Well the last one might not really work as a tag, but you get the idea.

So we moved to New York! We love it. And now, after two years in London and one month in New York, I'd like to give some initial thoughts:

This country is litigation mad! I guess I knew this but I never experienced it before. I mean official bureaucracy, yes. I have had my share of that- (see my previous post). But you need a credit check to get an apartment here. You need to sign non-disclosure forms and tax forms and authorize background checks on your "character" when you go to a job interview! It's madness.

Free stuff everywhere! New York is like a living garage sale. There's free stuff on the street, curb alerts on Craigslist, all kinds of impromptu street sales, stoop sales, and community swaps. Now mind you when we held a sidewalk sale on our street in Hoxton and advertised up and down Kingsland Road, to get rid of some stuff before we left London, we were met with everything from a lack of enthusiasm to total fear. English people don't really seem to get the concept of self-organized sales; they're more comfortable with a car boot or a jumble in a designated area. I do find it something of a paradox that the land of free market capital is also the land where commerce can easily get back in the hands of the people. But they probably just look at it as trying to make a buck. I'm the one who walks down the street past a lady selling some old baby clothes on the front stoop of her brownstone, eyes shining, and murmuring about anarcho-syndicalism.

People talk to each other here! Strangers! The other day I was in Williamsburg, which is pretty much like Shoreditch only a bit scruffier, waiting for my friend to meet me for brunch. Meeting for brunch at the weekend, with a Mimosa (Buck's fizz) or Bloody Mary, seems to be very New York. It's not much different from meeting for brekkie in London, except there's no beans or tomatoes or decent tea, and you're allowed to get a bit tipsy. So as I was standing on the corner in front of a diner, I saw a lady with a dog pass a man. He asked her if that was a beagle. She said... I'm gonna go to quotes here:

LADY: "Yep. He's a beagle. Pet a beagle and you'll have good luck all day!"
MAN: "I won't get bit, will I?"
LADY: "No, no. He won't bite."

Then they get into a conversation, which goes on for about 10 minutes. This lady tells the whole story of how she found this dog. The vet says he's about 8. She thinks he's a retired hunting dog. Sometimes he just sits on the sofa a looks at her and she wonders if he's happy. The man suggests she takes him to a park or wood, and gives him something to smell. Then she should hide the item and he can hunt it.

MAN: "You see, there's a big difference between what makes us happy and what makes them happy."

Turns out this guy is like a dog whisperer. I love how people in New York just start talking to anyone randomly, and this story also leads me to another observation:

People in New York are CRAZY about their pets. First of all EVERYONE has a pet. Everyone has a cat or two and a dog. When we were apartment hunting, we started out looking at sub-lets, but it was soon clear that that wouldn't work out because everyone had a pet, and I'm allergic. The people across from us have two cats who eye us through the kitchen window whenever we get something out of the refrigerator. The neighborhood is full of pet salons, doggy day cares, and professional dog walkers. Yes, that's a job here. People give their pets birthday presents and christmas presents. People send their pets to pet resorts. It's like a child substitute for people who are too busy or selfish to have children. I don't mean to sound judgemental. It's just weird that so many people treat some animals like their own children and don't afford the same sense of kindness to the animals on their plates. But hey, I guess it's better than living in a country where ALL the animals are treated cruelly. Here it's just most of them.

Food! The food here is so freakin good. I mean there is good food in London, and in our neighborhood we were especially spoiled with great Turkish food and Vietnamese. But that was it. Decent pizza and more recently Mexican can be had in London, but you have to seek it out. Here, it's everywhere. There are so many good places everywhere. There are thousands of pizza places all over this city where you can get a slice for $2.50 and it's unbelievably good. Tacos. Deli sandwiches. Eggplant parmigiana. Any time I eat something here I pretty much reaffirm that we made the right decision.

One thing I miss about London, among many, is the free museums. Museum entry costs a fortune here! There's a real class divide; high culture is a luxury. Luckily you can get free tickets to fringe theater and off-broadway shows on Craigslist. The other area where New York clearly falls short is parks. There are two big parks we can access here, Central and Prospect. But neither really live up to London parks from what I've seen. So what's the conclusion of my research so far? Strangely, or maybe not strangely, I am dazzled by New York, but I don't feel it's my city yet. I'm presently still loyal to London, but a few more slices of pizza and a free blender off the street might turn me into to a true New Yorker.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Trials

American bureaucracy is a nightmare! I can't believe how piece of cake getting an English passport was compared to this. Funny how that was easier than RETURNING TO MY OWN COUNTRY. R and I really underestimated this. We knew it wasn't going to be as easy as it was for my great-grandparents, catching a boat from Bremen and turning up at Ellis Island with $50 in their pocket and some distant relative's address scribbled on a piece of paper. We knew it wouldn't be like that, but Jeez. It's been a stress-a-thon.

The main hurdle now is that I have to prove the USA is my real domicile. Never mind the fact that I've lived in the UK for 12 years, have a British passport, and feel pretty much half and half. No. I have to "sever my ties with the UK," provide tax records, property records, and get microchipped. Well, the latter is made up but feels very plausible after the crap they've thrown at us. The lady who interviewed R was a real sourpuss. My mom's asking me "Did you tell them your flights are booked and your wedding is all planned and you have to be there in a week?" Bless her, I didn't have the heart to tell her that these people are not interested in human concerns. It's papers that matter, printed papers in black ink in duplicate, and lots of small green ones.